All children derive a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction from playing instruments. Very significant dimensions are added to music learning through playing instruments as the child sees, hears and feels rhythm and pitch relationships. The interrelated strands of Listening and responding, Performing and Composing are also realised as the child's attention is focused on listening attentively and critically to his/her improvisations and compositions (and the compositions of others) and performing them according to the composer's wishes.
Playing percussion instruments
Percussion instruments may be used at all class levels in several ways, for instance to
- represent a given pulse, rhythm or pitch
- improvise a pulse, rhythm or pitch
- add an original phrase
- add a contrasting phrase
- create background colour for poetry or prose.
Percussion instruments fall into two broad categories: tuned and untuned instruments. The untuned instruments have a fixed, but unspecified, pitch, for example shaker or cymbal. The tuned percussion instruments have fixed, specified pitches and can produce a melody, for example glockenspiel or xylophone.
When selecting instruments, the following points should be noted:
Quality of instruments
The superior tone quality and durability of a small number of good-quality instruments will provide more worthwhile and enjoyable musical experiences for the child than a multiplicity of inferior instruments.
Variety of timbre and playing techniques
The chosen range of instruments should reflect a variety of timbre and playing techniques: for example, a triangle, cymbals and a drum will provide a minimum variety of timbre and technique. Conversely, if buying a set of triangles of different sizes, care should be taken to ensure that they are of equal thickness for ensemble playing.
Number of instruments
The initial selection can be added to by instruments made by the children. Over time, a class set of quality instruments should be acquired.
Display areas are useful for motivating worthwhile experiences and, when monitored carefully, will provide opportunities for controlled activities for individuals or pairs.
For the children, basic rules such as the following may be agreed in advance:
- respect for the instruments
- a limit on the number of players per instrument (one or two usually)
- soft playing (loud playing to be used sparingly)
- self-control when playing.
Learning a melodic instrument
Melodic instruments create opportunities for children to explore and perform music with a wide range of notes and tone colours. The relationship between different notes and the concept of melody can be quickly acquired through observing and handling the instruments. Children soon discover a very important principle of sound: larger instruments produce lower sounds, while smaller instruments produce higher sounds. The letter names for the notes or absolute pitch names may also be instinctively learned from working with bar instruments (for example a glockenspiel) or recorders. Gradually, as children grow in maturity, the challenges presented by instrumental parts of various levels of difficulty can also be enjoyed.
Considerations when selecting a classroom instrument
- Quality of instrument, including tuning, tone and durability
- Simplicity of technique
Where a school decides to introduce melodic instruments, such as the recorder or tin whistle, planning should consider how continuity in teaching will be maintained throughout the school. Ideally, approaches to teaching and learning should aim to be musical rather than mechanistic: that is, the child should sing the melody, clap the rhythm and hear or feel the music internally before attempting to play. The teacher should seek to integrate the skills, concepts and understanding already acquired in other aspects of the music curriculum with the instrumental programme: that is, songs learned in junior classes and melodies listened to in the Listening and responding strand should form the bulk of the repertoire, especially in the early stages.
The recorder is an ideal classroom instrument. The modern plastic recorder has excellent pitch, yet it is extremely sturdy. It combines very well with children's voices, and with other instruments. It is relatively easy to learn, and a whole class can learn together. The recorder has one of the richest and most varied repertoires of any instrument, ranging over the mediaeval, Renaissance, baroque and contemporary periods. As a steppingstone to other instruments, the recorder is without equal. Recorder fingering is employed in wind instruments such as the flute and the clarinet, and the sense of pitch and music literacy that will result from a sequenced programme of recorder playing will enable the child to learn any other instruments with greater ease and confidence.
Recorder playing is an excellent method of introducing the class to solo and ensemble performance. After only a few lessons, the child will have mastered enough notes to be able to play simple folk songs and to take part in group music making in an enjoyable and meaningful way. The first notes learned on the recorder -- usually the first five notes of the scale of G -- are also at an excellent pitch for accompanying parts of the children's songs or for providing simple ostinato patterns.
Purchasing a recorder for classroom use
It is desirable that all the class should purchase the same make of recorder, as this improves the timbre and tone consistency of group music making. The recorder that has three joints is preferable, as children with smaller hands can twist the bottom joint to an acceptable position. Ideally, each child should have his/her own instrument -- both for reasons of hygiene and for facility in practising the instrument. It is worth spending a little more to purchase an instrument from a reputable manufacturer; there will be savings in the long run with respect to tuning and reliability.
It is recommended that left-handed players learn to play in the traditional pattern, that is, with the left hand at the top of the instrument and the right hand at the lower end of the instrument. Otherwise the child will have difficulty in covering the 'halfholes' in the instrument, which are arranged for the player with the dominant right hand. Also, the child will have problems when he/she moves to playing tenor recorder. It is possible to purchase instruments specially constructed for left-handed players, but these are very expensive and not widely available.
Care of the recorder
Children should be taught from the beginning to have respect for their instrument, to gently warm it before playing (this affects the tuning), and to dry and clean it after use. When playing the instrument, children should clasp it gently between the lips: there is no need to bite the top.
Selecting an approach or tutor
The teacher could explore the various tutors (teaching texts) available and choose the tutor he/she considers would best suit his/her class, considering such factors as clarity, sequence, repertoire selection and value for money. Since the literacy programme will be integrated with the singing and instrumental work from the beginning, the teacher may wish to explore simple rhythmic and melodic features with the recorder before progressing to a more formal, graded approach. For instance, the teacher may explore rhythm patterns on a single note, say B, the easiest note to play:
on two notes:
or on three notes, for example B, A, G (m, r, d in tonic solfa), playing simple, familiar melodies and improvising new ones:
When notation is used, the children should always be encouraged to clap the rhythm and sing the melody in solfa or with words before playing. This helps them to hear the sound internally (inner hearing) and contributes to a more musical performance.
Each child should have his/her own copy of the music, both to facilitate practice and to encourage familiarity with printed music. Some schools overcome this initial expense by providing sets of music for the class, which can be reused by subsequent classes.
The tin whistle
The tin whistle is a very popular instrument in many schools. It is the cheapest instrument available. In the hands of an expert it is capable of great sweetness and expressive tone, yet children can successfully use it to reproduce their favourite folk songs, Christmas carols and simple classics.
For reading music, the method most favoured by tin-whistle players is tonic solfa, combined with staff notation. The tin whistle in the key of D is the most appropriate for use in the primary school, as this key is suitable for combining with the singing class. The D tin whistle is also a manageable size for children's hands.
A variety of tin whistles are available in the music shops, in brass or nickel. Nickel is slightly more expensive. It has a more durable finish, and some players claim its tone is superior. When teaching a class, it is worth while making sure that every child uses the same brand of tin whistle, so that the tone will be consistent.
The teacher should ensure that the mouthpiece is fully pushed down before playing. This affects the instrument's tuning. Also, the instrument should be warmed, either in the hand or by blowing lightly through it.
The range suitable for class playing is usually doh to high soh:
Of course it is possible to produce notes higher than this, but individual players and instruments vary to a considerable degree in the upper notes (which are achieved by harder blowing), and squeaking and inaccurate pitch become a problem.
Accidentals (sharpened or flattened notes) are possible on the tin whistle, usually by half-covering a hole. However, these are not ideal for group playing, as thirty different children will have thirty different attempts at 'half-covering'! In this respect, the instrument may not be as versatile as the recorder.
As with recorder playing, if the children are taught the tin whistle through notation they should be encouraged to clap the rhythm and sing the melody in solfa or with words before playing. This helps them to hear the sound internally (inner hearing) and contributes to a more musical performance.