The best thing about music in school is that everyone can join in, says Tom Deveson
Music involves training but also spontaneity; it leads from simple to more challenging experiences. Music provides children with opportunities to exercise choice, even when simply picking which of two shakers to use.
Teachers should show children how to use instruments, but there is always a chance to be original. They can learn they are themselves instruments, able to vocalise and create sounds or to touch things that make sounds for them.
Success in music has its own criteria and doesn't reflect academic ability or confidence.
Music is beneficial for pupils with many kinds of disability. For autistic children, it helps reduce the tension that may be present early in the morning, offering a safe, talk-free routine after the over-excitement of a noisy arrival. Movement is important for children who need help with co-ordination. They can play with scarves to accompany gentle music or roll a ball slowly and rhythmically around a circle - or they can vigorously blow on kazoos and party squeakers to develop control of breath and the actions that relate to speech.
KNOW THE SCORE
Music sessions for children with special needs require careful forethought.
Some teachers adapt existing mainstream resources, while others prefer to use a curriculum planning tool like the one produced by Equals, the organisation for teachers of pupils with learning difficulties within special and mainstream schools. (See resources below.) It's essential to find time for the fundamental elements of musical language, and to recognise that understanding won't necessarily arrive in an orderly fashion. Many children are at home with rhythm before they can make sense of pitch and melody. Learning to discriminate between timbres can focus on many kinds of sound, not just the strictly musical. It may be as momentous to tell a jet engine from a vacuum cleaner as to distinguish a trumpet from a trombone.
Playing around with the musical elements naturally provides many kinds of contrast - fast and slow sounds, stopping and starting, scraping and shaking - which in turn stimulate the lively use of spoken language.
These cross-curricular discoveries can be expanded in many directions.
Children love to use instruments to enhance the sense of a poem. But it can be as effective to use music deliberately to undermine the meaning. The same thing can happen with film sequences. Children who find sounds to accompany a brief episode of a wildlife documentary learn a lot by doing it, and even more by discussing it afterwards.
Teachers can give guidance in many ways. It might take the form of a question. Shall we keep the beat with our hands or feet? Who would like to give the lead? Can we copy what Marcus has done? It might begin with sounds, such as drumming loudly and softly while singing about the two kinds of dynamic. Songs such as "Something Inside So Strong" (Labi Siffre) go especially well with Makaton signs. The cardinal principle here is that the music is central, not the language we use to describe it.
Helping children recall music should be a two-way process. If a teacher imitates the sounds a child has made, it's fun and an important lesson in musical structure. Songs with plenty of repetition and variation are valuable here.
Children with serious language difficulties can be supported with the Picture Exchange Communication System during activities where the music varies between, say, high and low, or fast and slow. A Big Mack button helps with focusing on short phrases that can then be repeated in enjoyable patterns.
And any kind of notation, from graphics to conventional staves, can be adapted to include colours (for example, long notes red and short notes blue) and other prompts.
SOUND AND LIGHT
Music education has been well served by recent developments in IT.
OptiMusic is a system that reacts to movement and creates multi-media events. The Super Duper Music Looper can be played on classroom computers, and allows children to select from instruments and effects and turn them into songs and animations. The BBC Radio 3 games page is a cheerfully versatile resource. (See below.) Older appliances - videos, keyboards, microphones - that enable children to act like adult musicians still have a valuable role. They can record performances and help improve technique. Singing karaoke-style is often preferred to solo work.
Older technology can be the centre of an exciting lesson. Take the lid and front off a piano and watch what happens when you play chords, or strum the strings with wooden spoons.
JAZZ IT UP
Not everything needs to be done with familiar teachers or even inside school. Afternoons spent creating music for a special event like a local parade more than repay the time spent on them. And venues such as recording studios are often amenable to requests for a visit.
Live music makes a lasting impression - you could visit a jazz festival, a school prom or turn to the organisation Live Music Now, which provides a wonderful variety of travelling performers who enlighten and entertain.
HIT THE HIGH NOTES
The Welsh exam board (WJEC) offers an entry-level certificate for students in year 11. They study classical, pop, world and TVfilm music, with composing and performing in each category, and listening tests.
Other pupils might want to try an Asdan (see below) course in the expressive arts. These programmes are flexible and allow participants to look at music from many angles. They might, for example, consider peace within the subject of RE, and explore what kinds of music promote peaceful feelings.
Other results are no less real for being intangible. Music allows children to do some things longer and more deeply than they are used to: working with a partner, feeling what it's like to be a leader or a collaborator in a group, sharing and allowing for other people's likes and dislikes.
Music can set the scene and the mood in a classroom, stimulate the senses, strengthen the memory, and aid communication without words. Above all, it invites children who habitually think they are not good enough to think again as they fill a room with the sound of clamorous happiness.
* Super Duper Music looper - http:mediasoftware.sonypictures.comproductsshowproduct.asp?PID=535
Tom Deveson is a music consultant. He gratefully acknowledges the help of Craig Mollison of Spa school, Julia Garling of Tuke school, Mary Graham of Kingsdale school (all in Southwark) and Susan Jackson of Phoenix school, Tower Hamlets.