Saturday, 28 February 2009
Getting out the instruments – 10 points
If you work with children, how was your last experience of working with musical instruments? Did it border on chaos? Were you left hoarse and exhausted with a splitting headache? I'm talking here about 'real' classroom instruments from the percussion trolley or cupboard. I've witnessed and officiated over stressful lessons with electronic keyboards too but I'll save my thoughts on those particular delights for another time.
So the worst case scenario goes like this: You get out the instruments and hand one to each child. While you are doing this the children are either experimenting with or complaining about the instrument they have or, if they are still waiting, begging for one of those yet to be distributed. By now you are tense and irritated and begin issuing threats and administering sanctions. The 'good' kids get nervous and frustrated. The 'bad' kids sense an opportunity. And you haven't even started. The lesson continues in the same vein and you don't get through half what you had hoped. And you vow never to put yourself through that again.
Consider the following:
1. The only other school equipment that is given the colour scheme of a toy shop or sweet shop is found in the gymnasium. It's far less noisy for a start and the kids get to run off their excitement. (Are the computers in the IT room given the rainbow treatment? I don't think so.)
2. The excitement generated by the sight of all this wonderful gear is in inverse proportion to the opportunities to use it. And then some. It's basic economics: scarcity increases interest. The less often you get the stuff out the worse it's going to be when you do.
3. The sweet shop analogy is very apt. Perhaps the only difference is that sweets make less noise to begin with and are enjoyed in relative silence. But children want to know what they all taste like.
4. Decide what activity, game or exercise you want to share and which instruments you are going to use.
5. A class of about thirty children is going to be unmanageable. The only way to make it work is to rule with a rod of iron but this will crush the spirit of exploration and is likely to turn many off music for ever. Music should be fun.
6. So split the group into as many groups as you have responsible adults. This should take your group size from about thirty down to about fifteen. If you are the only adult the following exercise will be more challenging, less than ideal but not necessarily impossible.
7. Clear away the tables and chairs and have everybody sit in a circle (or circles) on the floor. Circles give a sense of belonging – everyone is included and everyone can see what's going on and when their turn will come. Allow them to kneel if they prefer – it's a more dynamic posture. Have the circles as far away from each other as possible.
8. Take two of the same instrument and, if there is anything you think they might not discover easily for themselves, demonstrate it to the group. Pass one to the person on your left, the other to the person on your right. Ask each person to explore the instrument for a moment and pass it on. Some may take longer than others and this is OK. Peer pressure will usually prevent anyone taking too long. When the instruments meet across the circle take them back and put one of them 'away'.
9. Tell the group you will make a sound on the instrument and pass it on. You want each person to try to make a different sound from the person who gave to them. The group may only think of two different sounds and this is OK. Just let them alternate these. It forces them to listen to the sounds that are being made and watch the others as they try to make them.
10. Repeat these two processes with all the instruments you intend to use. Think of it as a tasting session. If the instruments were food items you would want to try them individually. Children are likely to cram their mouths with all manner of conflicting flavours if given free rein in a sweet shop: it's only natural. You are helping them develop a more sophisticated sonic palate.
Now you are ready to hand out the instruments and get on with your lesson plan. The children may still be disappointed with their allocation but at least they will have had a go on everything and will less desperate to sample everyone else's.
Remember to take everything slowly, step by step. The more gradual the process, the more relaxed you'll feel. If you are not enjoying yourself, ask yourself why. As with any other activity, your confidence and sense of wonder will inspire your students.