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Finding the magic in classical music through storytelling

The Music Workshop chats to Matt Parry, creator of The Opus Pocus on how to get kids to discover the magic of classical music…

“What is out there to help kids discover classical music? Especially at the moment with dedicated performances, workshops and group lessons so frustratingly put on hold?  

Of course you can just play this music to children, but getting them to listen to an entire symphony, for example, can be a bit tricky given its length and complexity.  This was actually the driving motivation behind creating The Opus Pocus.

We have had Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Peter and the Wolf (1936), Carnival of the Animals (1886!), Fantasia 2000 (2000…obviously, but yes 20 years old now!) and not forgetting Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) but to my mind there isn’t a modern, fun series dedicated to helping children discover the magic of classical music: a bit like how Horrible Histories has so brilliantly – and hilariously – introduced a generation of children to history.  (I should also mention BBC Ten Pieces – which is great – but I think falls more into the ‘education resource’ bracket rather than ‘fun series with a sneaky educational aim’ like Horrible Histories does.)

So that was why I created The Opus Pocus.  However there is one question we need to also address: do kids actually like classical music?  

We know that some kids do, having been introduced to this music through learning an instrument, going to concerts, listening at home and so on.  But all of them..?  Well here’s a bold claim: ALL KIDS DEFINITELY LOVE CLASSICAL MUSIC!  It’s even printed in bold so it must be true…

How do we know this?  Well it’s easy to demonstrate: just play them the main theme from Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and you always get an excited and delighted response.  I’ve done this hundreds of times in primary schools and it never fails.  In fact I’ve never seen a child dislike these epic orchestral scores and brilliant tunes!

Okay but is this definitely classical music or just some poor imitation?  I’m sure there are some classical snobs out there who would argue that these film scores don’t qualify as real classical music for some reason, but I honestly can’t see why this is the case. The music of John Williams, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone is as beautiful, powerful and deeply moving as a classic opera or ballet score (which is probably their nearest equivalent of the traditional classical music genres) and indeed unquestionably established classical composers such as Shostakovitch, Prokofiev and Korngold themselves wrote film scores (for The GadflyAlexander Nevsky and Robin Hood being my favourite respectively!).

So I think that’s settled!  Great film scores qualify as real classical music, and kids love them… so yes kids love classical music – phew!     

Next question: why do kids love the classical music they hear as part of film scores like Star Wars and Harry Potter etc?  Sure, the music is great in itself but I would suggest the key thing here is how it is presented: as part of a story.  Humans LOVE stories, whether it’s a bit of local gossip or the multi-billion dollar film industry, we humans can’t get enough of them: I would suggest because they are key to our evolution as a social animal, providing so much ‘useful information’ about how to survive and thrive, or indeed warnings of how to avoid the opposite of this!

So the connection this music has to a story that the child is captivated by – and the associated emotions they experience – I would suggest is why children are so captivated by the classical music score too.  It certainly helps too that the story is presented as images alongside the audio. 

And I think that’s an important thing to remember too when trying to introduce a child to classical music.  It’s not always easy to retain their attention with an entirely audio experience but something with images can really help, which I think is the genius of Disney’s Fantasia: there were only images with the classical music, no voices (pretty much), but it was a brilliant piece of storytelling and very successful in introducing a generation to classical music, as many adults will testify now.  So it’s worth exploring both audio and audiovisual stories to help children discover this music – don’t just give up if they’re not in the right mood for just listening to something!

But of course, depending on a child’s mood, just listening might be perfect: bedtime, long journeys or just some screen downtime spring to mind.  We all need a bit of eye-resting audio time: think podcasts with a nice cup of tea… Not that I’m advocating giving children tea, but yes I am definitely advocating helping them discover the magic of classical music!”

Matt Parry, Creator of The Opus Pocus  


The first release from The Opus Pocus is out now: 1001 Arabian Nights starring Brian Blessed & Rory Bremner:  www.TheOpusPocus.com



Additional images,

Jonas mohamadi and Mpumelelo Macu

Easy Music Games For Parents With Young Children

If you’re looking for some fresh ideas to engage your children with music as lockdown continues, there are hundreds of wonderful free and paid resources online. We’ve already explored some of our favourites. This month, we thought it would be fun to share some ideas from our own Early Years Resources. 

These games are aimed at young children, and are for parents who may be struggling to keep their toddlers busy. They can also be used with primary-age children, and even played with the whole family. We hope you enjoy them!

The first thing to remember is that music making with little children is simple and should be fun. You don’t have to be a ‘good’ singer or a professional musician, or even know very much about music. You just need to have a little confidence and enjoy yourself.

Why make time for music?

Music games help to develop communication skills, physical coordination, confidence and expression. Music can provide a way for your child to learn new skills using play. And it can help you to relax about your own responsibilities, knowing that your child is learning without stress. 

How to get started

Music activities don’t need to be complicated. One of the easiest things you can do together is to put on a recording of nursery rhymes or children’s songs and to clap along.

You can use this idea to create other “body percussion” – stamping, clicking fingers, tapping knees, or using musical instruments such as shakers. This could also be a fun way to explore the sounds of everyday household objects. 

You could use this game to introduce the concepts of loud and quiet, using hand signals to show when the percussion is quiet and when it is loud. 

Your child will have ideas about which pieces should be loud and quiet. You can also encourage your child to have a go at “conducting” loud and quiet. We use the word ‘quiet’ instead of ‘soft’ to avoid confusion with the meaning in terms of texture. 

Developing songs

You don’t have to stick with the traditional version of a song – you can adapt it to make a game. For example, the song, “If you’re happy and you know it” traditionally incorporates different types of body percussion like “clap your hands”, “nod your head”, “stamp your feet”. This can be developed in a number of ways:

  • You can include different instruments – play the bells, play the shaker
  • You might introduce loud and quiet – play loudly, play quietly
  • You could change the speed – play quickly, play slowly

Once the children understand these concepts, they can be combined – play fast and loud, play fast and quiet.

Action songs

Action songs are a great way to develop co-ordination and musical skills. Popular favourites are The Wheels on the Bus, The Farmer’s in his Den, Ring A Ring A Roses, Incy Wincy Spider, Row, Row, Row your Boat and In and Out the Dusty Bluebells. Use your imagination or check out YouTube for inspiration.

Movement activities

Musical Statues is a fun game that is easy to set up and takes little preparation. All you need is a device that plays music. The leader plays the music and the players move around the room and stop, becoming a ‘statue’ when the music stops. Encourage them to find interesting ‘statue’ poses to add to the fun. 

This can be developed into moving in time to the music – a marching tune such as the Grand Old Duke of York, being a floating star for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Another game you can use is to ‘copy the leader’ in time to the music.  The leader (you) begins by clapping in time to a piece of music so that the children can copy. You could use a signal like a foot stamp to make the game more complicated – when you stamp your foot, the children should remain silent – just like Simon Says but without words.

Rhythm activities

Use a ‘name game’ to introduce rhythm. This uses several concepts including keeping time, keeping a regular beat and filling a gap in the music.

Sit in a circle, or opposite your child if there are only two of you, and clap a simple rhythm – clap clap rest rest, clap clap rest rest (When Maria uses this activity in workshops, she uses  clap clap knees knees or clap clap nod nod – as trying to keep the rests full length is tricky.

Once this has been established each person takes it in turn to say their name in the rest.

To introduce this activity, you could say a name in the first rest and ask the child to copy it in the second rest. If the game is a bit limited because there are too few of you, you could make a circle of toys or other familiar objects such as pieces of fruit, and get your child to name them in the rests. 

Listening games

The simplest way to approach listening is to play the children a piece of music then discuss what they think the music was about. Ballet music like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is good for this. Another approach is to engage the children by asking them to draw pictures of what they are hearing.

For an interactive listening activity you need a selection of instruments with 2 of each – such as bells, shakers and castanets. You could prepare these together, making shakers from kitchen items or using some ideas from our blog. Use your imagination! 

The leader (you or the child) hides behind a home made screen and plays an instrument. The other players have to guess which instrument made the sound. In the initial stages the children could match the sound with the instrument, as they become more familiar with the instruments they can match the sound to the name of instrument. You can develop this game by playing two instruments together.

Composition

Don’t be put off by the idea of composition. It’s easy to make a start and allow the children to explore their creativity. You don’t need to be a composer!

The easiest way to start this game is to choose a story that the children know and to create a sound track to the story. This can incorporate voices, body percussion and musical instruments. 

You can create sounds:

  • To set the scene – a forest, the sea
  • For each character – a giant would have a loud slow sound, a fairy would have a fast quiet sound
  • Imitating the sounds within the story – animals, cars, trains

We hope you enjoy trying some of these games with your children!


Images by: Alireza AttariKristina Paparo, Alexander Dummer and Victoria Priessnitz on UnSplash

Nursery Rhymes – Literacy, Imagination and Identity

Nursery rhymes are traditional poems sung to small children. They often contain historical references and fantastical characters, and many have been rumoured to have hidden meanings.

The earliest nursery rhymes documented include a 13th century French poem numbering the days of the month. From the mid 16th century children’s songs can be found recorded in English plays. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man is one of the oldest surviving English nursery rhymes, first appearing in The Campaigners, a play written in 1698 by Thomas d’Urfey (1653 -1723). Interestingly, D’Urfey, active as a writer in the days when the term ‘wit’ was held almost as a career epithet, also composed songs and poetry and was instrumental to the evolution of the Ballad opera.

The first English collections of nursery rhymes were published before 1744.  Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book included rhymes including London Bridge is Falling Down, Hickory Dickory Dock, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary and Baa Baa Black Sheep; the very same songs popular today, nearly 300 years after they were first published. In fact they were probably sung for many years before publication, passed down in the oral tradition.

There is a lot of speculation about the words of these rhymes with suggestions that they refer covertly to insalubrious or violent topics. It is commonly believed that Ring a Ring o Roses is about the black plague that hit London in 1655, with the ‘rosie’ thought to refer to the rash that developed and ‘we all fall down’ (dead) being the result, but although this theory fits with the illustrative lyrics, there is actually no evidence to support this.

John Newbery’s collection of English Rhymes, Mother Goose’s Melody (or Sonnets for the Cradle) was published in 1765. This is the first record of many of today’s classic nursery rhymes. Newberry’s compilation seems to come from a variety of sources including drinking songs, historical events, traditional riddles, proverbs, ballads, lines of Mummers’ plays and even ancient pagan rituals.

The name Mother Goose is associated with Maurice Ravel’s piano suite (Ma Mère l’Oye) which was originally written for two children of Ravel’s acquaintance and subsequently orchestrated for ballet. The movements of Ravel’s suite relate more to fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb than to the nursery rhymes of Newberry’s publication.

There are rumours that Mozart wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. He didn’t. But he did write variations on a French children’s song, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, originally an anonymous pastoral song dating from 1740. The words to the popular English lullaby are from an early 19th-century English poem by Jane Taylor, The Star. The tune has been used for other songs too, including Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Despite, or maybe because of, the lack of real historical clarity, nursery rhymes and their weird and wonderful characters continue to entertain. History and the role of music in society are undoubtedly interwoven in a fascinating way into the sometimes seemingly nonsensical words of the songs. Pop Goes the Weasel is a nursery rhyme and singing game, first found in a manuscript of 1853, which not only references a pub that still exists, The Eagle on City Road, London, the words were added to an already existing dance tune.

Considering elements such as the incorporation of a pub into this song, it does seem likely that many nursery rhymes were not actually written for children. According to Kay Vandergrift, Professor Emerita of Children’s Literature at Rutgers University, most of them were part of an oral-based society that relayed news, spread coded rumours about authority figures, and worked out its moral dilemmas in rhyme and song. Existing nonsense rhymes would be adapted to make references to current events. It was not until the 19th century and the Victorian romanticising of childhood the past that nursery rhymes were written down and presented in collections for small children.

The poems are inhabited by kings and queens, peasants and drunkards, historical and mythical characters from a wild, often rural past. They predate many of our modern preferences, yet they are still relevant to today’s children and parents.

The world that spawned the rhymes seems far away from our modern lives, but the reasons people sang nursery rhymes are still the same.

Why Nursery Rhymes are Important

The dish ran away with the spoon…

Adults instinctively converse with babies using a sing- song voice with short, repetitive phrases and long pauses for the baby to respond.

This ‘dialect’ can be described as musical in its characteristics of rhythm, timing and rising and falling pitch. The qualities for relating well to babies and toddlers are also the basis of music, a nice synchronicity, since music is a means for bringing people together.

The way in which parents interact with their baby is vital to the baby’s development. It has been found that mothers who are having difficulty relating or who are suffering from depression can be helped if they are encouraged to sing and play musical games with their children. The singing provides a framework to support the mother to baby interaction.

Nursery rhymes fall into two categories:

  • Lullabies – designed to lull a baby to sleep or soothe a fretful toddler, lullabies are an age-old part of childcare in all cultures.
  • One-to-one songs/play songs – more appropriate for older babies and toddlers, these songs. They are sung and played on laps, often featuring actions such as knee joggling, tickling and surprise dips and spills. They are mini dramatic stories full of language, excitement, anticipation and rhythmic movement.

They help infant development and family relationships:

They are good for the brain. The repetition of rhymes and stories teaches language and builds memory. Nursery rhymes also often represent a child’s first experience of literacy. Before a child learns to read, they can see how a book works.

Nursery rhymes preserve generations’ worth of history and culture. Familiar rhymes provide common ground between parents, grandparents and children, and between people who don’t know each other.

Singing is a great group activity. Singing nursery rhymes allows children to feel confident about singing and dancing, engaging them with music and building self esteem.

The moralistic lessons in some rhymes might seem important, but the main message of nursery rhymes is that they are fun to learn and sing. The supposed meanings of the songs and their obscure origins do not detract from their value – the words just sound good and help children discover a shared language, shared experience and a sense of a shared past.

Resource:

http://www.mamalisa.com has lots of great songs and nursery rhymes from around the world. Here’s one we use in our workshops – a Turkish version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm


Contact the Music Workshop Company today!

Concerts for Babies: Music Without Rules

004This week the Ulster Orchestra announced a decision to grant free entry to under 16’s to their season concerts. This decision was shared on social-media site Facebook alongside a post describing one parent’s experience of taking her child to performances: That she’d had complaints her little girl was distracting other audience members. 

Whilst organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra emphasise that children are welcome, and classical music works to build a younger audience, parents are sometimes put off by the worry that their baby or child will spoil a concert for others. And parents aren’t the only people who feel uncomfortable. Perceptions around classical music can be that it is performed in a stuffy environment; that you have to be the right sort of person to enjoy it. 

Founder of ABC Baby Concerts, Viola Player and Creative Music Leader, Neil Valentine is working to disprove these ideas, and to engage people of all ages in concert-going. He talks to MWC about his work.

“***ring*ring***

***ring*ring***

006Hello? A concert? Today? No sorry, I can’t go to a concert. No way. Why? Well, er, you know, it’s just not for me. I wouldn’t know which one to go to or what to do, and besides, I don’t fit in. No I don’t. It’s the silence you see, and the clapping or not clapping. I feel embarrassed when I want to clap but there’s silence. And it’s the serious faces and fancy clothes. Plus I wouldn’t know what to wear, and anyway all my clothes smell vaguely of baby puke, or worse. No, sorry, another time maybe.

People wonder whether classical music is dying. It isn’t. But what is dying are the perceptions that going to a concert is purely a middle/upper class thing to do, with rules you must abide by. This is happening because we are gradually understanding what we knew as babies and small children. We are remembering that the music doesn’t care how you smell, or whether you clap or not. The music doesn’t mind if you laugh or cry. The music will just be there, hoping that someone, however old or young will be there too, open and willing to hear and perhaps to listen.

Classical music is about connection, and those connections are best served live. Yes talking on the phone is good, but to really understand someone we need to see them face to face, look them in the eye, smile and give them a big hug. That is what we are hoping to achieve with ABC Baby Concerts. We want you and your baby/toddler to come and see us face to face. The music will look you in the eye, smile and give you a great big acoustic hug.

Live music can envelop you. It can surround you the way a recording cannot. Just watch the audience at an ABC Baby Concert, where Classical Music is played to the highest standard for an audience of 50 adults and 70 under 3s.

The music starts, and then………focus. what is that sound? it’s coming from over there. I can hear it. I can feel it, and it’s AMAZING. That is what the faces tell us. And what do these audiences of the future have to teach us? They teach us how to listen. With focus and energy. Responding with their eyes and faces and bodies. They show us it’s ok to be transfixed and absorbed or so excited you just have to move. That it is ok to lose your focus for a bit and enjoy staring at the ceiling only to hear a new piece and …..WOAH. Back to the music.

frida 1It is time we remembered that once music was just music. And people were just people. That a concert was a place where music and people could just be together, however that was. Concert etiquette is a learnt behaviour. There are plenty of stories of how, at a Beethoven Symphony recital the audience was so excited in the finale that they jumped on chairs and shouted and clapped their approval during the performance! Classical music can do that to you. If you let it.

If you’re a baby, that could mean having your nappy changed or throwing a tantrum to the sounds of Brahms, if you’re a toddler perhaps its dancing to Chopin or colouring a picture of a ‘cello to some Bach. If you’re a parent, perhaps it means just sitting cuddling your kids to Schubert. Whatever you are, whatever the music is, a concert is a place where you can go and spend some time with some music. And when that music is played by professionals who understand that sometimes you just have to leave and yes it was necessary to feed him 3 noisy rice crackers in a row, then you can just be too. Be whatever you need to be.”

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To find out more about this new concert series in the South of England, please visit: http://www.facebook.com/ABCConcerts

 

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