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Singing and language

You’ve gotta get in to get out: or how we can have satisfying conversations with young children. With help from Phil Collins, Genesis and John Noakes and Shep off of Blue Peter!

Date posted: Saturday 22nd March 2014

John Noakes and Shep: In the air tonight?
Phil Collins: Get down Shep?

It was the Summer of 1975. I was 17 and my life was in freefall. Actually that’s possibly a bit over-dramatic, as I was really feeling just a bit sad. I had gone to the Surrey University Free Arts Festival with my girlfriend and she got cross with me for spending too much time examining ‘living exhibits’ in the art department, involving students posing nude for no particularly good reason that I could make out, other than to be slightly shocking, while I only have eyes for you by Art Garfunkel played over a loudspeaker. My girlfriend stormed off and I was left contemplating my navel (actually it was not mine but belonged to a complete stranger). I wandered around the campus searching for She Who Must Be Obeyed, and bumped into Phil Collins.

This was not as far-fetched as it might seem. Phil at the time was drummer and relatively new singer with Genesis: having filled in at short notice when Peter Gabriel left the band. Most of the band members had been pupils at Charterhouse school, just down the road, and Phil Collins had a house in nearby Godalming. At that time the Guildford area was teeming with rock stars who had sunk some of their money into buying huge houses set within acres of parkland. These superstars included Eric Clapton, Roger Daltry, various members of Fleetwood Mac, Joan Armatrading, and even John Noakes and Shep off of Blue Peter. Led Zep, Genesis , Bad Company and Fleetwood Mac had all recorded at nearby Headley Grange, and I recently discovered that a house across the valley from where we lived, where the lights were left on all night and strange goings on were to be heard, was home to Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues. He was genuinely very moody, and was often to be seen in the Staff of Life pub in Shottermill gazing forlornly into a half-empty glass of beer. The strange goings on were in fact the Moodys recording Seventh Sojourn. (Mike wasn’t seen looking glum around town for a while, and the house changed hands, with one Gary Glitter allegedly moving in.)

Back to the festival. I was a bit of a Genesis aficionado, so saw this chance encounter as an opportunity to get behind the façade and pump Phil with a few choice questions about the real goings on in what was to become one of the most successful progressive rock bands of all time. So I casually said, “Hi Phil” and amazingly he started to hum the refrain of what I later recognised as his classic 1983 hit In the Air Tonight. It was Phil who spoke first. “Excuse me mate, where’s the loo?” Fortunately I was able to point him in the right direction. Equally fortunately, I had recently read some advice in the Readers’ Digest that was to prove invaluable. In a piece entitled How to get an Autograph from a Star, it warned, ‘On spotting a famous person, carefully choose your moment to approach them. Never, for example, accost them as they are entering a restaurant, or when they are eating, and certainly never when they seem to be arguing with their spouse.’ Wise words. They didn’t mention whether you should ask for them to sign your book when they are heading for the toilet or, worse still, when they are in it, but I used my common sense and shyly asked, “Is it OK if I ask you a few questions when you come out?”

Phil didn’t bat an eyelid. “Sure,” he hastily replied (he must have been bursting), as long as it’s not about how the hell we pulled together The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” For the uninitiated (or uninterested) this was a very bad double album of prog rock twaddle that Genesis cobbled together before Peter Gabriel left the band, after a disastrous 102 date world tour where nothing went right (see Wikipedia for the grim details.) Writing in the NME in 1978, Nick Kent claimed the album “had a compelling appeal that often transcended the hoary weightiness of the mammoth concept that held the equally mammoth four sides of vinyl together.” I can think of one word that sums it up better than that (think Cockney rhyming slang: think pony and trap)

Genesis: The Carpet Crawlers. A decent song saved from the ashes of an awful album?

After what seemed like an age, Phil emerged from the toilet with a smile on his face. “Right then me old mucker, let’s get it over with. Fire away with the questions.” And this is what we discussed:

Me: I’m really glad you are singing with Genesis now. Your song More Fool Me on Selling England by the Pound made me cry when I first heard it. But will you be able to sing and play the drums at the same time when you are live on stage?

Phil: Do you know, that’s what I ask myself. I reckon not. Do you play drums? (I didn’t. The band later drafted in Bill Bruford as a second drummer, and shortly after that Chester Thompson, who did a great job.)

Me: Now that Genesis is playing to huge crowds, how do you make every member of the massive audience feel that you are singing just for them?

Phil: This is something I checked out with John Lennon a short while ago. He told me that back in the early days he used to look at the people in the back row and somehow everyone in The Cavern later claimed that he had been singing just for them.

I was just about to get in a third question about whether the band were glad that they were no longer fronted by a lead singer who dressed up as a flower, Britannia and a cross between Elvis and a garden gnome when Phil cut me dead: “Sorry mate, I’ve just seen Gary Glitter waving to me. We are off to jam with Jimmy Page, Roger Daltry, Eric Clapton and John Noakes and Shep off of Blue Peter. I hope that miserable sod Mike Pinder from The Moody Blues doesn’t turn up.” Then the lead singer with Genesis turned on his heel and left me standing outside the loo, thinking how my girlfriend would possibly believe what had happened to me shortly after she stormed off, and whether this amazing piece of rock happenchance would convince her never to leave me in the lurch again. (It didn’t. She did. Many times.)

I mention all of this because recently during training sessions we have been exploring the big question for anyone working with young children: How can we have a conversation in an early years setting or in Reception classes that is long enough and detailed enough to be satisfying for both child and adult, when there are so many children and so few adults? After all, we know that children learn through talking. We also know that children are involved in very detailed conversations at home, where their parents have the time to talk at length with young children, while in settings it’s much more difficult because adults are being constantly interrupted or having their attention pulled away from the child in front of them.

The answer lies in John Lennon’s comment about singing at The Cavern. Like his audience, children need to feel that even though they are in a group, you are talking with each and every one of them as if they were an individual. For me, two children together is a group, as is three, or even thirty. I believe our job is to help individual children enjoy being in a group with their peers, so that they can join in with a three-way conversation (or an 11-way one if they are in a group of 10 led by one adult). Very young children find this very hard, as they benefit most from one on one chats or one to two at the most. We can provide this type of interaction, for example when we have two children together sharing a favourite book with us.

One of the best ways to involve young children in deep conversation is to set up an exciting activity on a table; e.g. combining small world play with animals, natural materials and wooden blocks. If you cover the table with paper, and give the children marker pens, wooden blocks, pine cones, stones, twigs, leaves and dough, they will often become completely absorbed in their play, mark making and storytelling. The secret ingredient to really get conversation going is to plan for two adults to be involved in the activity: one to organise the children, and the other to stay put on her chair, so that she can engage the children next to her in uninterrupted conversation.

Consultant Debbie Brace and speech and language therapist Bhavna Acharya of Hounslow’s Let’s Talk Together project call this person ‘The Planted Adult’. If an adult is able to have no other duties than to engage children in conversation, as part of their free play or during a planned activity, children are drawn to that adult and can get very deeply and naturally involved in talking about what they are doing. This type of Sustained Shared Thinking is vital for learning, but can be very difficult to achieve in reality, unless it is planned for. Equally the adults need to be responsive to what the children are saying, rather than bombarding them with questions. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Debbie and Bhavna to see how this is possible, and to find out more about the planted adult in practice click here.

Unfortunately you won’t be able to book Phil Collins to help you, as he has now officially retired from show biz. Maybe you could book John Noakes and Lulu the baby elephant to come and visit your school, to give the children something to talk about.

John Noakes and friends with Lulu the elephant. They didn’t see that coming in the air tonight.

This is my last post for a while, as the wonderful Edmund, who looks after my website, is studying for his finals. In the meantime, please feel free to have a look through the 50 other posts on the site. Best of luck Edmund!!

Take care out there


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