On the 8th of November I took a train to Bradford because I wanted to meet up with primary music teacher Jimmy Rotherham* and see him at work in Feversham Primary Academy (‘fever’ rhymes with sever not as in fever). He has come to national and international prominence as the music teacher of a school where the headteacher pointed to the high-quality and frequent music lessons as the reason for a remarkable improvement in literacy outcomes. The school is in a deprived area of the city with a very high proportion of children who have English as a second language.
[Unfortunately, the train was delayed by 105 minutes so I missed the first session of the day which was a music-making class with a group of children who have special educational needs (SEN).]
I entered the music block, a building separate from the main school with two small meeting rooms and a large, light music room, at 11 o’clock. The first thing I noticed was a silhouette of another Jimmy: Jimi Hendrix on the window of the Music Room door.
Inside was a class of Year 1 children sat in a circle and they all had their shoes off!
“Hob shoe hob, Hob shoe hob, Here a nail there a nail, That’s well shod!” they sang. It’s a song with three rests and the children bashed their shoes on the floor for each of these. I know this song and the activity and I had always shied away from doing it because of the shoe-removing, so it was good to see it in action and the children enjoying it so much. At one point Jimmy was distracted by a knock at the door and the children simply started singing the song to themselves and doing the activity all over again. When musicianship is taught through singing then the songs themselves become a repertoire for the young learners. They own the songs and they can sing them whenever they like. This is one of the great things about teaching musicianship through singing.
Immediately this lesson ends another Year 1 class come in. Sitting in a circle there is much laughter as they all sing the Tickley Monkey song. This activity, ending as it does with an individual child being ‘tickled’ by a large orangutan puppet, causes uproar and much laughter! Next is an exploration of the voice with the simple ‘Have you brought your —- voice?’ call-and-response activity. This includes humming and the Thinking Voice (internalising the response). There is a rendition of See-Saw, a simple two-note song, and the children show the pitch by moving their bodies up and down. “What were we showing?” asks Jimmy giving the class an opportunity to use the word ‘pitch’ before moving on.
Another song with the same two pitches (so and mi) is sung next and all the children remove their shoes for Cobbler Cobbler. The children are encouraged to think of their own ways to show the beat. One child shows the rhythm by mistake and this is taken as a golden opportunity to reinforce the understanding of both beat and rhythm by comparing them. “Can anyone think of another song we know about shoes?” asks Jimmy. The intention here is to create a flow within the lesson so that the various exercises are not simply isolated incidences; this helps the lesson to feel like a natural progression. A child suggests that ‘Chop Chop’, a rhyme about preparing food, is about shoes. It isn’t, but Jimmy chooses to go with Chop Chop using the shoes as knives to chop with. It’s a nice spontaneous moment and, I discover as the day goes on, it is typical of Jimmy’s relaxed approach to his music lessons. Next, the class sing Hob Shoe Hob and Jimmy, like all good teachers, makes use of errors to reinforce the understanding of the class. The lesson ends with the class singing Pease Pudding Hot. Like Hob Shoe Hob it is a song with three rests. Interestingly, one child sings the traditional tune and not the more simple two-note version that the class has been taught. After the lesson, before the class leaves, two girls demonstrate a ‘Tom and Jerry’ partner-clapping song that they know from the playground. There is a wonderful culture, established by Jimmy, of playground singing at Feversham with ‘Musical Play Leaders’, easily identified by their bright orange tops, leading younger children in simple singing games out in the playground.
When Jimmy asks the Musical Play Leaders about that morning in the playground they report back that “The Year 2 kids were going bonkers!”
Lunchtime: some questions answered
To my delight Jimmy opts for a local Indian restaurant for his lunch. We’re not talking aspirational dining here, it is a place that serves the local community. The food is excellent. Over lunch I have a chance to ask a few questions.
What is the typical weekly music provision for the children at Feversham? Each class has a thirty minute lesson and two 15 minute lessons. This makes sense to me as musical learning involves a lot of skills-building and this ‘little and often’ approach supports that. As well as this core of Kodály lessons taught by Jimmy, the children do more music with other teachers (including clubs every lunchtime and after school and extra choir practise during Wednesday assemblies) This means the children have up to seven hours of music per week!
How can you explore a variety of musical genres when your class music lessons are largely based around singing folk songs/children’s songs? A variety of musical styles are explored in the weekly Singing Assemblies and in the choir as well. Also the regular class lessons sometimes feature songs from other cultures too.
Do you feel limited by singing very simple 2,3 or 4 note songs in a lot of your lessons? The experience has to be seen through the child’s eyes. The children do not complain about the limited range within these songs; it is only adults who may choose to do so. Think of a Year 1 maths lesson dealing with extremely simple calculations. It should not be regarded as inappropriate or limiting.
How do you approach the teaching of composition and improvisational skills in your lessons? I don’t really teach units of work around these skills. There are opportunities for imaginative and creative work when working with the songs. Lyrics can be changed, rhythms can be generated by the children in certain activities, improvising happens within certain limitations (e.g. the solfa pitches that the children are familiar with) and these limitations aid the creative process rather than restricting it. I do give children opportunities to play, improvise and explore without structure too, as that’s also important.
In the course of our conversation some interesting facts about Jimmy and the school are revealed.
• All the staff and children go home after lunch on Fridays. This is for two main reasons: the staff do not have PPA time as such so this is the 10% of non-contact time that they are owed; also, nearly all the pupils are from Muslim families and Friday is mosque day
• There are no non-teaching members of the leadership team except for the headteacher. I like this idea as it keeps all staff directly connected to the nuts and bolts activity of actually teaching children.
• All families sign off a ‘media-permission’ letter when they join the school: less unusual this but a great time-saver. The outside organisations that I have dealt with over the years always want to have permission to use images of the children in their own promotional activities. If the families have signed off already it saves a lot of letter-writing and letter-chasing
• Jimmy used to teach music at secondary school (GCSE and A Level). On this subject he tells me that he is dismayed by the quality of some of the local secondary schools
The afternoon: Year 5 and Year 6
On returning to the school I have a chat with the peripatetic guitar teacher. He shows me the book he is using with the children called ‘Jigsaw Guitar Course’. It is a Kodály-based book that taps into the musicianship skills and musical understanding being developed in the regular class music lessons. This sort of ‘joined up’ thinking seems obvious but is not always easy to implement so it’s good to see it in action. I am also treated to a quick demo of several drum beats by a Year 6 girl. She is confident and plays with a good strong sense of the beat, easily moving from one rhythm to the next.
The Year 5 lessons include singing ‘Jack-in-the-Box’, a simple so/mi/do song. These children have probably been singing it, on and off, since they were in Year 1 or Year 2. They now have the ‘intellectual/conceptual’ knowledge to sing it in solfa and to demonstrate what these notes would look like on the stave: groups of three volunteers at a time do this by standing on a large stave depicted on the floor with masking tape. Next they sing Rocky Mountain (a pentatonic la/so/mi/re/do song). The notes of an ascending and a descending phrase from the song are written out on a stave on the board. The children are encouraged to identify these within the song. The lesson ends with a fun circle game based on this song. Throughout these lessons there is a feeling of lighthearted enjoyment largely due to the fact that Jimmy doesn’t miss a chance for a joke. His job is made a little easier by the presence of the class teacher.
In Year 6 the children say the Bubblegum rhyme (from Lucinda Geoghegan’s excellent ‘Singing Games and Rhymes for Middle Years’). They are able to say this rhyme with the rhythm names. They then sing ‘Once a Man Fell in a Well’ and follow this with a version in solfa; this is because the class have recently added ‘fa’ to their solfa awareness. I am interested to see one of the Year 6 teachers dressed in a fine-looking crisp, white robe and taqiyah (cap). He is the local imam and it’s good to see him actively involved in the lesson, a great role model for these children. The class go on to sing ‘do/do-re-do/do-re-mi-re-do’… etc. (including ‘fa’) as an exercise to reinforce this new learning. Both lessons finish with a fun ball-throwing game based on the song ‘Once a Man Fell in a Well’. And so the day ends, much as it began, with much laughter!
My thanks to Jimmy for allowing me to visit him at Feversham Primary Academy. This is a school that has decided to prioritise music by employing a fulltime well qualified music specialist. Even during this period of cuts to school budgets it remains possible to do this. It is a matter of school management teams understanding the benefits that a musical education can bring. I really enjoyed the day and it’s good to know that Jimmy Rotherham is out there flying the flag for music-teaching in this country. Music is for everyone.