Leonora Davies, chair of the Music Education Council, talks to Nick Smurthwaite about the vital role of music and movement in early years development.
NS: What kind of music education is best suited to early years settings?
LD: In early years, I don’t believe you can separate music from dance. To be really effective it has to be a physical thing, using the whole body. Keeping a steady pulse isn’t just a matter of clapping your hands together, you need to feel it in your heart.
NS: But aren’t a lot of parents eager for their children to start learning an instrument as early as possible.
LD: I know some parents wish to start their children on learning an instrument at pre-school age, but my idea of a good musical experience in early years is more holistic – involvement, engagement, listening, feeling, singing and playing. I’m really into dancing, singing and things like whacking saucepan lids with a spoon, anything that gets them excited about making music. To start a child on learning an instrument at three or four requires a huge commitment and understanding from the parents. Given the socio-economic climate of our society, this just isn’t possible for a lot of parents today.
NS: So you wouldn’t advocate structured music lessons in early years?
LD: The priority is to get children engaged in music-making at the earliest possible age, and the best way to do that is to make it fun. Children need to be given opportunities to explore the ways in which, through dance and physical activities, we can ‘think’ with our bodies. The more freedom you allow them, the more likely they are to be engaged. If a child gets up and walks away from the group, that’s fine in my view.
NS: What do parents need to do at this stage to maximise their child’s receptiveness to music?
LD: Well, there is a lot of research being done on children in the womb and their response to music. Pregnant mothers who play an instrument can certainly enhance the musicality of a new-born, which might explain why musical talent often runs in families. Obviously it is essential for parents to be involved in early years and things like Sure Start and Youth Music have initiatives encouraging parents to learn how to engage with children in music and dance activity at home, and how to make it fun. Quite often the children who don’t get these opportunities have parents who, in childhood, didn’t have music or dance opportunities themselves.
NS: Can you give some examples of these initiatives?
LD: Youth Music funds two early years music zones in Great Yarmouth and North Tyneside to provide music-making activities for under-fives and training opportunities for parents, carers and musicians. It also runs the First Steps grants programme, which supports structured and sustainable music-making activities in early years settings. Since 2000, Youth Music has funded 168 of these projects. They have made music making for nought to five a high priority for the next five years. If we can provide the building blocks for musical development early on, it will reap huge benefits further down the educational line.
NS: I know that you consider singing an important aspect of a child’s musical development, and that is a priority in the government’s Music Manifesto.
LD: Singing is particularly crucial in early years because it helps with language development. Children sometimes learn to sing before they learn to talk. It’s to do with the shape and the pattern and the repetition of what they’re doing.
NS: Are you satisfied with the training nursery teachers and assistants receive in music education?
LD:No. There is not nearly enough specialist training in music for nursery teachers and assistants. They need ideas, guidelines and encouragement to prioritise music in the classroom. It should be an essential component of any early years course.
NS: What can the music industry and professional musicians do to help foster music education at pre-school age? Should more musicians volunteer to help in the classroom?
LD: It is no use professional musicians going into the classroom or play group and expecting them to be interested in the workings of a musical instrument, or to listen to a recording of Peter and the Wolf, because that isn’t going to happen. Pre-school age children are very individual and concentration spans are short. You need to understand how very young children think and operate. Having said that, I do believe there are excellent musicians out there who would be a tremendous asset to any class on infants, and teachers who desperately need them to help engage their children in music-making.
To find out more about the Music Education Council, visit www.musiceducation.rcm.ac.uk, and for the Music Manifesto, visit www.musicmanifesto.co.uk
The Music Manifesto
Discussion and debate between all of those parties interested in music – from teachers, to musicians, government departments to broadcasters, led to the writing of the Music Manifesto, which offers ‘a strategic direction for the future of music education and a common agenda for joint action’.
The DfES has promised additional funds to support this initiative, meaning that each local authority will receive on average, £10,000 per year until 2007 for use in their music services.
Marc Jaffrey, who has been appointed as the Manifesto’s Music Champion, said, ‘Our enjoyment of music has its roots in childhood. We must celebrate our children’s meaningful participation in music and look to improve the ways they can explore it.’