Hungarian Study Tour – First Thing Music Report

“It was a very interesting and disparate group that assembled ready to catch the bus every morning of the week. People from Singapore, Russia, Philadelphia… not just UK acolytes by any means, but all of them with a passion for the strengths of Kodaly-based music teaching. My tour companion was Susan Robertson, the Manager of Tees Valley Music Service, who was curious as I was about what we might learn.

There was certainly some excellent and impressive teaching, starting for me on the Monday morning, with the Kindergarten teacher whose 45 minute session we observed with twenty 3-5 year old children. The children were drawn into the songs and games – they were able to play in other ways if they wanted to – in the play kitchen; at the tables with craft equipment (paper, glue, textiles etc.); in the den; on the carpet with soft toys etc, but nearly all the time, the children were unable to resist the attraction of the inclusive musical games. Sometimes the teacher  used a puppet to create a narrative; sometimes the children recognised the songs and wanted to play the games they knew went with them. Forty-five minutes can be a long time to sustain the voluntary interest of 3 year old children, but there was no pressure involved to keep most of the group engaged for most of the time. The atmosphere was relaxed but lively.

During a group conversation with the teacher after the session, over coffee and various tasty snacks, we learned that this teacher had had daily singing input during her training on leading music with young children, and had to be able to demonstrate both singing and instrumental ability in order to gain the post as a Kindergarten teacher, as well as a thorough grounding in child development and pedagogy.

In the afternoon, Helga Dietrich ( a well-known exponent of Kodaly practice in the Early Years in Hungary), presented a workshop, drawing elements of best practice from her own vast experience, and true to Kodaly methods, getting us to experience them for ourselves.

This was then followed by a stunning demonstration of the power of musical leadership to create an atmosphere of fun, drama, finesse and precision around very young children, (roughly 0-3 yrs). The musical co-operation of the adults in the group was impressively driven by Vicktoria Gal, but the joyous smiles on all the faces of the participants belied the concentration. For the children there was bouncing, a tickling, a sense of beat coming out of the singing narratives, squealing anticipation of their favourite bits of familiar songs etc, but in the parents there was such a group focus it was spell-binding – music making at its most social, but precise – obviously deeply satisfying for all concerned. It was interesting to note that, apart from the Hungarian lute-like Cobza occasionally used by Viktoria to create atmosphere or introduce a song, there were no other instruments handed out to the group – the focus was entirely on the music created by their voices and bodies. No time wasted on clutter!

Over the following days, we were treated to observations of music lessons from 1st Grade, (6 yrs) to 9th grade, (14 yrs). It was fascinating to see how the progression worked itself out, from the introduction of simple rhythms over a steady beat, and a developing sense of pitch from higher/lower, right through to sight-reading Bach and Vivaldi in solfa at impressive speeds, and sight-singing duets from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas on request – something that degree level students might struggle with here!

What was common to nearly all the sessions was the enormous sense of fun and group involvement. Every child seemed to have confidence in their own voice, and their own ability to work round a challenge, (from describing the pattern of a melody in the air while listening with their eyes closed, to writing up aspects of musical notation on the class whiteboard), through the support of the musical group environment. There was usually a sense of a story, an emotional context in which the singing music would be introduced, whether by trying to find the puppet heroine somewhere in the classroom first, or through the teacher describing what their Mum used to sing to them when they were afraid of the dark…it was always a social sharing and interactive process – not really feeling like a subject being studied as such.

Having said that, the progressive accumulation of theoretical knowledge gained through this approach meant that children seemed as able to read music as they were to read words on the page, and to increasingly understand the devices being used to make the music express what it did – beats and rhythms, melody shape, certainly, but also shades of dynamic colour, altering mode by changing mode etc. – the sort of thing that English music students might only encounter in secondary school, and by then probably without being able to ‘read’ the language.

So, what lessons can be learned from this – what aspects of the musical approach in these Hungarian schools could be made relevant to English schools?

At the very least, a child could attend a general primary school that would offer two 45 minute music session per week. Then there are ‘singing schools’ and also schools with a maths specialism and schools with a science specialism if one wanted to attend a singing school, there would be 4 weekly music sessions, plus one extra-curricular activities such as being in a choir, or instrumental lessons, but a child would need to audition in order to get a place. The state education would remain free, (except in the case of instrumental lesson, which involve a nominal charge of £20 for the year). Children in the 1st Grade are making these choices – much younger than such options are offered to English children. Parents who had attended singing schools themselves tend to aim for the same for their children, not only in the hope that the children would become pr4ofessional musicians, (only a tiny percentage of students went on to do this), but because of the percieved overall benefits for child development. (Not unlike the ambition some parents have to get their children into grammar schools in the UK.

Kodaly himself founded two of these schools – the Kodaly Schools in Budapest, and in Kecskemet.

However, reports were that the access to this kind of specialism is shrinking. Where there 167 singing schools a few years ago, now those numbers have nearly halved, and the trainees aren’t coming through.

If the benefits are so plain to the observer in the classroom, then why is this decline happening? Is music the only part of the curriculum to be suffereing in this way? Is this part of a wider focus on STEM subjects across Europe? Or is it down to budget restrictions? At this point, let’s look at the UK again:

In 2011, Feversham Primary in Bradford was 3.2 percentage points behind the national average in English and 2.4 points behind the national average in maths. This year 74% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, against a national average of 53%.

The Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, has just written to congratulate them on becoming part of the top 2% performi9ng schools in the country. A large part of what has turned the school around is the introduction of 4 hours curriculum time a week for music, plus an optional extra two hours for extra-curricular musical activity. The music is being led by Kodaly-enthusiast Jimmy Rotherham, backed up by a committed leadership team.

This sounds very like what is currently accessible in the Hungarian education system, particularly in specialist schools, but which seems to be under threat. Can we afford to ignore the evidence, both in Hungary and in the UK.

There is much to think about, especially in the context of the joint Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society of Arts funding for Thirst Thing Music, aiming to investigate the impact of daily musical activity in Year One, based on a Kodaly approach. With the input from top practitioners, like the BKA’s Zoe Greenhalgh and Lucinda Geoghegan, teamed with open-minded support and keen interest from Tees Valley Music Service, can we help to put much back where it belongs – arguably right at the centre of child development, if not general human social cohesion? Will we then see a rise in UK schools of the confidence, focus, creativity and playful group cooperation that I witnessed in those Hungarian schools?

It’s certainly worth our best shot!”

– Lindsay Ibbotson, 01/05/18