Thursday 26 September 2019

'Reading Music with the Young Child' by H Trevor Shakeshaft (from 'Music Teacher', July 1983)

In these days of financial stringency, even those primary schools lucky enough to have their own music specialist often find that exigencies of timetabling preclude this specialist from covering more than a small number of classes, while class teachers are often expected to cover their own class’s music. In such cases, the music specialist is frequently called upon to act in an advisory capacity to his colleagues. This article aims to provide for such “advisory teachers” a simple music reading scheme which may easily be passed on to their non-specialist colleagues.

Fundamental to all music skills is an awareness of the pulse of music. Whenever small children move to music, they should be encouraged to move steadily, in time with the pulse. This often occurs naturally, but some children need help. “Use your hands to clap the sound of the soldiers’ marching feet while we listen to this march”, is a useful ploy. Children should use only two or three fingers to clap, while the teacher watches — 30-odd lusty clappers may be injurious to health!

At this point, depending on age, the children may be able to find and list other sounds and events which occur regularly. (Their pulses, a clock, windscreen wipers, police siren, etc.)

Again, if children are old enough, they can be asked to observe and classify differing speeds of such pulse-like sounds; the element of regularity must be stressed. Pulse in music, as in the body, varies in speed with the degree of activity of its subject. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique may be described as “sleepy”, as its pulse matches that of someone sleeping. The final section of Rossini‘s William Tell overture, with its fast pulse, is often used on television to accompany fast action (the Lone Ranger!) when the characters’ pulses would be racing.

The concept of rhythm can now be introduced, by clapping first the pulse of a known song, then its rhythm. Explain this by using part of the class as a singing group whilst the rest clap the pulse; everyone then claps “once for each word of the song”. It can then be shown that the two types of clap- ping, though different, fit together — the class may be divided again, part clapping the rhythm, the remainder the pulse. The two concepts are very important — it is worth spending a lot of time on this activity, using various songs and other music heard in school.

At this stage we may begin on notation. I have devised a system using “little men” cards. There are three types of card: No. 1 has on the front a very simple (I am no artist!) drawing of a “matchstick man” running from left to right and clapping; on the reverse of the card is a single vertical line (the astute will recognise this as a crotchet stem). No. 2 shows a similar matchstick man, but this time facing the front, with his arms raised in the traditional Western “hands up” attitude, and clearly stationary; on the reverse is a simplified version of a crotchet rest. Card No. 3 shows two smaller clapping men sitting on a see-saw, and on the reverse a pair of vertical lines connected by a cross-piece like a pair of goalposts (or, dare I suggest, quaver stems?). A convenient size for these cards is about ¼ of an A4 sheet, and eight of Card No. 1, with six of each of the others, are required. To display the cards, I use two sheets of hardboard, each 17" long by 6" high, hinged to allow the display of four or eight cards simultaneously. I normally use small “Bulldog”-type clips to fix the cards to the boards, but any method may, of course, be used.

To proceed to the use of the cards: This is first treated as a game. Four No. 1 cards are clipped to a board and shown. Young children can be asked to count the little men and describe what they are doing — clapping and running.

“Which way are they running? . . . That’s the same way that we read” — pointing — “beginning here. For each little man you clap once — how many claps altogether?”

The teacher then counts a steady “One — two —” and then points to the four cards in turn. The children respond — one hopes! — with four evenly spaced claps. Don’t worry if some children don’t get the idea at first, especially if very small; the concept is akin to reading words, and we don’t expect that to work immediately. As the children improve, one is sometimes tempted to use different numbers of cards. Don’t — the group of four or eight has proved best in practice.

Next, we introduce the “resting man” (Card 2). The children are asked what he is doing. A variety of answers will probably result. The important fact to establish is that he is not clapping. The new card replaces the fourth of the original set; the class is asked to respond at the appropriate point, by copying the action shown. (Note: It is advisable to keep the hands close to the head when performing this action — over-enthusiasm can cause neighbours’ noses to bleed!) After practice, the “rest” as we can now call the picture, can be moved to other positions in the set. A further group of four cards may now be introduced, and addition- al rests used. Next, produce the “see-saw” symbol (No. 3). This replaces the second card of a group, arranged as follows: 1 — 3 — 1 — 1. Explain that each see-saw stands for two claps. The best way I have found to prevent a class producing five evenly spaced claps is to get the children to say, in rhythm, “Clap — see- saw - clap — clap”, later fitting claps to their words.

From this point, the progression is natural. More complex rhythms are introduced, and then, after reversal of the cards, in the same order as their introduction, the use of abstract symbols. (Note: The “see-saw” may be replaced by “goalposts” — the word also fits the required rhythm.)

Children will often recognise the relationship between this notation and “real” music. If they don’t, it can easily be shown by ad- ding heads to the stems. The concept of melody can be introduced by playing (on one note) the rhythm of Baa, baa, black sheep, …  If you then ask the children what you have played, there are two possible responses — blank stares, or a correct answer. Either response helps — the first proves that a tune (explained as a series of different notes) is necessary to make a “proper” piece of music. The second can be shown to be only one of three correct answers — the rhythm also fits to All things bright and beautiful (Royal Oak), and Let us with a gladsome mind (Monkland). In each case the first line only will fit.

The time names “tea” and “coffee” are now introduced (a crotchet and a pair of quavers). The class can now sing, on one note, a simple rhythm from the blackboard. The rhythm symbols (now with heads) should be drawn with their heads below a single line. One of the notes should now be raised on to the line. The children are told that this new note is one step higher — a demonstration by the teacher follows, then they try. Much demonstration is necessary at this stage (it is infinitely better if the teacher has the confidence actually to sing the “exercises” rather than play them on piano or tuned percussion — for the keen, but not particularly pitch- sensitive teacher it is very possible to learn alongside the children).

Development is now along fairly obvious lines — increase the number of notes by adding a “new note” above the line (use step-wise tunes first then leaps — first from the note above the line to the “keynote” at the end); further lines may be added, until we have a total of five; the treble clef may be introduced at any stage, even with only a one-line stave, as giving the starting point for the naming of notes (which the children will have seen on pitched percussion instruments). Key signatures for simple keys will indicate which is the “home” note; ledger lines can be used to extend even the two- or three- line stave . . .  and so on.

Rhythmically, more complex patterns may be introduced, and new “drink names” devised by the children, with conventional notation being introduced in parallel. Various pulse-patterns (duple triple, even compound time) can be fairly easily assimilated if the children have a basic grasp of notation, and the whole field of musical notation can now be explored.

H. Trevor Shakeshaft is a Senior Peripatetic Class
Music Teacher for Warwickshire

reproduced from Music Teacher, July 1983