Rhythm sticks in the mind
Standing in front of 60 Year 3 children, the Indian woman in the deep purple sari raises her arms for the dance to begin. All eyes are on her, and, as she begins to move, the children copy - girls in coloured sashes, boys with yellow bandanas - and are drawn into her rhythms.
"This is a story about a village in India," says the dancer, Sujata Banerjee. "It was a most beautiful village, with a river on one side, and the people in the village were very happy."
A story unfolds, based on Hindu mythology, in which the god Krishna rids the river of a poisonous snake. Following Sujata's lead, the children dance the digging and washing of the villagers, the defeat of the snake, and, holding rhythm sticks above their heads, the celebrations that follow.
For the entire 15-minute performance, the school audience is rapt, and the dancing children are wholly concentrated. They copy not only Sujata's movements, but they absorb her grace and her precision and they imitate her dynamics when she beats her sticks. This performance - later repeated for parents - marks the second year of Sound Subjects, a three-year project devised for Parlaunt Park Primary School in Slough by the charity Music for Change, and funded by the Government's Creative Partnerships programme.
The chief objective of Music for Change, a Kent-based organisation founded in 1997, is to promote cultural awareness, understanding and respect, using music as a vehicle for change, as well as a way of integrating subjects across the curriculum. Working closely with a team of artists and performers from India, Africa and the Caribbean, the charity specialises in offering tailor-made workshops to schools.
"Music is a catalyst," says Kerry Kalokoh, education projects officer at Music for Change. "We use it to raise awareness of different cultures. The longer the project, the greater the impact on the school."
Parlaunt Park, explains deputy head Nesta Dolton, wanted to do more to celebrate the wide cultural mix of its children. "We were trying to develop a more thematic approach to our subject planning, and we also wanted to spread music much more widely across the school. We felt there was more potential for using music in other areas," she says.
Slough Creative Partnerships introduced Music for Change to the school, and the two put their heads together to plan the project. They came up with some subject blends that sound unlikely, but which have already proved extremely successful with children in Years 3 and 4.
Lucky Moyo, for instance, has run workshops in South African "gumboot" dancing and a cappella singing, exploring their cultural context, as well as linking this with science and with RE. The children have devised their own songs based on science topics such as rocks and soil, moving and growing. In RE, they have made up their own song and dance called "Easter time", which they perform to the whole school, to enthusiastic applause.
Alice Fitzpatrick, aged eight, liked doing science last year with another Music for Change artist, calypso singer Alex D Great: "I had to write a song about forces and friction. It was a bit hard at times - we had to think of nearly all the words ourselves. But it helped us learn a bit more about it, and it was a different way of learning."
Matthew Ensby, aged eight, enjoyed a novel approach to learning spelling, with Usifu Jalloh and his West African drums: "It helped, because you could get it in time... I learnt how to spell Mediterranean, and I learnt how to play the drums. It was really fun."
Trisha Wasley, Year 3 teacher, is impressed: "We did music in geography, and music in history, and the children still remember key facts from these lessons, because they remember the song, or the rhythm. That was a real surprise to me - I hadn't thought it could be so useful."
Both she and Nesta Dolton comment on the "huge improvement" they have seen in children's confidence, including those who were previously very withdrawn. Speaking and listening skills have also received a marked boost, as has concentration - without which children in Sujata Banerjee's workshops would never survive.
Sujata not only expects very high standards, she gets them. "I tell the children, when you do a performance, you respect the performance. If you want to present something, you take pride in it. I give them a choice: either you do it 100 per cent, or don't do it. But I never have any drop-outs."
Helen Nicholson, drama lecturer at Royal Holloway College, University of London, is assisting with research on Slough Creative Partnerships: "One of the things we are finding is the attention to detail, the precision, and the critical vocabulary that artists bring to the curriculum. Children learn about getting things right, for instance in dance, and that helps them persevere in other areas. The pleasure of getting it right is palpable - it's a joyful experience."
With Music for Change, it is also an experience of a new cultural empathy opening up. These artists make great role models, says Trisha Wasley - bolstering the self-esteem of children who share their cultural or religious background, and offering a source of fresh understanding for those who do not. "Teachers can talk about these things, but we only have textbook knowledge," she says. "With a project like this, another culture, another religion, suddenly comes to life, and is suddenly colourful."
* Music for Change
Tel: 01227 459243
Reel Lives: Sierra Leone
Music for Change, supported by Creative Partnerships, has produced this interactive DVD for creative primary teachers. If you can't get Sierra Leonean musician and storyteller Usifu Jalloh to perform live in your classroom, then this DVD is the next best thing.
The 45-minute programme aims to challenge the generally one-sided negative picture of Africa presented by the media - a continent beset by famine, poverty, civil war and HIV infection - by documenting the day-to-day lives of people who live there. It explores the lives of Shawn, a boy from a well-educated, higher income family, and Mbalou, a girl from a more traditional family, encouraging teachers and pupils to compare the two, and to find the commonalities between Sierra Leone and the UK.
Music, naturally enough, plays a big part in the DVD. Usifu Jalloh gives a lively introduction to highlife drumming rhythms, showing how they can be reproduced in the classroom - using percussion instruments, for example.
Plenty of cross-curricular opportunities here, too. And Reel Lives: India follows shortly.
* Reel Lives: Sierra Leone, pound;25 from www.musicforchange.org