A to Z of primary school music

I have been inspired by Dr Martin Fautley’s A to Z to compile my very own.

A is for advocacy. Can we stop it please? It doesn’t work.
B is for blogs. A school music blog is a brilliant performance opportunity for kids. Allows music teachers to differentiate, introduces children to new music, chance to get feedback on kids compositions and performances. I am so grateful to wonderful music educators Ally Daubney David Ashworth & John Finney for regularly leaving comments for my young musicians. 

C is for Charanga. Easy to be sniffy about it but is getting lots of non specialist primary teachers to teach music. Also for culture. Everybody has one – it just might be different to the schools. Also for Carnival of the Animals.

D is for djembe. I wish I had a set of 30. Never taught a class that didn’t beg to play djembe. Also for Dalacroze. Bouncing balls, throwing beanbags, waving scarves are brilliant at helping kids get below the skin of a piece of music.

E is for ear. Learning by it.

F is for film music. Such a shame it is often ignored in primary school. In my experience children are incredibly skilled at reading film music. We can use those conventions to help children explore features of the music.

G is for GarageBand. Smart instruments are great for allowing kids to create their own backing tracks.

H is for hubs. Under funded, have little leverage with schools but by and large doing their damnedest to support music teachers. 

I is for iPad. Every class should have one. (See GarageBand) it’s a video, audio recorder, a musical instrument & a visual metronome 

J is for joy. Not 24/7 but if you don’t have at least one moment of sheer joy teaching music a day something is wrong. 

K is for Kodaly. Genius way to teach music to children.

L is for listening. To each other, to the performers, to the teacher, to the music. Can’t have music without listeners.

M is for Musical Futures. I’m not sure exactly how they will work in primary but I have leant so much from them. Their training is superb & their staff are wonderful. 

N is for notation. A small part of music education that we turn into a fetish. Sound before symbol.

O is for Organisations. No more. We have enough thank you. 

P is for performance, Peter & the Wolf & getting physical. 

Q is for quirky. Most music teachers have their own. 

R is for recorders. They still have a place in the music room. 

S is for Sing up. I think that Sing Up has been the most successful government initiative I’ve actually seen in 25 years of teaching. It has got schools singing. Shame it is no longer free.

T is for Twitter. Without Twitter my music education would be sorely lacking. I am so grateful to the following tweeters : Alison Daubney, David Ashworth, Gary Spruce, Johnathon Savage, Jane Werry, Shelley Ambury, Anna Gower, John Finney, John Merriman, Martin Fautley  & Phillip Flood.  They have undoubtedly helped me raise my game and introduced me to authors and research I’d have otherwise missed.

U is for ukuele. You do know David Ashworth is kidding right?! 

V is for Voices Foundation – brilliant introduction to Kodaly. I can highly recommend their 5 day training course. 

W is for wider opps. 30 kids, 30 instruments 1 tutor 1 teacher. So much hinges on the tutor. It can be brilliant but there needs to be a better way to evaluate. 

X is for xylophone – Dr Fautley is right – we don’t have nearly enough

Y is for YouTube. Genius idea. Rich source of music 

Z is for zero hours contract. How on earth are we supposed to ensure good quality instrumental lessons when tutors are so badly paid ? 

20 thoughts on “A to Z of primary school music

  1. Well done Jackie. It’s great to have such a staunch advocate for primary music as you – nothing more important!


  2. A great list, Jackie. If I had done my own A-Z it would have looked very similar, but it has more credibility coming from you since you do the stuff day in, day out!

    Ones I particularly like and endorse are:

    Film Music – you are right, kids understand the conventions and we should be working more with this

    SingUp – a great organisation that continues to develop and support singing in schools. Emphasis on quality and differentiation. Also good to see Voices Foundation and Kodaly name checked.

    Quirky, Joy and the importance of Listening – such a good list!

    I will, however, argue the toss with a couple on your list…..

    Firstly the shameless spin you put on my ‘softening’ attitude vis a vis the ukulele. I did recently concede that the instrument was gaining in popularity with both teachers and students. Yes, they are having fun and learning about music playing these things. BUT (and this is important!) I still think it is a very second rate instrument…. especially when compared with any of its fretted cousins.

    The other thing I want to pick up on is your N for Notation. It’s not notation that is the fetish, it’s the mantra “Sound before Symbol”. If adhered to slavishly, this limits what we do in music lessons, which can be detrimental. It’s a catchy little phrase – nothing more. I agree that most of the time the sounds probably will come before the symbols, but this should not always be the case. We still need musicians who can conjure up sounds from symbols. More on this in a forthcoming blog of mine!

    But, hey, I’m nitpicking – this is a great list to start the New Year. Well done!


  3. I’m thinking about those musicians in orchestras, pit bands, choirs, recording sessions etc who have to play what it put in front of them – often at very short notice! This also includes playing carols in Sheffield and Wessex. Would Leningrad have ever got to hear Shostakovich 7th in 1942, if the musicians had put sound before symbol? But yes, cracking codes can be useful, enjoyable and enlightening. I’m thinking of some of the wonderful graphic scores by Cardew, Bedford, Cage et al. I’ve had some great times in classrooms with these…and kids have learnt such a lot by working with them…
    I’ll stop now and gather it all into a blog!


    1. An interesting question! Experienced composers should certainly have this mental image, but for players it will vary. Experienced professional musicians will have a fair idea of what to expect, but others may have to suck it and see. And I suspect few in the Leningrad orchestra would be prepared for the musically sonic impact of hearing the work in its entirety. This is even more the case when musicians are working in unfamiliar idioms or using unconventional techniques. The first musicians to play Bartok String Quartets probably did not really know what to expect. And for those taking a leap of faith with a Cage prepared piano, there will be even less to draw on.
      So if we to continue working with some of the great ideas from some of our most creative musicians, past and present, sometimes we have to put the symbols before the sounds.


      1. Do you mean to say that the player sees the notation and tests it out as it were to see what it sounds like. This is not uncommon of course. But pedagogically there are ways to nurture musical thinking and feeling that imbue notation with sonic life.


    1. “…pedagogically there are ways to nurture musical thinking and feeling that imbue notation with sonic life.”

      I love your statement and very much agree with it. And surely there will be some occasions during this pedagogical process when the symbols appear before the sounds. When students have some control over making sounds, then symbols may help show them how ideas can be shaped, developed and stored.

      I also think that if Swanwick could have made his ‘fluency before and after literacy’ as catchy a soundbite as ‘S before S’, we would be in a much better place. This more nuanced statement shows how the sound and symbol could and should work hand in hand.


      1. I love this list – it’s so energising! I think that Swanwick’s (1999) phrase ‘fluency first and last’ was reasonably catchy and a great maxim for music education. My experience has been that a lot of learning about music develops without symbols. For instance, nothing can substitute improvising everyday as an integral part of practising music.That said, I have no 20th century (specifically 1980s) hang-ups whatsoever about teaching notation. It is simply another literacy – it offers access to empowering / bold / revolutionary / beautiful music – what’s not to love? The trick is to teach notation in such a way that it is fun, fluent and fast.

        My biggest regret right now is that I can operate my computer at a superficial level, but that I cannot read / write code (must sort out).


  4. As a guide ‘sound before symbol’ is pretty hopeless as it can be interpreted in too may ways. Just singing something by ear before playing it from notation can be facile and missing the point. I wonder where ‘sound before symbol’ originated. My hunch is that it came out of those traditional pedagogies e.g Curwen, Kodaly, Glover, Ward, Dalcroze … as part of a systematic approach to learning to read music.
    Whatever, without some fluency and expressiveness not much meaning.
    Most of us learn to read music in an unsystematic way.


  5. I recall a blog by Jackie setting out the various ways in which she introduces notations with a hint that – well I’m not sure where this has got us.


  6. For me, sound before symbol refers to the learning process, not once notational fluency has been acquired. Thus serried ranks of kids decoding CABBAGE and BAGGAGE worksheets (which as some people will point out they may quite enjoy, granted) is not inherently a musical activity. So for me this means that teaching and learning notation should really proceed alongside, and possibly after, some degree of instrumental proficiency, not precede it. I don’t think that many people learn to read musical notation then cast around for an instrument to play, or decide to become singers. I think it’s a mistake to think that notational fluency has to precede musicality in all cases, as otherwise we wouldn’t have most of the world music we do, or hardly any popular musics. But this is not to see that kids should never learn to read music. I am more interested in getting them to make musical utterances. In the natural language model we know oracy comes before reading. An analogy would be for those already able to speak and write in English, to take a non-Latin alphabet language, Russian, say, and try to learn to read it without knowing what sounds the various Cyrillic symbols make. How on earth could you do this?

    But we’re discussing notation again, rather than other aspects of Jackie’s thought-provoking blog! Thanks again Jackie.


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