Inspiration from Hungary by Liz Alexander

from the BKA Newsletter, Summer 2004

With the help and encouragement of Mary Place, I finally realised an eight year dream in February of this year, when I travelled to Hungary to spend a week observing Kodály inspired music classes in two schools and a Kindergarten. Having watched videos of Helga Dietrich and Eva Vendrei teaching on courses organised by the BKA, I was excited about the prospect of observing how teachers in Hungary were continuing to develop Kodály’s philosophy in the 21st Century.

Helga Dietrich had organised a morning in a Music Kindergarten and a morning in a Music Primary School in Budapest for me. There are about 20 Music Primary Schools in Budapest – there used to be nearer 40. There are also fewer Secondary Music Schools than there used to be. Some Kindergartens, (like the one I visited), also use Kodály teaching as part of their philosophy, but not all children attending a Music Primary School will necessarily have had Kodály experience in their Kindergartens. Children start school at the age of 6/7 years old, (our Year 2), and attend Kindergarten from 3 years old.

Helga had arranged for us to spend an hour in the Kindergarten at the beginning of the day, before the music class took place at 9 o’clock. We arrived at about 8 o’clock, but some children had been there since 7 o’clock. At this time of the day, the classes are organised so that there are mixed ages in each one. A family atmosphere exists, and talking to Helga, an important part of the Kindergarten programme, set up in 1972, is to develop children’s’ social skills and cultural awareness in these early years.

The children are allowed to choose from a range of activities, many of which reminded me of my own early years experiences: making a collage using rice and dried pulses of a snowdrop, (in flower at this time of the year); spinning using a traditional loom; working a puppet show; organising a kitchen; playing with large wooden bricks. The focus was on traditional activities; developing an awareness of nature; encouraging children to explore individually and in pairs with help if they needed it from their teacher. Everyday the children explore different activities through a set of 6 subjects: maths, singing, gymnastics, literature, and drawing/craft and environmental knowledge.

However, the children are not taught formally to read and write – they wait until they attend school. There is so much to explore and develop, and I couldn’t help reflect on the stress and pressure which children in the UK are continually being subjected to and at what cost to their personal development?

At 8.30, the teacher directed a gymnastics class, since the children have to do some kind of obligatory exercise every day. This included activities such as walking over bean bags and through trays of small pebbles; picking up the bags with the feet and carrying them to a central point; drawing circles with the feet; drawing with the feet – fascinating!

After breakfast, in which all the children are encouraged to help serve, (including 3 year olds carrying mugs of steaming hot chocolate and baskets of warm bread), the 5/6 year olds filed off to their music class with a specialist teacher. They have two classes a week, with the specialist teacher. Their kindergarten teacher also sings with them every day.

The class was almost an hour long, and yet the children remained focused and participated enthusiastically throughout the lesson. The main objectives of the lesson were to:

  • Reinforce conscious understanding of the crotchet rest.
  • Develop experience and understanding of form: 4 phrase song structures consisting rhythmically of ta, titi and ta rest units.
  • Practise interval relationships between pitches within do pentachordal and diatonic major scales.
    To achieve this, the lesson would be planned to incorporate movement as well as “thinking” work.
  • The children began the lesson by sitting in a circle and sang a greeting song based on s-l-s-m phrases.

A rhythmic clapping game followed. This was extended to include repeating the rhythms using the feet whilst keeping the pulse with the hands. Claves and two-toned woodblocks were then incorporated into the same activity. The teacher then clapped a known song, which the children were asked to recognise. They played the rhythm of the song on their instruments whilst singing. The song consisted of four phrases which included a crotchet rest at the end of the 1st, 2nd and 4th phrase.

The children were asked to show the rest by touching their heads, tummies or shoulders.

  • Next, the teacher introduced some puppets to help create and build a story through, which the next song developed. She introduced individual A5 size note cards with either a ta, ti-ti or ta rest on the front. The children were encouraged to build the rhythm of the song using the cards. She asked the children what the meaning of the rest was: “a silence” they replied. The completed song was sung with the rhythm tapped, clapped, stamped and sung to rhythm syllables.
  • A circle game followed which the children knew well. It involved 3 children playing a role in the game and singing short phrases. The song was based on a minor hexachord, and at the end of the game, the children were asked to order six large chime bars from lowest to highest, thus making the hexachord. The teacher then played a new song on the bars, which the children were asked to identify. Children then sang individual pitches of the song, accompanied by the chime bars played by the teacher.
  • A new set of puppets create a song based on la, so and mi. The teacher brought out a wooden tree, which she placed in front of the children. The tree stood on an A frame, about a metre high, and the song involved placing three bears on three of the tree’s branches to represent the three pitches. The children sang the song as the teacher pointed to the bears. She then changed their position to three new branches, therefore changing the pitch of the song, and the children sang again.

This activity was developed, as the teacher brought out eight birds, which she proceeded to place, first on five branches, to represent a do pentatonic scale, and then completed the branches to make a do diatonic major scale.

The children were encouraged to practise their understanding of interval relationships as the teacher pointed to the birds. The children sang in sol-fa with both hands, hand signing the relevant sol-fa. (The possibilities for developing interval work using the tree and puppets are endless. My partner Bill has made me an MDF version of an English Oak tree, complete with felt birds, which I have glued onto wooded clothes pegs. I am so excited about such a simple, but effective tool.)

The final activity of the lesson was a listening game. The children listened to a Tyrolean folk dance and moved round the room in any way they liked. As soon as they heard a specific rhythm, which the teacher clapped at the start of the game, they were required to freeze. The rhythms were based on ta and ti-ti units.

In discussion with Helga after the lesson had ended, she talked about the connections, which the teacher was developing in the children between brain activity “thinking”, and movement. She talked about how we had observed that the learning took place through oral, visual and kinaesthetic means, and that the teacher was developing a certain way of thinking in the children, which involved both the vertical and horizontal experience and understanding of musical concepts.

The following day I spent the morning at one of the Budapest Music Primary Schools, observing Zsuzsanna Molnár. The school ranges from First to Eighth Grade, and Zsuzsanna teaches the first four grades. A second music specialist teaches the fifth to eighth grades. Although the school is state run, parents apply for children to attend. The teacher carries out a simple assessment: it is important to have a clear voice; a simple rhythm is clapped and the children are required to clap it back; a simple s-l-s-m phrase is sung, and the children sing it back; the children are encouraged to sing a folksong if they know any from their Kindergarten; and the teacher also discusses parental attitudes to the value they place on music.

I observed a 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade class. Each class had on average 26 pupils. In the First Grade, (our Year 2), pupils have a lesson on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 45 minutes. The class teacher sits in on lessons, taking notes to back up what has been taught. From the 2nd grade, children have lessons every day for 45 minutes, and again, the class teacher sits in on the lesson. A choir takes place twice a week, from the 2nd to the 4th Grade.

Lessons take place in the pupils’ own classroom. Zsuzsanna carries round a roll-up blackboard, keyboard and glockenspiel, plus any teaching aids. However, there are 15 minutes between each lesson, and this gives the teacher some reflection time on the previous lesson, as well as subsequent lesson preparation time. (This would be so useful!)

Second Grade: known – do and la pentatonic and pentachords; syn-co-pa rhythmic element.

Recorder work:

  • Class started with circle game in the hallway – folksong – identified folk dance movements.
  • In class: interval work – all pupils have a set of interval cards: m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 P5 P8. Teacher sings 2 notes, and pupils hold card representing the interval they think it is.
  • Sing song with syn-co-pa. Identify song and rhythm. Sing song – clap rhythm and walk pulse. Draw syn-cho-pa on the board. (perfect notation – obviously very important to be neat and precise in notation). Sing several songs with rhythmic element. Includes Kodály Bicinium.
  • Text books: identify tonality of song as being “lah pentachord”. Pupils perform on recorder. Write notes on stave. Mi=A
  • Rhythmic dictation – includes syn-co-pa and quaver rest.

Third Grade: interval work; Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian modes known.

Recorder work:

  • Vocal warm-up: do hexachord – drmf drmfs d lsmfrd; do scale: drmfsltlsmfrd; d d’ s m r d; interval work: dr dm df ds slsfmrd – move up a semitone.
  • Interval work using cards.
  • Teacher sings “do” – then notes above or below. Pupils have eyes closed and hand sign note they think she has sung. Repeat starting on “so”. Teacher plays recorder – repeats activity.
  • Hand signs known song; identify; play on recorder; work out tone set of song, and write notes on board. = C to D’. Sing from board – F, G and B can be sharps and flats.
  • New song – Aeolian. identify -sing – play
  • 2-part song – sing in pairs
  • Sing walk pulse and clap rhythmic ostinato round the room.
  • Game – folksong

Because the pupils have music so regularly, I observed a huge development in skills between each year group, especially between the First and Second Grade. In the Music Kindergarten, I observed: ta ti-ti and “sh” as conscious rhythmic elements, plus sol-fa d – d’. At the school, Zsuzsanna starts with pre-conscious work, but can move more quickly since some pupils have conscious experience of rhythm names, (ta, ti-ti and “sh”) and sol-fa.

In the First Grade lesson, I observed lots of rhythm work including the minim (ta-a), and pitch work involved developing experience of l-s-m on a 5-line stave.

Rhythm activities:

Teacher taps 4 beat rhythm on tambour using tas and ti-tis: pupils are encouraged to make the rhythm using their bodies, (one person would be a “ta”, two people would form an arch to make a “ti-ti”), at the front of the class. One pupil would be in charge of organising their fellow classmates.

  • “Chinese whispers” with rhythms – teacher plus 6 pupils. The teacher taps a rhythm on the shoulders on one pupil. This pupil taps the rhythm they think they have felt, on the shoulders of the person in front of them, and so on. The last pupil claps the rhythm they think they have felt. The rest of class can see what is happening, and can judge the effectiveness of their fellow pupils’ ability to transfer the rhythm they think they have felt, correctly.
  • Each pupil had a set of single rhythm cards, and was encouraged to make clapped rhythms by the teacher.
  • Identify songs with given rhythmic phrase by the teacher.

Pitch work: use of felt boards with 5 black lines and felt note heads.

  • Place “so” on the board and make “mi” in correct place below, in a space or on a line.
  • Teacher plays a 4- note phrase on a glockenspiel and the pupils make it on their boards. They hold them up for checking.
  • Add in “la”. Teacher’s demonstration board has different colours for la, so and mi.
  • Identify a song with opening phrase that they have made. Stand to sing and hand sign. Find song in text books. Colour “la”, “so” and “mi” in different colours. Sight read a new song and colour in the notes. Sing the song to sol-fa and hand signs; sing to rhythm names; sing to words.

In the work of all the Hungarian teachers I observed, both in Budapest and Kecskemét, I was struck with the beauty and craft of their lessons. Teachers gently guided the children through each activity, and even though the lessons were in Hungarian, it was possible to see what skills and elements were being developed in each part of the lesson. Each activity dovetailed into the next with the preparation for subsequent work being completed in previous activities. There was always a sense of purpose throughout the lessons. Every child was involved and focused. The lessons were intensive, but all the children participated fully and enjoyed what they were doing, because they were fulfilled and more significantly, they were achieving.

The lessons were to me, perfect models of what I am trying to emulate in my own teaching. I don’t think I ever will reach such perfection, because it is not in my blood in the same way as the Hungarian teachers, who have grown up being educated this way. However, a gifted teacher such as Cyrilla Rowsell is an example of how a British teacher is able to achieve this. For anyone who has been in one of Cyrilla’s classes, you will appreciate her calm, systematic approach. She makes it look deceptively easy, but this is the true craftsmanship of a Kodály teacher. It is knowing what you are trying to achieve and being able to deliver a lesson in such a way, that all your pupils know exactly what they are learning at each stage of the lesson. Interest and concentration is maintained at each stage of the lesson through a multi-sensory approach, and pupils learn through individual, paired and group work.

For me, the more I learn and discover about this philosophy of music education, through courses, my own research and through the experience of actually teaching, the more I want to know and find out for myself. It is a journey, which I am enjoying immensely, and will hopefully, take a lifetime to fulfil.