How to kickstart the learning brain with music

Aniela Zylinski

Aniela Zylinski is a freelance piano teacher, SLE music consultant, writer, and performer based in Wiltshire. Having taught Music for 15 years and a head of Music/Performing Arts/Humanities in local Secondary schools for the past 10 years, Aniela continues to be a keen and passionate collaborator, researcher and advocate of innovative and creative strategies in teaching, learning, and developing musicianship in a wide range of learning environments.

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Originally published on 14th May 2014 Originally published on 14th May 2014

I am constantly fascinated to read new reports on how music is so good for us all! I love to read about how music helps all sorts of aspects of our lives – from improving our coordination to developing our memory, to helping us to relax and lower our blood pressure to encouraging our imagination and creativity, to help us focus and to improve our literacy and numeracy. Music is such a crucial, essential part of learning, not just for youngsters, but actually for us all.

As a music teacher, I am passionate about developing all students into well-rounded young musicians. Usually, students arrive in Year 7 having had some sort of introduction to whole-class music learning at primary school – but often only for a term or two – whether it is whole class violin lessons or a scheme of work on steel pans. Sometimes, students arrive with zero experience, which I find deeply saddening and mindboggling. Nevertheless, regardless of students’ backgrounds, encouraging music to become a well-loved and important part of their young and developing lives is an exciting journey, and I am incredibly proud to be part of this
So - how do I kickstart their learning brains? In my lessons, my aim is for students to be as musically active as possible. Musicality is the priority. Indeed, Ofsted have said that they want music lessons to be ‘as musical as possible’. Hooray! My favourite! So for the benefit of this article, I thought I’d come up with a short list of four quick and easy ways to stimulate these young brains in music lessons.

1. Drawing to Music – Graphic Scores: One of my Year 7 Schemes of Work is called ‘Music and Mood’. Early on in the unit, students are exposed to different styles and genres of music, and they draw whatever comes to mind while they are listening. It is always fascinating seeing what they come up with. Students are equally curious to compare their own drawn responses to each other!

The aim of this exercise is to teach students that different types of music match different types of mood, as well as to teach them how to really listen to what soundscapes are around them. I develop this activity further by asking students to not draw an actual picture, but to draw a pattern that represents the music. This then leads nicely on to learning about representing music through graphic score. Students are able to use the medium of graphic score throughout their secondary school music lessons to notate their work.

Once students are used to the concept of notating what they hear in terms of images and symbols and patterns, (and as long as the weather is okay!) I take students outside with a chair, and pen and paper, and we create graphic scores from the sounds that we hear. On a school playground there are many sounds that we hear – a teacher projecting their voice, a door slamming, a car starting up, children laughing, a bell ringing.

2. Clapping ostinato – creating displaced rhythms. An activity I learnt at a West Berkshire Music teachers’ network meeting a couple of years ago has stayed with me and I use it regularly with Year 7 and Year 11 classes alike. We all know the (in)famous ostinato rhythm football-match-goers clap. Modelling the game: clap the rhythm followed by calling “1-2-3-4!” in time to the pulse. Then you clap the rhythm again, but then only count up to 3 (“1-2-3!”). Then clap the rhythm again, then call out “1-2!”, then clap the rhythm once more, and call out “1!”.

Once students master this as a whole group, you can divide the group into two, and one half does as described above, while the other half clap the rhythm but call out “1” as their first and only number, then clap the rhythm again, then call out “1-2”, then clap the rhythm again, then call out “1-2-3!”, then clap out the rhythm one last time, followed by calling out “1-2-3-4!”. It sounds ever so complicated, but the idea is that both groups start and finish exactly at the same time. The groups can then be further divided so that you have four individual groups, all starting on different numbers in the sequence. The looks on the students’ faces are priceless when they all finish precisely at the same time!

3. Call and-response games: Call-and-response games are an easy and very quick way to get students focussed. I model by clapping a rhythm that last four beats, and students then respond by clapping it back. I then change the rhythm each time, but each rhythm lasts four beats. You can then ask individual students to come and be the ‘teacher’ by creating their own rhythms. You can even incorporate actions into the four beats – eg clap – stamp – clap – touch your nose – to mix things up a bit and to check students are really watching you (a hugely important skill in ensemble work and conducting)!

4. Vocal warm ups (sing up, boys!): There are countless warm ups that a music teacher can do in the classroom or a choir setting. At a recent Music teachers’ workshop I attended (delivered by the inspiring and talented vocal ensemble Voces 8), they showed us how making silly noises can actually get boys singing without them realising – no mean feat!

Essentially, think of the call-and-response games I described above, but instead of clapping (or stamping, or whatever), the sounds the students copy are all made with the voice, and accompanied by the action that would go along with it. For example, the leader mimicked a robot toy being switched on with a “beep!” noise while pressing an imaginary button on his left shoulder. Different pitches were experimented with. Other noises we teachers found ourselves making ranged from car-engine revving noises (to encourage that ‘buzzing’ needed at the front of the mouth for singing), to a cat meowing (high-low glissando – warming up the whole range), to a train station announcement “bing – bong – bing – bong” sung in an ascending arpeggio pattern (pitch accuracy training). My fast-track GCSE class absolutely loved being the guinea pigs upon which I tried these out, before I did the same with my new Year 7s, who found the activity hilarious (as did I!). But it works! Everyone was participating.

Through these few examples of activities, I hope I have given you some ideas of how to start getting your children being musical – quickly, easily, right from the start of your lessons. I see these activities as being part of the ‘Brain Gym’ repertoire, which really does engage the students and awakens their senses so that they are ready to learn. I am always looking to share ideas and good practice with other practitioners in Music education – so please feel free to get in touch.

How do you use music to get the brain going? Let us know in the comments.

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