In tune with what's needed

21st November 1997 at 00:00
SONGBIRDS: Me and season songs for 4-7 year olds. Edited by Ana Sanderson. AC Black. Pounds 12.50 (including CD or cassette).

LIVELY MUSIC 4-7. Wendy Hart. Heinemann. Pounds 49.95 (including Cs or cassette).

CURRICULUM BANK MUSIC:Key stage 1 and Key stage 2. Emily Feldberg and Elizabeth Atkinson. Scholastic,. Pounds 12.99 each.

Tom Deveson listens to music for four to seven-year-olds

Good teachers always suspected it; now it's demonstrated in the academic journals. Learning music in the early years of life really does help build a higher IQ and provide a foundation for better scores in the literacy and numeracy tests that lurk in a child's path like Giant Despair. I hope the Department for Education and Employment reads New Scientist as well as The TES.

A look at Songbirds will disarm any sceptics. These are collections, with more than 20 songs in each book, organised around themes common to children's lives and to the investigations in their classrooms. One set deals with the body, senses, food and growth; the other with seasons and climates in the UK and in other countries.

There are traditional songs by Anon, old assembly favourites such as "Paint-box" ("Broad beans are sleeping in a blankety bed!") and new delights from the bounteous imaginations of writers such as Jane Sebba, Jan Holdstock, David Moses and (most happily) the editor herself. It won't be surprising if songs as catchy, cheerful, thoughtful and apt as these emigrate from school and re-appear in the back of the car or at bathtime.

The recordings and the notes for teachers are especially worth mentioning, the former free from posh-voice preciousness, the latter full of practical intelligent guidance from Marie Tomlinson. Rites of passage like going back to school find their melodic correlative. These are songs for the complete person; not just mouths, voices and lungs, but minds,thoughts and feelings too. Singing like this is not just for the national curriculum, but to help make alert, civilised, talented, entertaining and happy humans.

Wendy Hart has shown her belief in children's assimilative powers in earlier volumes of Lively Music. The virtues of the earlier two books are found here in abundance: completeness and scope for the diligent and eager, reassurance and advice for the anxious and faint-hearted. The only practical drawback on which teachers have commented is that the folders, with more than 200 closely-printed pages, are too exhaustive for easy access, too much like a government white paper for the time-bound exigencies of the classroom.

Twelve units of work are provided for each of the three years of life in the infants. These nearly all have a specific musical focus, and it's interesting to note the trend away from topic work in planning. These themes are set out in a way that is both inventive, eclectic and impressively ambitious. Even the reception class is offered a thrilling chunk of the end of Sibelius's Symphony No 5 to listen to the silences between the huge hammer-like chords.

A lot of helpful details are added on such useful subjects as how to get into a quiet position for listening or how "quality" in singing at this stage is likely to mean enthusiasm and controlled stopping and starting as much as the production of pure sounds. And it's good to see clear guidance on using electronic keyboards with four-year-olds.

It's even more heartening to find extracts from much world music used as starting points, as well as from Jannequin's "La Guerre", from Jan ycek's Sinfonietta, and from Messaien's Chronochromie. This broad catholicity of repertoire for a young age group is much to be encouraged - especially if the Messaien isn't heard just in the suggested ways as "mini-beast music" but is enjoyed for the sheer impact of the alternating blocks of woodwind and percussion.

Curriculum Bank gives about 150 pages of plans and worksheets for each of the two primary key stages. The layout is rather forbidding, with a lot of small close print, but the logic of the underlying thought is clear enough. Teachers with time to spare will be able to use the books to construct complete and balanced schemes of work of their own; they aren't bound to follow the layout provided, which aims to provide access to broad skills rather than direct learners' footsteps down specified paths.

The series is firmly planted in classroom life and has been developed with the direct participation of schools in the North-east. It's gratifying to know that activities that are effective in Wallsend also work in the Walworth Road, even though the vowel sounds produced in the vocal work will be different. Once again the listening repertoire is generous and inclusive; John Cage rubs shoulders with The Beggar's Opera, jazz saxophone with xylophones from Thailand.

Many teachers will be chary of an exercise that involves giving music marks out of 10 - if the Siegfried Idyll gets 10, what do you give the entire Ring cycle? The Batman theme is inaccurately transcribed, and the folk-waltz is called a LAndler not a Llandler - it's Austrian not Welsh. Recommendations to recreate the "particular style" for Birtwistle are not helpful; he has many styles, and teachers will need more precise guidance. These are real, but not forbidding flaws in a series with a belief that learning about music is an important part of learning about life.

Tom Deveson is advisory teacher for music for the London Borough of Southwark

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