In tune with the elements
In the dead days of "back to basics", Prime Minister John Major shared with us his theory that children go to school to learn and not to have experiences. This curious epistemological antithesis doesn't seem to have convinced the authors of this effective, lively and user-friendly series. Perhaps, as advisory teachers, they have spent too much time working with real children in real classrooms; certainly every page is concerned with doing, sharing, enjoying and getting to know music - but it's the kind of knowledge you have of a living person rather than a dead thing.
The format is a fairly familiar one. These are large, tough A4 folders, each containing a nest of tapes and a substantial book of more than 100 pages. The books are filled with detailed and carefully timed units of work, graphs illustrating the coverage of the national curricula ( Scotland and Northern Ireland included), and sound advice on the use and management of instruments, scores and songs.
Part 1 is for children aged four to seven, Part 2 for seven to nine-year-olds. The implied teacher audience is composed of enthusiasts who are willing but lack confidence and information.
A large proportion of the activities is expressly designed to be entirely teacher-led. This means there are many circle games, many points where specific accompaniments are recommended, many occasions where children's own exploratory curiosity is subordinated to an adult's guiding authority.
This makes plenty of sense when teachers are not sure where to go next or when a public performance is in prospect, or whenever it seems necessary for a piece to sound "right".
Advice such as "C should be a lower note than G" when playing a drone will very often be appropriate, but it would be good if the children had a chance to get it wrong, find the inversion and hear how it sounds.
This recommendation is one of many marginal "support points" that characterise the books' straightforward, considerate tone. The presentation of the separate sections of the units of work is eminently clear and the use of highlights for words of songs that carry the beat is a novel and useful way of conveying a skill that many teachers find difficult. Tips such as "avoid selecting metal instruments with sustaining sounds" should be followed where pertinent, but sceptically; again, it is preferable sometimes for children to make decisions about instrumentation by ear rather than adult fiat.
The approach is sensible, practical and cheerful: it might be characterised as "forward from the elements". Contrasts focused on the essential points of musical language are developed through talking, playing, listening and singing. High and low sounds lead to composition round a Little Bear story as well as to hearing extracts from Ravel's "Beauty and the Beast". Long and short sounds are involved in singing "Six Little Ducks" in a variety of ways and in listening to Warlock's "Pavane". Fast and slow sounds become fun in playing a rondo and listening to "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat".
As this repertoire suggests, the recordings are in the main imaginatively linked to the area of activity and catholic in genre and tone. There is music from many parts of the world and many centuries, with perhaps rather less contemporary work than young children would like to hear. It would be good to have additional information in places.
The stamping dance of the young girls from the Sacre du Printemps, provided as part of a Spring music section, would have even more impact if Stravinsky's reminiscence of the savage violent breaking of the ice of a Russian winter were also available. (And please spell Seurat's La Grande Jatte correctly in future editions.) There are many complete music courses now available for teachers. This one is among the most animated and helpful.
Tom Deveson is music adviser for the London borough of Southwark.