Striking the right chord

18th April 2008 at 01:00
If music lessons fill you with dread, read on. A new scheme is helping primary teachers hit the high notes, with benefits across the curriculum. Diana Hinds sings its praises

Paula Wilson is not confident about teaching music. "I am not naturally good at it and I haven't got rhythm," says the Year 1 teacher at Abbotsbury Primary School, Morden, south-west London.

"When you're teaching rhythm and you haven't got it yourself, that's hard. Singing in front of a class is OK as long as there's no other adult there. I'm not confident, but I do it because I know I have to."

Paula is typical of many primary teachers who struggle with music because they have had little, if any, teacher training devoted to it, and have no experience of their own to fall back on.

A growing body of research evidence now points to ways in which children can benefit from learning music, including enhanced concentration, good teamwork and co-operation, and improved literacy and numeracy. But research carried out by the University of London's Institute of Education (IoE) on behalf of EMI Music Sound Foundation, the music charity, found that fewer than half of primary teachers feel confident about teaching music, and a third have had no training in the subject.

Although music is part of the curriculum, with requirements at key stage 1 for children to use instruments and begin composing, many primary schools spend only 30 minutes a week, or less, on music.

"Those of us who have had some musical training, even just up to grade one, don't appreciate what it's like for people who have never played anything and how lacking in confidence they feel," says Professor Susan Hallam, who led the research. "Some teachers don't understand what pitch means, or the difference between rhythm and pulse. It's like asking someone to teach Spanish when they have never learnt a word of it."

To help teachers, the foundation is running a pound;200,000 project throughout this year in about 150 primary schools across the country. The charity is working with 24 secondary schools, all specialist arts colleges, to provide training days for teachers from their feeder primaries. The aim is to build more supportive links between the two, and familiarise the senior school with what young pupils should be learning in music.

In addition to one or two full days' training, the funding from EMI will enable primary schools to buy more resources, including percussion instruments, songbooks and software to help with composition. The IoE is carrying out further research, with a report expected this summer.

The training is run by Val Davies, of TrainingTrax. Today she is at Bishopsford Community School, Morden, boosting the musical know-how of five key stage 1 teachers from local primaries.

Using their new music and songbooks, she gets them involved in a variety of activities to explore the musical elements identified in the curriculum - including pitch (highlow), tempo (fastslow), dynamics (loudsoft) and timbre (different types of sound, such as tapping, shaking, scraping). She demonstrates how to introduce percussion instruments, again through games, so that children learn their different sounds.

She shows how to link music with literacy, encouraging children to suggest and play different sounds to accompany a simple story such as Noah's Ark.

She sets them straight about the beat (which children can play by tapping on their knees) and the pulse (the sort of musical "heartbeat" that you think and feel, rather than play). To make teachers feel the difference between rhythm and beat, she has them in pairs, one tapping the rhythm of Baa Baa Black Sheep (which goes with the words) on their partner's shoulders, while the other taps the beat (constant and unchanging) on their partner's knees.

By the middle of the afternoon, Paula is successfully reading and clapping back simple rhythms written on colour-coded cards. "I would like to do more music, because the children really enjoy it," she says.

Louise Taylor, a Year 2 teacher at Haslemere Primary School, in Mitcham, south London, confesses that "music puts the fear of God in me", but says the training course has given her lots of ideas, especially for making music more cross curricular.

Linking music with other subjects - literacy, maths, science, geography - is a vital way of giving the subject its due in an overcrowded curriculum, says Val. It can also be used as part of classroom management (singing the register, for instance). But young children also need regular music lessons to develop their musical skills - perhaps as part of the five hours a week of cultural entitlement recently specified by the Government.

"It's important, particularly at KS1, for all class teachers to be teaching music," she says. "Everybody has some musicality in them - it's just a question of finding a way of doing it. Once they have had training, teachers find it easier than they think."

A touch of class

Singing the register

Lesley Kellett, a key stage 1 teacher at Newton Primary School, a school with 37 pupils in south Cumbria, has a novel way of taking the register. "I now use two chime bars and the children sing back 'I'm here'. Now I know which ones can sing in tune."

The idea was one of a host of activities that came out of her attending the EMI training.

"I appreciated the fact that Val went over the national curriculum and showed us lots of practical activities to bring back to the class," she says.

"The other thing the course gave me was the sense of progression, from reception to Year 2. Since then, I've enjoyed doing music at school more than I have for a long time. We've been given a box of untuned percussion instruments, which the children love. The new music books are so popular that my Year 2 children ask to read them.

"My music teaching has improved tremendously and I don't feel inadequate any more, because I know what I'm doing."

10 tips for music making

1. Add short musical activities to the normal school day - clap or play a simple rhythm pattern for children to copy when you want their attention.

2. Build children's understanding of dynamics and tempo using a range of musical activities. Keep your language simple (loud or quiet, fast or slow).

3. Encourage children to express how music makes them feel through movement, dancing and actions.

4. Get pupils to record their own music, so that they can listen to it and decide how it might be improved.

5. When listening to music with your class, listen to the same piece several times, asking children to focus on one aspect each time - how the music makes them feel; how loud or quiet the music is; does the speed vary?

6. Children learn through repetition, so build a core of songs and musical activities that can be developed over time.

7. Get your class to sing the register, using G and E chime bars to establish a standard pitch and help children sing in tune.

8. Look at other aspects of the curriculum that might be enhanced through using music, eg, adding sounds to describe stories, poems or pictures.

9. Making music is more effective when children sit in a circle. It encourages them to join in, to feel part of the group, and to listen when individuals or smaller groups are performing or composing.

10. Have a box of basic percussion instruments in the classroom, so that you can use them whenever there is an opportunity to make your own music.

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