Singing Games as part of the Music Curriculum
Over the last year, one of the things that I have been introducing to children of all ages at Cargilfield are singing games from a series of books published by Linda Geoghegan, who I was fortunate to have a training session with last January.
As you can imagine, practical musical training sessions can be a little nerve-wracking at times for teachers as we don’t want to look stupid! Picture the scene: the Heads of Music from pretty much all the independent schools in Edinburgh, some of us left handed, some right handed and many of us with an inferiority complex where coordination is concerned, standing in small circles with chopsticks trying to sing and pass them around in a complicated pattern that fits with the words – mayhem, lots of dropped sticks and lots of laughter! Linda really challenged us all with the tasks she gave us, but also showed us what a lot of fun it could be and how it would develop some really complex, ‘deep’ musical skills, skills which are transferable and are, in general, the ones that people are talking about when they refer to the ability of music to make the brain work better (Anita Collins ‘How playing an instrument benefits your brain’ and TED Talk is worth a watch - if you haven’t heard about this click here.)
The importance of these skills was also stressed in our INSET training on Monday: musical pattern games help to calm anxious brains and can be used to literally mend traumatised brains, making them ready to cope with learning.
So, today being Wednesday at the start of term, I’ve been starting off a cycle of these games with P1, P2 and F5 and it is lovely to see the children’s engagement and enjoyment, but also a measurable improvement in their coordination, focus, cooperation and particularly their sense of rhythm and musical pulse, something that can be really tricky even for our most able musicians.
P1, right at the start of the journey, were exploring the strong beat in 2/4 and 3/4 time. The game ‘Apple Tree’ was a real hit, and, whilst enjoying the game of seeing who would be left standing when everyone else was knocked out, they happily clapped away in 2/4 until it was second nature. Moving on to 3/4 with ‘Bells in the Steeple’ is a big challenge: we only have two hands, and a pattern of ‘clap - one hand tap - other hand tap’ is tricky at first, but we quickly moved on to working in a circle to pass claves around (tap – pass one – pass the other); ok, we weren’t all successful, but it was a lot of fun and we’ll be a lot better next week!
P2 had some games they remembered from last year. ‘Epoi-tai-tai-ay’ is a favourite. It’s a ‘nonsense’ song with different clapping patterns to do with a partner to match the different words. Working with a partner (and then swapping round) is a major part of many of these games, and creates that really great atmosphere of cooperation in the face of challenge that helps us to tackle things that would be tricky and stressful by ourselves. They also worked on ‘Bells in the Steeple’ and were able to manage up to 4 sets of claves going round the circle and singing at the same time with only the odd fumble or dropped clave. I know Mrs Spencer was impressed to see her class in action at the end of the time.
F5 are working on composition in the music lessons this term, but have singing games on alternate Wednesday afternoons. Here we were able to move on to some much more tricky manoeuvres, for example moving round your partner every time you got to ‘ay’ in ‘Epoi-tai-tai-ay’ (and I don’t know why it is such a pleasure when you meet your original partner back round the circle, but it is, however old you are!) and when we started on a really complicated clapping game in Italian called ‘Bella Bimba’ the children were so focused on whose right hand was clapping whose left hand on which beat that they took the unfamiliar language entirely in their stride.
The multi-cultural nature of these songs is one of the delights. Next week we’ll start to learn ‘Cape Cod Girls’, a traditional sea shanty that Linda Geoghehan has combined with a version of traditional Maori stick passing, and I know I will need to do some practice before leading the class in that one! We also started on a ‘rhythm track’ where coloured dots are laid out, in this case in groups of 4 to represent 4/4 time, and the children walk through the path in time with a steady pulse completing different tasks as they do so. Today we clapped on the first beat, jumped onto the first beat and clapped rhythms within the 4/4 pattern. This is another thing that looks simple but isn’t and one of the great musical skills it practices is getting back in with the ensemble unobtrusively if you make a mistake, something that the children quickly take in their stride when it is presented as a game like this.
The singing games are highly enjoyable at all ages, but this term I’m trying out a different-but-similar option with F8s with a drop-in African Drumming club on Wednesday break times. Research shows that drumming has lots of positive effects including relieving anxiety and stress, boosting the immune system and releasing negative feelings as well as creating a sense of connectedness with ourselves and others … ideal as the children reach an age where things, including school work, relationships and self-image, all become a bit more complicated. I bought into this when I was undertaking my teacher training.
It was the one hobby I committed myself to, travelling into central Manchester to play with Drumroots for 3 hours every Tuesday and I still find it hard to explain why it was so fulfilling and relaxing to sit in a circle with others playing the same rhythm over and over again (and yes, I was truly awful at it to start with!). As specialist in Musical Analysis, my mind wants to tell me that so much repetition should be boring, but it just isn’t, and because it is quite tricky it engages all your attention so that you really have to connect with the moment. And you never know, when the weather gets warmer we may be able to get a bit of an African atmosphere in our sessions by playing outside under a tree!