A hippo among fish: thinking about children and music


What’s really striking is the confidence with which these children are making music together – because, make no mistake, that is what they are doing. Themes invented by individual children are being developed by the class and their teacher into real pieces of music. The names (‘Cho – co – la – de – fon – tein’, ‘Bak – la – va’) are rhythmic mnemonics in sessions that deliberately avoid counting, and put their emphasis instead on listening. The violinists pluck and bow the notes, stamping their feet and chanting as each piece builds, develops its variations and ends. When someone has an idea they share it and the whole group takes it forward. Hands shoot up all the time as kids volunteer. The music doesn’t stop when someone makes a mistake, any more than it does in a concert hall. It’s already past and the music’s happy sinuous line goes on, accompanied by harmony and complicated rhythms. And laughter. I don’t remember hearing so much laughter in a school music class.

I’ve been watching the music classes run by Ukelila in Beringen, a former mining town in Eastern Flanders. Hans Van Regenmortel, whose ideas shape this distinctive approach to teaching music, has taken me from class to class, explaining some of what I’m missing because I don’t speak Dutch and because I’m not a musician. But the music itself is not obscured by these handicaps.


These children, many from immigrant families, are not among those who would normally access Belgium’s well-established public music schools. Ukelila, which is just three years old, now involves some 350 young people in music-making. Although the instruments are classical (they were bought before the project began) the approach is not. It’s unlikely that any of these children will learn to play the violin or clarinet to the standard required of an orchestra – although they may. But that’s not the aim. Ukelila does not want them to master their instruments but to befriend them, to experience the joy of music as a source of communication and expression and to understand that it really does belong to them. It is not technique that is being learned here: it’s musicality that’s being developed.

Later, I watch an orchestral rehearsal to which 40 to 50 children have come from their instrumental groups. They arrange themselves as an orchestra with violins, cellos, woodwind and brass, their teachers among them. The rehearsal begins with some of the pieces they’ve been working on – that chocolate fountain flows again – with Sven, one of the Ukelila tutors, conducting the group through an expressive series of gestures partly based on Soundpainting and partly worked out together. Then, as before, the children are invited to propose short themes they’ve invented for themselves: a clarinet player offers a seven note idea with – to me – a surprisingly tricky rhythm. Within 30 seconds all the children have got it and music is being created before me, swelling, falling, its accents marked now by the trumpets, now the strings. I’m not observing a class. I’m enjoying music.

I watch as a 10 year old begins a beatbox rhythm. The orchestra picks up and develops it, quickly drowning him out, but it doesn’t matter – it’s his rhythm he can hear them playing. At the end, I can see his face glowing with achievement. This is a moment in his life that will not be soon forgotten.


In the afternoon, I give a talk about music education that asks how helpful is  conventional music tuition designed to nurture the most gifted to most children. I contrast that approach with the excellent community music work I’ve seen in the Scottish fèisean,  Banlieues Bleues in Seine Saint Denis and elsewhere. Such talks must be prepared beforehand, but today I feel I’m behind the action. Everyone here knows this argument better than me. Music education is changing fast nowadays and Ukelila is one of many remarkable instances of how children are being taught that music is their own creative resource and a joy for life.

PS The title of this post comes from this passage in the talk:

Perhaps, after all, I am musical, not in being able to understand, explain or make music very well, but in my love of music and the place it has in my imagination. I recognise though that it is not my element. I can swim, but I am not a fish. A hippopotamus perhaps, bathing in this element that transforms the experience of a body used to lumbering about on land.

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