Out of Africa…or the Music Room

Friday afternoon is normally a very peaceful time in the Denney. Forms 3 and 4 have gone to Games, and everyone else is working busily in lessons. An ideal opportunity to catch up with marking or to ensure that all is present and correct for next Monday’s lessons.

But what’s this I hear? The unmistakeable sound of African drumming drifts across the playground on the breeze… For a moment I am in shock. Am I still in Solihull or have I been mysteriously teleported to the wild African savannah? Stepping outside to investigate, I half expect to be stalked by a pride of lions.

In fact, it turns out it was 6PR making a final audio recording of their half term’s work on African rhythms. I breathe a huge sigh of relief!

It all amounted to a very busy hour for the class because, in addition to the recording, the first segment of the lesson was devoted to polishing the ensemble singing in readiness for the House Music Competition. Mr Biggs could tell immediately that everyone had put considerable time into learning the words at home, but the children were aware that much more than that is required to take the coveted House Music trophy. Of course, it is particularly important for Form 6 since they are the senior members of the house choirs, and the younger children will look to them for leadership. James quickly suggested that everyone should ensure that they stood up straight with arms by their sides. Amelia felt sure that smiling would be important, given that the very act of smiling itself raises the soft pallet at the back of the mouth, thus brightening the vocal sound. Arya thought that correct rhythm and distinctly sounded notes would be high on the adjudicator’s list of priorities, whilst Veeren urged people to remember to watch the conductor throughout the performance.

There is a direct link between the House Music Competition and the work 6PR have been doing on African rhythms and vocal traditions. One of the chosen songs this year, Can You Feel The Love Tonight?, uses call and response in its musical structure. This is effectively a series of questions and answers, and it is typical of the rhythmic patterns found in African music.

This term the children have learnt that, in African culture, music making has helped to give tribes and communities a distinctive voice. As Isaac very cleverly pointed out, in doing so the people were able to use resources they had readily to hand, namely simply made wood and hide drums, together with their own voices.

Mr Biggs was impressed to find that the class remembered many of the technical terms introduced during the half term. Zak reminded the group that the piece of music they have been rehearsing uses polyrhythms. In other words, different rhythmic patterns are played simultaneously, and these rhythms are also cyclic, as Chi recalled, continuously repeating throughout the piece. Within this framework is built a form of call and response, similar to that in Can You Feel The Love Tonight? However, as Hursh observed, there remains room within the performance for some inspired improvisation.

Before embarking upon the recording, Mr Biggs asked Huw, Tanvi and Zak each to demonstrate one of the three drumming techniques that would be used, since drawing a clear distinction between them would be vital for the overall success of the performance. There is doom, in which the palm of the hand touches the drum, and slap, where four fingers are used. Finally, there is tap, where only the finger tips are required to create the softest possible sound.

Apart from the obvious potential disasters of the telephone ringing or someone having a coughing fit, Mr Biggs was keen to learn from the children what they thought might disrupt the recording. Arya feared that people might become muddled and start copying the patterns of other groups. James was worried that not everyone would remember to look at the music score displayed on the whiteboard. In answer to this, Mr Biggs pointed out that, in Africa, there is no tradition of writing music down. It is simply passed orally from one generation to the next. In the event, the first recording had to be abandoned because not everyone remembered to start on time.

Listening to their work afterwards, 6PR felt very pleased with themselves. Harrison felt that the success was achieved as a result of thorough rehearsing, whilst Leon suggested that a key factor was undoubtedly that everyone maintained their concentration and kept going until the end.

As the children left the music room, Mr Biggs could sense a real buzz of excitement and anticipation amongst them. Though this half term’s work may be accomplished, they are now looking forward to preparing for a second visit to Young Voices at the Genting Arena in January. Meanwhile, back in the Denney, I can hear drumming again, but this time I don’t worry. I know it will be 6AB taking their turn on the African drums.