Haytor View Early Years Music Project, Autumn Term 2015 – Blog 4

Haytor View Early Years Music Project with BSO Devon Associate Hugh Nankivell
Wednesday 14th October 12.20-3.15pm

‘Story-Squares’ and ‘Instant-Songs’

There is a valuable early-years process known as ‘story-square’ which I have engaged with over the last 5 years or so. This happens when a young person tells a story to an adult who transcribes it verbatim onto paper. This takes place during the free-play/exploration part of a session. Later, during the ‘sharing’ the adult who has transcribed that story might tell the story again. This time, the girl or boy who originally told the story might select some other children to be ‘actors’ in his/her story and they enter a taped off ‘story-square’ when their character is mentioned as the adult reads the story and they ‘act’ out the part. In this way the unabridged stories of the child are given a wider significance and everyone values that child’s voice through this playful process. Children at Foundation Stage – are often beginning to start to write and to read and the ‘story-square’ process for many can be a motivation to notate their own stories as well as developing many, many other facets of their development. They see the model of the teacher writing the words down and they begin to emulate this and this can be a wonderful encouragement to first steps towards reading and writing.

What is the equivalent in music? I am often engaged in ‘instant-songs’ with many, and various groups, and today at Haytor View I was partly responsible for several new collaborative songs that emerged rapidly after a performance provocation. The provocation was a short concert featuring songs involving bats and owls and the resultant songs all featured animals.

Words and drawing for 'Puppy Crossing The Road With The Police' by 'R' and Hugh
Words and drawing for ‘Puppy Crossing The Road With The Police’ by ‘R’ and Hugh

Here is one song created by ‘R’ as I transcribed it.

Puppy Crossing The Road With The Police

The puppy crosses the road
He’s on a lead
He sees a cat
The cat runs away
And then a policeman came
With a police dog
Then a bat and a owl came
The dog chased the cat
The cat chased the bat
And the bat chased the owl

I wrote the words on the top of the page as ‘R’ spoke them and as I wrote them down, he asked for a pencil and simultaneously drew a map/picture of the story on the same page (see accompanying photo). As he spoke the words I sang them back to him. (We had already discussed the fact that we were going to make up a song as we neeeded songs if we were going to make a concert.) We then played it together a few times on ukulele and percussion. Each time we got to the last three lines ‘R’ would join in, but otherwise I sang the song, while we both played along. In the ‘sharing’ at the end of the afternoon, we performed it as a duet, but again I did the singing. I also sang one other song created with the children and Steve (adult musician/colleague who worked with me today) also sang two songs that emerged through his playing with the children today.

We support the young children and co-present their songs in a semi-public setting (often in front of parents) and this is can be a very positive and powerful event, as in ‘story-square’. The children are being supported and their creative ideas are validated by adults and this is seen and understood by their peers and others in the audience. One noticeable and key difference between ‘story-square’ and ‘instant-songs’ is that the adult does not enter the performance area (the taped-off square) in story-square, and yet in ‘instant-songs’ the adult is also on the ‘stage’ with the children.

I wonder whether this ‘instant-songs’ process is empowering children to create songs for themselves.

We (the adults) remember the songs because we write them down, and our repeated seeing of them on the page, reinforces that for us, but the children speak the words once and thereafter hear someone else performing them. In this instance we, the adults, hold the power of the words and also – certainly in my case – the power of the accompanying harmonic material. Yesterday I was playing the guitar and chords that I understand (E minor and A for instance yesterday in ‘Bats Can Fly’ another song that emerged) whereas the children – if they are also playing chordal instruments – are usually improvising and not playing the same harmonic part as me (although rhythmically they might well be playing a similar part to mine). I am aware that my guitar can be a stronger instrument than a uke played by a child and so my chords support my voice and the accompanying improvising can be heard as a kind of enjoyable background noise to the song.

So, my question is – what can we do as the next stage to encourage the young people to take further ownership of the songs? Or is the ‘instant-songs’ model as detailed above the wrong model to be encouraging them to:

  • be the lead singers of the ‘instant-songs’ they just made up?
  • be lead singers of future songs they make?
  • create songs on their own?
  • write/notate songs or work out accompaniments and develop arrangement skills?
  • play repeatable harmonic accompaniments?

Is the ‘instant-songs’ process I have described in fact actually a disabling one in that we, as musically literate and competent adults, are always seen as the people who have control over the arrangement, dissemination and overall sound of that music?


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