top of page

Steve Grocott discusses the role of the visiting musician

Updated: May 9, 2023

“The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski

This presentation focuses on the situation of the musician who is a visitor to a setting where there isn’t a well-designed project that allows for staff training and extensive meetings for planning and evaluation. It is intended partly as a conversation starter and a reminder of things that this audience knows already and echoes many points made in the presentation of her research by Victoria Holmes in her research.

I’m talking about visits involving both mat-time sessions with larger groups and freeflow sessions involving musical play.

Nurseries and schools are not just places for imparting knowledge and skills, they are community hubs and music has a central part to play in that. We are the culture bearers, we bring joy and purposeful shared activity that promotes the building of community now as well as every aspect of children’s’ development for the future.

We have different hats - performers, composers, artists, teachers, roadies, therapists, furniture movers - and there is a trick to wearing the right one at the right time.

We are visitor – we don’t set the whole agenda of the setting but have to contribute what we can - which is a lot - on the day.

We can expect to be ignored, interrupted and asked to do things that we may not think are great to fit in with themes etc.

Establishing rapport

Of course many practitioners will be doing a lot of this already so we start by asking about that and acknowledging it.

We acknowledge, too, that the people who work in the setting know the children better than a visitor can. We can ask which songs they are using that the children love as a good way to get the conversation going. There will very likely be hello and goodbye songs that we can join in with too. Practitioners will often know will know a particular child’s favourite song and when working with children who are not settling in well or who have additional needs this is invaluable. One recent example – a child who was not settling well in a nursery school at all was obsessed with vacuum cleaners. It was easy enough to compose The Hoover Song that became a great hit with the whole nursery to the delight of the child in question.

Children with SEND and shy children who may be new to a setting often respond to our sessions very well and practitioners notice this.

Something that is sometimes overlooked in our discussions is the question of keeping order. As a visitor we may well be less focussed on that than the people who are responsible for the children for the whole day and for establishing routines to keep them safe. It is extremely likely that they will be using songs for this and asking about these is another good way of connecting and reassuring them that we have similar aims. As a visitor we can appropriately encourage more extravagant behaviour than the resident adults and it’s good to be aware of this. We can reassure practitioners by leaving the children in a reasonably calm state at the end of a session and checking with practitioners that they are happy with the activities we are doing.

Often mat time sessions at the end of morning and afternoon sessions will be seen as calm times so we can help with that making sure that the last few things we do take the temperature down at the end.

Someone comes to collect children for lunch and interrupts in the middle of a song we can be offended or we can go with it – “Here’s Mrs Johnson come to take some of you to dinner – let’s show we are listening to her”.

Just this week someone told me they hate doing the Hokey-cokey because it always ends up with a melee on the floor in the middle.

We can model how musical ways to keep everyone in the sweet spot between order and chaos. A couple of examples:

  • With a train song – slowing down and coming to the station after a lively bit where we go as fast as possible

  • Slapping our knees rapidly to orchestrate the Bogeyman running away and getting quieter until we can’t hear him any more

The Gift

The most obvious transferable gift we bring is repertoire. It helps me to think of this as giving a gift freely given, not asking for anything in return and not worrying too much about what the receiver does with it afterwards.

Some songs are better than others. We have in our pocket tried and tested songs rhymes and games that are simple for practitioners to learn, that children love and ask for again and again. We have both experience and an intuitive understanding of the kind of things that work well. We have a theoretical knowledge about why.

We can help by introducing songs, rhymes and games that are winners and help practitioners to learn and use them by :

  • Providing audio recordings or info on where to find them - one setting used to provide Bright Sparks CD/booklet to parents and I would be stopped in the street and told, “the whole family are singing the songs”. Now we have digital ways of sharing – I’m interested to hear how other people manage digital sharing, I use Bandcamp which is not always straightforward.

  • Pointing practitioners to good collections like Playsongs

  • Helping with song sheets and songs for particular topics

  • Providing pictorial displays that act as a reminder and are also very useful for helping children to choose songs - particularly for non verbal children

  • Help with compiling lists of core songs, rhymes and games for a term or half term

I sometimes give a sheet that is a checklist - Types of song with examples has twenty-one types of song with examples and some specific benefits and some links to where they can be found.

There is importantly a note at the beginning to say that the material is not only helping with the particular area doing “Everything, everywhere all at once”

Modelling Performance

We don’t have to be apologetic about our skills and should be prepared to perform with full expression, without holding back and without patronising the children. This is the apprenticeship model where a lot of subtle unconscious things are communicated in the way a musician makes the music. This is how we generate real engagement.

Often practitioners, parents and carers will say they didn’t know their child could do that or have never seen them so engaged when observing how engaged and active children are in our sessions.

On the other hand we recognise that our competence in performance may be intimidating for the practitioner who says, “I can’t do that”. Practitioners are often (but by no means always) unconfident about music generally and in particular about using instruments and improvising. We hear people all the time who say, “I’m not musical” Of course it’s our job to lead people away from that view of themselves.

Confidence is something we have all struggled with at various times and I recently heard someone on the radio saying that if you don’t have occasional imposter syndrome there is probably something wrong with you. So we have a position of empathy when it comes to building up practitioner confidence.

Talking about the music they are already making is a good starting point. In addition to already having a repertoire of songs and rhymes they will very often be happy with things like changing the words of familiar songs to include children’s names or to fit with themes. Songs like Mulberry Bush where different actions can be chosen will be familiar so we can move one step on to a song like “What Shall we do on a Lazy Day ?” a “coat hanger song” that can be used in any way you want. We can model using the song in all sorts of ways.

During the MERYC Zoom seminar we experimented visually with the song in these ways with me leading from the side singing the song and everyone else doing actions :

  • Do something good on a lazy day – easy enough

  • Do something bad – some hilarious and terrifying contributions

  • Use you hands and observe others too – easy enough

  • Copy someone else – an enjoyable challenge

  • All do the same – the group did brilliantly and all ended up with a co-ordinated action and lots of smiles

  • Play in time – this was first done without accompaniment on mandolin and the with to think about how our performance can help that of the children

When working in a setting these are the kinds of things we do with it :

  • Making actions – using categories like transport, tools or food is very useful for generating ideas on the spot

  • Encouraging the children to choose actions etc.

  • Creating a story or sequential narrative like getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to nursery

  • Being playful – doing silly things – making funny noises

This song is a framework that explicitly asks us to choose, copy and innovate. We model a flexible approach to all our music making, doing the same kinds of things with known songs and new songs as we go along. As Robert Poynton says in Do Improvise we abandon fixed goals and are prepared to go where the children’s ideas take us.

I have another check list - Ten good things to do with a song – this gives simple broad musical things that we naturally do to vary the way we perform a song such as

  • Changing the tempo

  • Experimenting with voices

  • Using the lyrics to find rhythms

  • Adding a big ending

  • Get physical with actions, dance, or working in pairs

People will be doing many of these things already so we are connecting with what they know and indicating ways forward – good for confidence. It is emphasised that this is a checklist and both sheets have DON’T TRY YO DO ALL OF THIS AT ONCE at the bottom.

Another opportunity for modelling is a session in the freeflow.

Jamming in the playground Here is an observation of some of the things children were doing in one outdoor jam (improvising) session in a nursery school. I was working there regularly and we had a shared repertoire of good jamming songs and rhymes. I was singing and playing the mandolin, giving a musical structure (pulse, rhythm and form) to the session :

  • Most children spent some time dancing and singing.

  • Children were using beaters (dowel sticks) to play a range of things including - the ground, a fence, the side of a shed, hand-held percussion instruments, large wooden building blocks, a chair and plastic oil drums. Most were in some way relating to the common pulse. If things get absolutely out of time I might stop and do some synchronising. I will echo and expand on rhythmic or other innovations introduced by the children.

  • One group built a structure with large wood blocks that was like a drum kit that they sat inside and played. They spent as much time organising and reorganising their setup and defending it against interlopers as they did playing.

  • A group laid out some big blocks in a row and used it as a stage, standing on it using beaters as microphones.

  • Each song was repeated over and again so there was time for variation and for attractive innovations to be picked up by the group and incorporated in a shared version of the song.

  • One extrovert performed extravagantly and a small group provided him with an audience.

  • Some children went and found plastic tennis racquets and played along, guitar style.

  • At one point a child, who is generally very noisy, put his hands over his ears and said it was too loud so we negotiated a halt to the shed playing and all performed a dramatically quiet version of Twinkle Twinkle.

  • Children took it in turns to choose which songs we played.

We can see here that children’s play, while centred around the music is not always what might be labelled “musical”. Another simple example of this is when we are using rhythm sticks indoors and start laying them out in patterns with children having to negotiate the sharing of the sticks etc. I takes some confidence for the musician to give time to this type of play when they are paid to “do music” but I think it’s a valuable activity.

Connecting with the EYFS

Another way we build rapport is to focus on things that people are interested in or worry about. Some people feel we shouldn’t be selling music as an aid to the learning of other things. This is understandable as many of us feel the need to resist a tendency towards education being more formal generally and particularly in the early years.

For a two year old, however, music maths and language are not separate things. They are using their bodies and senses to explore themselves and their place in the world.

Our innate sensitivity to patterns is the basis for this. We can see music (including movement), maths and language as ways of assimilating and expressing patterns. Our job then is to provide experiences that help with that process and these include structures like stories and songs and the opportunity to play with them.

The metaphor of scaffolding helps with this – we don’t need to be banging on about phonics and number bonds to small children all the time. We can be giving them experiences that help lay down the mental maps that are ready to include all the more abstract things that they will learn later on.

So we don’t talk about phonics but emphasise activities that will provide a basis for phonological awareness :

  • Listening

  • Playing with vocal sounds and character voices

  • Rhyming

  • Talking nonsense

We don’t go on about too much about number bonds but :

  • Count to three to co-ordinate jumping off a block,

  • Mess about with rhythms

  • Facilitate individual dance

  • Have activities involving group shape

We talk less about “teaching” and more about “embodying” ideas and abilities in activities. We don’t need to “teach” pulse - we just need to : play with The Clock Song. Then we might try :

  • Walking like the clock in the hall when we sing Zum Gali Gali

  • March like the clock on the wall to The Grand Old Duke

  • 'Chiff-a-chuff-a' to The New River Train like the little watches

We can draw attention to the connection lightly pointing things out as we go along – a couple of examples :

  • Doing the rhyme Bananas – when we eat the bananas and use the sounds of enjoyment for a vocal warm up. I make the long vowel sounds (ay yay yay etc.) and make a joke – “Oh my goodness ! We’re doing our vowel sounds - that’s proper education!” This directs attention to the fact that words are sounds and the whole enormous topic of prosody – the musicality of language

  • Using rhythm sticks to lay out the pattern of The Clock Song and also just playing with them to make patterns and shapes connects up our musical thinking with the underlying patterns in mathematics.

We are directing attention to aspects of things that practitioners may not always be aware of – importantly in the context of physical activity.

Finally - things can be communicated in different ways.

You can read The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen (highly recommended) or you can give demo on a swanee whistle - Clangers style - to demonstrate the musicality of language and indeed the laguageality (is that a word ?) of music.

Thank you and goodnight.


Annie Murphy Paul (2021) The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain Mariner Books

Mithen, S. (2005). The Singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Poynton, R. (2013). Do Improvise: Less push, more pause, better results. London: The Do Book Co.

Malloch, S. and Trevarthen, C. (2009). Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gopnik, A. Meltzoff, A. and Kuhl, P. (2001). How Babies Think: The science of childhood. London: Phoenix.

Poynton, R. (2013). Do Improvise: Less push, more pause, better results. London: The Do Book Co.

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page