Anne Marie Summers
Music for Children
I have recently run two pre-school music groups in Shropshire - one for a Parent-and-Toddler group for children under 4, the other is at the Rockspring Community Centre Nursery School for 3 – 4 year olds. I intend to return to this kind of work within the year (2007), when my commitments to my own children allow.
I feel strongly that very young children benefit greatly in all sorts of ways from experiencing and taking part in live music. Whether it be bouncing on a mother’s knee to ‘horsie’ rhymes, banging a tambourine in time to another instrument, or jumping up and down to a favourite action song, the experience should be inclusive, friendly and fun.
The rhythm and rhyme of nursery songs can help children to develop their language skills; dancing and clapping in time is a good cognitive exercise; hearing their own voices raised in loud singing is a great confidence booster; and doing it as a group activity with other children can help with social bonding within peer groups. As they get older, the ability to enjoy music actively as well as passively can add a whole other dimension to their enjoyment of life.
A typical session at a nursery school:
When leading a session for a nursery age group, I aim to make the session last for as long as the children can remain focused and enthusiastic, but never longer. This can be up to an hour in some cases, particularly when the group meets regularly. We start with an introduction song, where the children call out their names and greet each other, then some familiar old classics that they already know and love; I usually accompany these with an instrument like the accordion. We sing action songs, counting songs, animal songs, clapping and stamping songs, and at some point I bring out some percussion instruments for everyone and we play rhythm games.
When it seems to me that a change of scene is required, we get up and spend the rest of the session dancing. Simple circle dances with actions and mime are popular but I try to do as wide a variety as possible, often ending in some free-form dance where the children attempt to improvise to whatever I play - fast/slow, quiet/ loud. I find that the clarinet is a good instrument for this exercise.
I own and play a large collection of acoustic instruments and I like to introduce the children to as many of these as possible and, under my supervision, allow them to be touched and even played. Instruments like my small harp are very popular; children find it very soothing to listen to and love to come up to pluck the strings and put their ear against the soundboard. The accordion has lots of buttons to press and can be pulled and pushed to produce sounds. My small bagpipes are fun to squeeze and great to march to, and I have several small, stringed instruments which I have tuned to a chord so that children can hold and strum them whilst everyone else sings a song in the same pitch – the result is surprisingly musical! I try to introduce them to at least one new instrument per session.
I bring these instruments along entirely at my own risk would never hold a child responsible for any damage incurred.
Workshops for primary and secondary school children
Programmes similar to the above are also fun for children at infant school who enjoy singing and learning about sound. The songs I use can be more ‘grown up’ and I sometimes introduce the children to some simple harmony singing and more complex arrangements, but it’s still basically about enjoying singing and music together.
I also offer some more specific programmes for school children of all ages:
Folk dancing and song from Britain and Europe
With my knowledge and experience of traditional songs and dances, I can present a workshop that concentrates on one particular country or tradition, or provide a pan-European programme. I always bring some interesting folk instruments that the children can investigate in a hands-on way: a Hungarian hurdy gurdy, a Turkish saz, Swedish bagpipes, a Celtic harp etc. These are also used to play for the dancing when appropriate.
I do not teach dances to a CD, and prefer either to play the tunes myself or choose dances that have their own special song that the children learn to sing first. I use songs that are easy to learn, with repetitive choruses and simple tunes, but the children still have to sing them in the original language! Ideally, I like to have another musician with me to provide some of the music and play for the dancing. I am currently working with two musicians: Edward Tailor, an accordion player from south Herefordshire; and Janie Mitchell, a singer and hammer dulcimer player from Shropshire.
Example of a typical session:
The school had asked for some traditional dances from Europe. I chose something from Brittany, Bulgaria and Italy for an interesting and contrasting programme.
Firstly, we played the tunes and explained about the instruments we were using – hurdy gurdy, dulcimer, bagpipes, accordion and clarinet. Some children were invited to come up and try them out themselves – always a popular moment for the rest of the class! I then taught the songs that we were going to dance to – a Bulgarian wedding song and a Breton counting song. Children are often surprisingly good at picking up foreign words phonetically, even if they have no knowledge of the language. Next we went through the dance steps and the whole thing was put together, song, dance and music.
The dances I teach are all authentic folk dances, but sometimes modified to fit the age and ability of the group involved. I do take care, however, to retain the character and regional identity of each dance.
I also try to explain something of the culture and background behind the music. For instance, the Breton song is about women washing their clothes in the river using a stone to pound out the dirt. The dance, a ‘hanter dro’, is heavy and shuffling and was traditionally danced at the wedding party of a young couple because it was thought to level out the uneven mud floor of the new house. The Italian ‘tarantella’ is particularly energetic dance and is also supposed to help the victim of a tarantula bite to work the poison out of his system.
The Folk Choir
Children can learn so much from the folk songs from their own and other people’s traditions. Not only are they perfectly designed for singing without accompaniment but they can teach us a huge amount about the lives of our predecessors; their work, fears, loves and pleasures and the social dynamics of the time. All this without the word ‘history’ ever being mentioned!
I propose to teach workshops in traditional song for children of all ages using material from all over the British Isles and some world music too. The songs will all have interesting themes and stories attached and I will be using two or three part harmonies where appropriate.
This can be presented as a one-off workshop but would be better with follow up sessions or as an ongoing group. I am also quite happy to lead children in small public performance of their music.
Historical music, dance and story sessions
My main work in schools has always been as a Medieval or Tudor musician working either with Steve Tyler from Misericordia, or with historian, storyteller and musician Thor Ewing as the duo Squeake’s Noyse.
As Squeake’s Noyse, we present a number of programmes for various age groups covering many different historical eras including Roman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Civil War, and Napoleonic. All have a musical element, and we have a collection of instruments and music applicable to each era. Stories from the time also feature strongly, and there is always a historical dance or two to learn. All these sessions are done in authentic costume, and there are even some clothes for the children to wear.
A typical workshop on the Tudors would be as follows:
Enter Master Watt and Mistress Ann, two Elizabethans of merchant class. We introduce ourselves and explain something about what we are wearing and why. We discuss the fashions of the day, and the materials available to the average fashion-conscious Elizabethan. Then there is a short interactive concert with popular songs of the day accompanied by instruments such as the cittern, hurdy gurdy, recorder and harp. Children are invited up to try them out. Some of the songs have easy choruses for everyone to join in with.
Master Watt is a Tudor schoolteacher, and tells the children what life would have been like for them at school in Tudor times. A copy of a Tudor hornbook (an early exercise book) is handed out along with a real goose-quill pen for each child, and we have a short school lesson in writing the alphabet 16thc style. Then we all settle down to some stories taken from the Tudor ‘jest books’.
Next is a dance session where the class gets to participate in some popular dances from courts and from the peasantry. The dances are easy and fun and completely authentic to the time. The dancers wear costume which we can provide for them.
Finally, we recap on all they have learnt, answer questions, and sing and play a few more songs while the class draw pictures of us, our instruments and clothing. A follow up work sheet can also be provided for future use.