Working at my current school, Rhyl Primary in Camden, has meant making some changes to my music-teaching. For a start both Year 4 classes learn ukulele and all the Year 5 children learn keyboards. As well as this, because of the temporary nature of my original contract, I have not introduced any of the children to solfa because it seemed pointless considering that it would be unlikely to continue when I left. It’s been odd for me ignoring solfa because it has been integral to my teaching for the last seven years. You will see in the following account that I encourage the children to show the pitch with their hands but we do not work with the solfa names or handsigns.
To begin with I sing the class an ascending ‘Hello Everyone’ (d-r-m-f-s) and ask the children to show the pitch with their hands when they respond. Only a small number can do this. Many children are thrown by this because I normally sing a simpler two pitch ‘Hello everyone’ that moves up and down; this new single movement upwards is not what they are used to. It is noted that, when showing the pitch with our hands, we are also showing the rhythm. I show the class how we can use our fingers as little legs ascending a sort of ‘pitch staircase’.
Next we move onto a song that has an ascending melody, just like our ‘Hello Everyone’ tune: Boots of Shining Leather. It’s a Hungarian folk tune though not one I was introduced to through my Kodaly studies. I clap the rhythm of it and the class listen intently. When the quaver phrases change to straight crotchets it becomes obvious to more and more of the class what the song is. By the end of the clapped rhythm everyone has joined in and they sing the final phrase as one. The whole class then sings it all and claps the rhythm; we repeat this but sing the song in our thinking voices (i.e. not out loud) being careful to clearly indicate the one beat rest at the end of the third phrase. The class also sing it as a canon. I don’t accompany this on the piano; instead I encourage the class to listen to the sound that they are making.
After this I draw attention to the rhythm of the first 4 beats (ti-ti ti-ti ti-ti ta) and remind the class of the many 4-beat rhythms we know. We read some 4-beat rhythm cards together and then I ask everyone to think of one 4-beat rhythm that will be their own. Next a pupil is chosen at random; this individual has to clap the rhythm they have thought of. It keeps everyone on their toes because they could be chosen. I then invite four children to the front to demonstrate how to clap their own 4-beat rhythm one after the other. It seems a simple activity but it is certainly not: each person must internalise a 4-beat rhythm and be ready to clap it at the correct time after the last person; and they must do so with a nice, even tempo. It takes a few times for the little group of four, standing in a line, to get it right. We then make a circle and try to repeat the activity as a whole class. It is not hugely successful. I was not expecting it to be. It is an activity that we will return to and over the course of a few weeks all these children will become far, far better at it. Repetition, some people say, is the mother of learning.
After this fairly demanding activity we stay in a circle and play a fun singing game: Chicken on a Fencepost. It is a voice-guessing game where the person in the middle of the circle has a blindfold on and has to guess which individual is singing the final line of the song to them. It is such a silly little song but the beauty of it is that, combined with the enjoyable game, it gets the whole class unselfconsciously singing. And it allows me to assess – by listening to the solo singers – who can sing in tune and who can accurately match the pitch of the song. Also the song has been deliberately chosen because it includes semi-quavers and, eventually, the class will be introduced to semi-quavers through the medium of this song and others. This ‘teaching by stealth’, as I like to call it, is at the core of the Kodaly approach to teaching musicianship and it is, in my opinion, simply good pedagogy. To top it all, the song and game are good fun! The children want to be doing this.
Next I introduce the children to the game ‘Don’t Clap This One Back’. Very simply the teacher claps 4-beat rhythms to the class and the class clap these rhythms back. If the ‘ta ta ti-ti ta’ (i.e. don’t clap this one back) rhythm is clapped the class must not clap it back. It is easily learned and then I ask volunteers to lead the game. To do this the volunteer must be able to independently clap various 4-beat rhythms. You can see that I’ve made this a theme of the lesson. The game is hugely enjoyed. I like being a music teacher because it is a subject that lends itself to teaching through games. With children this age, I believe that most teaching should be done in this way. Unfortunately, with an education system overseen by non-educationalists with no understanding of child development this is unlikely to happen any time soon!
Finally, we sing through ‘Consider Yourself’ from the Oliver musical. I play the piano and the children really love singing it every week. It was a song chosen by me to fit in with the Year 3 topic of Victorian times last half-term. The whole year-group will sing it at the Winter concert at the end of term. The hour has been pretty intense and the children have done a lot of singing. This in itself has numerous mental and physical health benefits. It’s another reason I am glad to teach musicianship through singing.