Starting a Good Department

A few friends of mine have spoken about the poor quality of music provision in primary schools.  One said there was no music for five years apart from an annual nativity and music was simply not taught in lessons. I understand that many schools do not have much money and cannot afford a specialist music teacher. The following post is what I think should be the minimum provision that a school should deliver for any child in any primary school. Whether delivered by a specialist or nonspecialist, everything here is achievable by any teacher with a very small budget and a small amount of musical knowledge and expertise.

  1. All children must sing. This is not hard to achieve. A song takes about three minutes to sing. There are approximately six hours in a school day. Every child should sing every day.
  2. All children must play. There are simple instruments that all children can learn. Recorders, ocarinas, glockenspiels, drums. Many schools I have worked in have a recorder as part of the school uniform. If parents really can’t afford it (they cost about four pounds each) this should be the priority for any music budget.
  3. All schools must have musical ensembles. This means you need to start a recorder group and a choir at the very least. You should provide information on other groups available in your local community. If you have not done so already, find out where your local music hub is and what they offer. As far as a recorder group and choir go, these need to be twenty minutes long or longer. The music coordinator does not need to run these groups themselves, but an extra hour a week is not excessive if your job is to coordinate music in a school.
  4. There must be instrumental provision. You should be offering a selection of piano or keyboard, violins and cellos, flutes, clarinets and saxophones, drum kit, guitar, ukulele, trumpets and trombones as well as singing. If you do not know of any teachers who offer these instruments, you should be advertising or phone up local musicians from the Yellow Pages. If you can cover some of the cost that’s great, if you can’t at least make sure parents know where they can get this provision. Let instrumental teachers advertise in your school free of charge and encourage them to come in to advertise their instrument(s) in school assemblies or try-out evenings. Do not try to force a certain time for them to teach, they travel around and can only teach where they have a slot available. They are normally very accommodating.
  5. All children must be musically literate. This is the most controversial of my requirements as many music teachers simply do not agree with this. However, it is unfair that secondary music teachers have to teach children basic notation from scratch because it is not covered in primary schools. Additionally, it is a requirement of the new National Curriculum for Music for Key Stage 2. It is mandatory – you must teach standard staff notation. Teach it using instruments rather than straight written theory. If you don’t have any instruments then clap rhythms and use the Kodaly system (do, re, mi) to teach pitch while you fundraise for classroom instruments.
  6. There must be concerts. There should be an annual music concert.  In the concerts you should feature the choir, instrument ensembles, soloists and as many other ensembles as you have.  Put a sign up sheet in your schools reception to get performers.  Obtain some parent involvement if possible, this might get more people to come to your concert.  Seeing one of the parents dress up as Elvis and perform “Hound Dog” was a very special occasion in one of my schools!  I know it’s an event for the children but they love it when they see other people perform.  You may need to buy or borrow music stands for the instrumentalists who perform at your concert.  If they need to be accompanied you will need to hire a pianist for the event or use backing tracks. You may need to talk to the parents of the children performing to get these details correct.
  7. There must be a musical or play where music is performed. Every Christmas and Summer term we would have a musical in my schools. It’s not that hard to put these on, there are all sorts of musicals available for primary schools. If you can’t afford one, borrow one from a neighbouring school. You might even be able to borrow costumes at the same time. The school play should be an occasion where music, drama and dance are combined. All students should be involved.
  8. There must be an annual musical trip. All children should be able to see an orchestra, choir, concert band or any other ensemble. If you can’t hear a professional band or bring one into school, support your secondary school ensembles and bring your children to watch them perform. I remember seeing my local secondary school orchestra playing when I was in Year 5 and it was very inspirational.
  9. All children must listen to music. Lots of schools have music as the children enter for assembly. One headteacher I worked with insisted on having the same song played every week when she did assembly. This was a waste of an opportunity – why listen to the same song 36 times a year, year in, year out? Some schools have a “Composer of the Week”. I also like “Genre of the Week” where one week you have country, the next samba, heavy metal, classic rock etc. You can find this music on YouTube or Spotify for free if you don’t have any CD’s.
  10. All children must create music. I am not a big fan of composition in primary schools – I think it is better taught in secondary and the priority should be learning to play instruments in primary. However, I do believe that all children should be given an opportunity to create music while they are in primary school. But not every lesson.

This is the bare minimum that schools should be doing. I have seen this happen in even the smallest of village schools so it is certainly practically possible. This can work with a fifty pound annual budget – I’ve had to make do with less than this in the past! But you do need time and I realise this is the scarcest commodity in schools. In June or July, you should get out the school calendar and book a meeting with your headteacher and plan the musical events so they can be published at the start of the next school year. Please give these opportunities to the children in your schools – many of them really want to perform music and I think they have a right to have good musical education while they are in primary school.