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Music, maestro!

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By Genevieve Helsbyauthor of My First Classical Music Book

From opera to the Can-Can, introduce your class to the delights of classical music with these fun-filled ideas


My First Classical Music Book by Genevieve Helsby, illustrated by Jason Chapman (Naxos Books, ISBN 9781843791188) is designed to introduce the wonderful world of classical music to young children. While this is the perfect age for children to explore music, many adults lack the tools to help children do this.

Condensing this rich and multifaceted topic into one small book and CD was a big challenge. Listening is an integral part of the book, and makes it a well-rounded resource for classroom use.

Where do you hear music?

Ask the children to think of all the different places they hear music, and write their ideas on the board. Point out that music can help to create images in our minds, which is why it is used on television and in films. Tell the children to close their eyes and imagine they are in the cinema. Then play the extract from Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ from The Planets (available below).

Ask the children to imagine what the music makes them think of on the screen. Record their ideas on the board and then explain that the music is from The Planets – a big piece for a whole orchestra, describing each of the different planets, by a composer called Gustav Holst. This one is about Mars, a planet named after the god of war, so it is an angry planet for an angry god. Do the children think it sounds angry? When they hear the piece after they know this, does it make them feel differently about it?


Invite everyone to warm up their voices and sing ‘la’ after you on a single note, then on two or three different notes, so they get used to repeating. Teach them the song My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean:

My bonnie lies over the ocean,

My bonnie lies over the sea,

My bonnie lies over the ocean,

So bring back my bonnie to me.

Bring back, bring back,

Oh bring back my bonnie to me, to me,

Bring back, bring back,

Oh bring back my bonnie to me.

Write all the words on the board and get the children to repeat the tune line by line. Ask them if there is a particular letter that keeps popping up – which is it? Ask them to begin standing with their hands touching their shoulders. As soon as they sing a word beginning with ‘b’, they should lift up their hands. Next time they sing a word beginning with ‘b’, they can put them back on their shoulders, and so on.

Listening and drawing

Ask if anyone knows what a cello is. Explain that it is a string instrument, like a violin but much bigger, so you sit down to play it. Tell the children that a French composer called Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a piece all about animals, called The Carnival of the Animals. Explain that you are going to listen to the part called ‘The Swan’ for a cello and piano – the cello is the swan, and the piano is the rippling water underneath the swan. Afterwards, ask the children to draw the swan on the water. Then ask them to decide whether the music was ‘angry’ or ‘smooth’. Explain that ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ from The Planets is more ‘angry’. Play both tracks again so the children can hear the difference.

Rhythm and marching

Explain that you can always count to four in a march. Get everybody together to count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Let them repeat it, making ‘1’ louder and the other numbers quieter. Then ask them to clap at the same time, clapping harder on ‘1’. Then tell them to clap again, still clapping harder on ‘1’ but without speaking.

Play the beginning of Semper Fidelis by Sousa, asking the children to listen to the snare drum at the beginning. This gives the introduction, ready for them to start counting. Help them identify when the march really starts, just after the brass instruments come in at 0:08. Divide the class into three groups: clappers, drummers, and soldiers. Clappers should clap the 1-2-3-4 rhythm; drummers should drum the same rhythm on the desk; and soldiers should march around the room (marching with their left foot and right arm first and keeping together). Swap the groups. This can all be done with percussion, if available.


Explain that when a big group of instruments (an orchestra) or singers (a choir) comes together to play or sing, they need somebody to lead them, to make sure they keep together. This person is called a ‘conductor’. Tell the children that today, you are the conductor. Give everybody a piece of percussion, and divide the class into two groups. Play the Can-Can by Offenbach. Ask group 1 to play their percussion instruments on the beat. At 0:35, when the music changes to a different theme, indicate with your hands that group 1 stops and group 2 takes over. At 1:02, indicate that group 2 stops and group 1 plays. At 1:20, indicate that group 1 stops and group 2 plays. Finally, at 1:46, bring in group 2 and let them finish together. Keep practising until they do it very cleanly.

The art is knowing when not to play as much as when to play. Try getting the children to stand when they play and sit down when they do not. If it is Friday, maybe they can get up and do the Can-Can at the end!