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The elephant in the music room

Discussion in 'Music' started by JoFlowers123, Apr 21, 2016.

  1. JoFlowers123

    JoFlowers123 New commenter

    Traditional music notation is certainly the elephant in the primary school classroom.

    Teachers in primary schools are required to teach skills in music and, whilst singing has always been acknowledged as an excellent musical activity, over the years there has been criticism that changing the song does not necessarily add to the skills being learned.

    The beauty of singing is that it can result in wonderful performances. These concerts fulfil important needs, generating a sense of achievement and satisfaction for the pupils, and providing content for school festivities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.

    Singing songs, however, is a challenging medium for a structured music curriculum.

    As I explore what is available to support primary whole-class music teaching I discover a general avoidance of traditional music notation.

    When I research why this might be, I discover three main responses:

    1. You can’t expect non-specialist music teachers to teach traditional music notation

    2. We don’t need it – it’s limiting creativity – Paul McCartney couldn’t read music and it didn’t stop him - - and - - - it’s not relevant to Indian music etc.

    3. Primary school music lessons should be practical lessons. Pupils should be allowed to make music not learn theory – one lesson a week is not enough time to do both

    So I consider these responses ……

    And then I see that, if any child signs up to learn the clarinet or the flute, at the same time as getting their first instrument, they get a tutor book. The tutor book is full of traditional music notation …..


    Traditional music notation does seem to be critical if you’re going to learn to play a musical instrument.

    I consider further ……

    What if the right resources were available?

    What if there were really strong resources - - that could help non-specialist music teachers teach a class of 6 year olds to read and play a melody on a glockenspiel?

    This is the twenty-first century. We have so many audio-visual routes of communication, surely we could create resources that could support non-specialist music teachers in delivering a skill-based curriculum?

    So, what about the second response? Not relevant, limits creativity etc.

    I totally accept that music literacy does not make a musician. There have been astonishing musicians who could not and do not read or write a note of music.

    However, if you talk to them, many of them say they wish that they could!

    Limiting creativity? There is a nugget of truth in this, however, it is the same nugget of truth that led to primary school teachers in the 1980s being forbidden to correct spelling mistakes or grammatical errors for fear of limiting creativity. Teaching literacy, whether it be in the English language or the language of music provides a means of expression. It only limits creativity if it is used as a means for narrowing expression instead of broadening opportunities.

    And what about it not being relevant to Indian music? That’s a bit like saying there’s no point in learning English in case you are going to move to France. We’re in England, and, if we understand the structure of one language, it helps us to understand the structure of another.

    Finally, response no. 3. Music lessons should be practical music making lessons not theory lessons, and, with just one lesson each week, there’s not enough time for both.

    My first reaction to that is to return to the model of the child learning to play the clarinet who probably only gets one 30 minute lesson each week and yet, that covers the necessary theory to read the notes, the technical elements of playing the instrument and creates time for music making.

    Aha, I hear you say, but they go home and practice.

    Well, I say, some do, it’s true, but certainly not all !

    However, let’s revisit the notion of going home to practice for a moment in the light of modern technology. Could we not get an app. for that?

    Just because pupils have not signed up to play the clarinet, could they not have the opportunity to learn to play the glockenspiel or the recorder, traditional primary school instruments, in a meaningful and skilled way? Could they not also have the option of going home to practice?

    My second reaction is to ask why should music making and music literacy be separated? Is it not a practical, music-making activity to look at a rhythm written down and learn to play it? Learn to play it faster or slower, or in time with everyone else or taking turns with others? Is it not a practical, music-making activity to learn to read and play Twinkle Twinkle on the recorder? Why is it not a practical activity if we read the instructions as we go along? Is composition not a practical activity is we write down the notes before playing them? From what I read, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with drawing pictures or creating charts to ‘notate’ compositions.

    I’ve explored, researched, and considered what I’ve discovered.

    The answer I seem to have reached is: primary school teachers need much, much better resources to support them in teaching skill-based music.

    They need a curriculum that will support them in teaching a whole-class of 6 year olds how to read and play a melody on a glockenspiel, with technology to support pupils practising their skills at home.

    Primary school music teachers can’t create this for themselves. This is the sort of thing that needs a multi-skilled team of musicians, educators and computer programmers.


    Along the route of my exploration I did discover some resource packages that offer support to primary music teachers and I won’t criticise them because they are offering something greatly needed by teacher, and they contain many exciting activities.

    But they don’t really address the elephant in the music room.

    Where is the package that gives non-specialist primary music teachers the option to choose to teach traditional music notation?

    I’m not suggesting that every child in every school should be forced to learn traditional music notation, nor every teacher be forced to teach it, but, at the moment I do not see it as even an option.

    Why is it not even an option?

    Where are the resources to make it an option?

    What do you think?
  2. florian gassmann

    florian gassmann Star commenter

    Use specialists in primary schools. I had a music specialist back in the late 40s / early 50s who taught notation (mainly through class recorder lessons but also some singing). It was only a 2-form entry primary, so she had her own class, but she also taught music to all of what are now called years 4, 5 and 6.
    ViolaClef likes this.
  3. notable

    notable New commenter

    Hi, I'm working on that very thing:)
  4. JoFlowers123

    JoFlowers123 New commenter

  5. sunderj

    sunderj New commenter

    I think that secondary school music teachers should be offering outreach to primary schools. The quality of music education in many of our feeder schools is diminishing drastically. I have done some outreach, 1 session a week for 6-8 weeks in some local primaries with the intention of giving the teacher some support as well/skills to develop with the class. I aimed this at year 5 and 6 and it was quite successful though does require a lot of work to tailor it to the individual school.
    In Norfolk we as a group, mainly of secondary heads of music are meeting regularly to improve the quality of music education and have agreed that this needs to be something we address from KS1 right through to KS5 and will be working closely with lots of our primary colleagues over the next year or so, hopefully! This was organised by our 16-18 education advisor at the county council. There is scope there perhaps?
  6. ViolaClef

    ViolaClef Lead commenter

    I agree with @florian gassmann. I believe the ultimate and best answer to this is for every primary school to have a specialist Music teacher. I also believe that teaching children to read and write notation is part of a good Music curriculum and there are many fun ways to do this. Kodaly is an excellent avenue into notation; the younger pupils at my school engage in practical activities with skipping ropes, beanbags and an enormous chalk stave drawn in the playground; this is in addition to playing melodies on tuned percussion from notation and having the opportunity to learn the recorder if they wish. I hope that among the many, many things the children will have learned and experienced in Music at my school, they will have a basic understanding of notation and be able to make sense of a simple melody.
    stupot101 likes this.
  7. stupot101

    stupot101 Established commenter

    This sounds good. A mixture of ideas, practical music making. I suppose if it rains then this woul be a good idea.

  8. iamsomewhere

    iamsomewhere New commenter

    I am a primary music specialist. I think that's what is needed! US! It's not practical for classroom teachers to be expected to teach music to this level, especially when they are not a musician or have a fear of music themselves. They don't have the time either...

    My year ones can read standard notation (rhythms) and have an understanding of graphic scores. Our years 3 up can read tablature.

    It can be done but schools need the resources and the specialist teachers
  9. Rhythmajig

    Rhythmajig New commenter

    Rhythmajig offers full lesson plans, sheet music, songs, backing tracks, resources and interactive games to teach music from year R-6. Led by characters and stories to engage children and introducing real notation, vocabulary and concepts, excellent progression between year groups is shown through whole class singing and instrumental teaching. Year Rs read and write rhythmic notation and year 2-6 read and write stave notation.Suitable for specialists and non specialists and NC 2014 compatible. Request a free trial today and it will be extended to October 1st to allow time to trial on your children in the new term. Email enquiries@rhythmajig.co.uk to start your free trial. www.rhythmajig.co.uk www.facebook.com/rhythmajig

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