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Music Manifesto Resource Review

Review by Polly Powell on Music Manifesto Website – March 2008

I've spent seven weeks using the Dogs and Birds materials with several young piano students aged from four to six years old.

The Dogs and Birds books are designed for young beginner piano students, a group who are not well catered for. The method is based on a Kodaly system of music teaching, which encourages music students to sing from an early age. The main feature of Dogs and Birds is that traditional pitch names are switched to one-syllable animal names, so B becomes bird, C is cat, etc.

I was a bit apprehensive of using animal names rather than letters. To an adult, ABC is the simplest thing in the world, and also shows the sequence of the notes. However, in the past I have found some young children struggle with using letters, some are taught to recognise them phonetically, and some seem to get hung up on whether the letters are capital or small. Some can rattle-off the alphabet song without much thought about the individual letters.

The kids love the animal names and they seem to sink in much more quickly than traditional note names. Learning their position on the keyboard can be made much more vivid, for example, dog's kennel is between the two black notes, cat lives next door to dog.

The students also remembered the note positions on the staves amazingly quickly, again because this could be made more fun ('bird perches on top of the bass clef ladder' sinks in so much easier than 'B is just above the bass clef'). The teaching materials include wooden animals that can be placed on a piano keyboard or a big stave which gives lots of scope for games to help them learn these concepts (and all the students have loved doing this).

The teaching materials advocate using improvisation exercises, something I feel is very important for the young beginner to explore the instrument. The pictures and the animal characters used in the book give a lot of scope for stories that can be improvised around, and these activities add a lot of variation to lessons.

The books don't use any note value shorter than a crotchet, and recommend that pieces are played at 60 beats per minute. The only trouble with not using quavers is that many other pieces for young beginners do, which can make things tricky if you want them to try a few pieces outside the method book.

Teachers are encouraged to help students sing the notes. I'm having a hard time getting more reluctant and quiet students to do this, but can certainly see the advantages. Although singing the animal names is important to the method, I've had better success getting them to sing by making up words, so they feel they are learning a song - something they're used to and therefore more comfortable with.

The materials also include a teaching book aimed at teachers and parents, which sets out some lesson plans. Book 1 is designed so that a parent without musical knowledge can teach their child at home. The system is very clear and one parent without any musical knowledge found it very accessible. I'd imagine it's helpful even if a parent does have musical knowledge, as it would avoid parent and teacher using conflicting methods that might confuse the child.

I found the materials very useful in group lessons. There is a version of the book that uses the animals on each note, and a 'blank notes' edition. I teach a group that contains two sisters, one only just 5 and the other nearly 7. The older child was able to use the blank notes edition so she was still being challenged, but they could play the same piece. The wooden animals, the giant stave, and stories built around the book's illustrations all provide great opportunities for games in a group setting as well.

Although the books aren't as glossy or colourful as others on the market (e.g. My First Piano Adventures) the illustrations can be coloured in - very useful in a group lesson if you need to devote a couple of minutes' attention to one person, or when you need a quick word with a parent at the end of a lesson. The method does offer something unique, which seems to genuinely help the children learn rather than being just a gimmick.