The Famly Interview
Musical Expert Nicola Burke

Hear how music interweaves through all areas of child development
Early Years Nicola Burke
June 19, 2019
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At the Nursery World Show we sat down with early years expert Nicola Burke, author of Musical Development Matters. Hear her discuss a number of ways in which musical provision in the early years can be improved to account for the individual child, as well as the importance of varied musical experiences.

Watch the full interview or read the transcript below and let us know what you think.

Nicola, I think the best place to start might be if you can tell me a little bit about yourself and your history with early years?

So I’m a musician and always have been, really as far as I can remember. And I’ve always been engaged in music-making and music listening. I started my journey in education in the third year of my degree where I was working in theatre education and going into schools and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

But I knew I wanted to work with the younger age group so once I graduated I started working in the early years. So I’ve been working in the early years for about 20 years now and I’ve been really lucky to be involved in different research projects and different opportunities, projects and different things around the country.

What makes you so passionate about music and its application to the early years?

Music is a fundamental aspect of humanity. I would say it’s everywhere and a part of everyday life. Everything from walking with your own rhythm, to listening to all different kinds of sounds that you’re surrounded by, to having preferences for specific artists. So I just think it’s a crucial aspect of life really and needs to be a crucial aspect of children’s early experiences in early childhood.

Do you think music is also something that can translate better to other areas of learning in ways that people maybe don’t always appreciate?

Yes, for me it underpins everything. So, an easy example is singing. It’s physical, so we’ll be supporting your physical development. That’s one example. Playing instruments is physical.

You know when you make music with other people that you’re communicating and you also have some kind of relationship with other people – so it’s really part of children’s holistic development. And my practice really is about shouting for music for music’s sake and to make sure that children have that musical entitlement in their lives.

So it’s not really music for this or for that – because that’s often the case. Music just for phonics, music is for maths, music is for everything else but not for music. And children should have that entitlement so it’s really about encouraging people to think about music in its own right, in itself. It’s not just a means to an end – it’s something in and of itself.

I think you’re absolutely right there. So you’ve been developing the Musical Development Matters. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how it came about?

So it’s a guidance that I have written and it’s really a culmination of all the research and projects I’ve been involved in over the years. And it’s really to offer guidance for people working with young children, whether you’re an educator in a setting or a parent playing with children day-to-day or a musician visiting a setting because that’s a fairly common thing that happens in settings these days.

So it’s to offer people guidance. It’s not about telling people what children should be doing or to be used as a checklist for what children should be doing. It’s more guidance around offering people ideas to help them see the natural musicality of children and then how they can nurture and support that.

Okay so it’s really to be used as a resource to inspire ideas and also is it to understand age-appropriate music as well?

Yeah kind of, yes. And there are quite a lot of poor models of practice around in terms of early childhood music, which have been developed over the past 25 years.

Could you give me some examples?

Yes so you’ll often get a visiting artist to a setting and that kind of practice is unregulated. So anybody can do that. So you could go and work in a nursery as a musician and not have any understanding of child development. And you could offer a watered-down version of what you might do with say 9- or 10-year-olds, for example, and it won’t be developmentally appropriate.

So this guidance will hopefully help inform that kind of practice. So it’s really taking on board the unique children and thinking about the qualities of every single individual child as opposed to just leading a music session for 30 children or 15 children based on a plan that’s from the adult which doesn’t resemble what the needs are of the children, if that makes sense.

Absolutely! Can you maybe give me some examples of where you think things are done age-inappropriately when it comes to music and how we should think about age-appropriate music for different ages?

It’s understanding the children. So an easy example would be giving two-year-olds drums and beaters and hoping that they will completely beat in time with a piece of music. Some children might be able to do that but it’s really thinking carefully about what it is you’re offering.

So playing a drum with a beater obviously involves hand-eye coordination and some children may be able to keep a pulse and they might be incorrectly observed because of the resources they’ve been offered, if that makes sense.

And also just thinking about children’s own sense of pulse and tuning into that, children’s own music-making and what that sounds like. Everybody will have their own sense of pulse because we all walk – if you walk you’ve got a sense of pulse and you’ve got your own rhythm.

So it’s really thinking about where children are individually rather than thinking, ‘well at five they should be doing this’ – it’s not about that at all. So at five, this five-year-old has this musical identity, has these musical attributes and then how do we work with those to support them further.

So it’s about really providing experiences around music rather than – your concern is with the expectations perhaps that sometimes happen around what a child should be able to do?

Yeah and I think some of it comes from music education generally in this country which really does focus on the kind of classical Western art music, which is just one aspect of what music is. It’s an important one, but it’s not the only one.

But that tends to be what people focus on because that’s what happens in Key Stage One and in Key Stage Two and probably with the instrumental teaching that goes on it tends to be focused towards ensemble playing and kind of going down that classical-orientated route. Then people often water that down for young children so it becomes a narrow model.

What I often think about is producers and rap artists and what kind of journeys they have had and what skills music producers have. They won’t necessarily be instrumentalists. Their skills are their ears and their ability to tune in and work with the music.

So Musical Development Matters is really about offering a wide range of musical experiences that aren’t geared towards one aspect of what music should be.

And in that sense, is it split up in the same way Development Matters was? Is it split up into different areas in the same way?

Yep, so it’s split up and follows the format exactly in the age stages that it goes through. They are exactly the same and then the themes of a Unique Child, Positive Relationships, and Enabling Environments.

So it’s really easy if you’re familiar with Development Matters which most practitioners are, it’s really easy to pick it up and use it and then it’s split into four different aspects of music which are: Hearing and Listening, Vocalising and Singing, Moving and Dancing, and Exploring and Playing.

In that same way as they have the different areas of learning in development matters – and maybe that’s what you’re talking about specifically, trying to stop people funnelling down into one area of music and show them that it’s this broad spectrum?


Okay what do you think of all of those, is there something in particular that you think a lot of people forget about when it comes to music?

Yeah I do, I think the strongest element of early childhood music is singing. Nothing wrong with that and singing is really important and we all need to be singing daily with young children. But that shouldn’t be the only aspect of music making.

So with instruments, how do practitioners use instruments? Often it’ll be within that adult-led circle time activity where children are encouraged to do the same thing all together. If you understand why you’re doing that, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s just thinking more broadly around what we can offer children.

So offering them instruments and seeing what they want to do with them, for example. How might they create their own music? Rather than having to follow a model that serves the other children in the room as well. So being more individual and wide about the experiences.

So again it’s like we talked about earlier, giving them the opportunity for an experience rather than a specific activity as is often the case. So if I’m a practitioner or a manager who wants to implement a little more music into my setting, beyond reading this wonderful piece what would you advise to start with? Where’s a great starting point for someone who feels at the moment that their music is a little bit lacking?

Do an audit of what you offer. So maybe using the aspects of Musical Development Matters. So what opportunities are there for children to sing? What opportunities are there for children to make music with instruments? What opportunities are there for children to dance? What listening experiences do you have on offer?

Compare your repertoire of books and stories that you have. Compare that to your listening repertoire. Usually, you’ll have quite a lot of books to offer and reading opportunities but your listening will be quite narrow in terms of repertoire in terms of CDs and things. So thinking broadly about it and taking small steps, so introducing more listening experiences can be one avenue to explore to start with. Finding out about more songs, finding out about the children’s songs from home and incorporating those into practice. They’re quite easy things to do to really start your provision developing and moving forward.

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