by Author Heidi Johnson

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NYMAZ Early Years Songbook: Songs for Modern Childhoods

NYMAZ shares its recent experiences of commissioning songs for young voices

NYMAZ is a youth music development charity championing the transformative potential of music for children and young people. Working with our trusted partners, we deliver high quality music-making activities across North Yorkshire to those in challenging circumstances, including three Early Years projects in Whitby, Harrogate and Catterick Garrison. We're currently a strategic partner of Youth Music.

NYMAZ actively supports those working in the sector in North Yorkshire (and beyond!). We run professional networks to enable musicians and practitioners to develop their skills, share best practice and network with peers. The largest of these networks is the NYMAZ Early Years Music Network.

NYMAZ recently published the NYMAZ Early Years Songbook - a series of twelve newly-commissioned songs to be sung by and with early years children. The Songbook was designed to reflect and represent modern childhoods and to benefit the 300+ members of the NYMAZ Early Years Music Network who are always keen for new repertoire.

The genesis of the project was at our Early Years Music Network Conference in 2016 in Skipton. In her keynote speech, Dr Susan Young, questioned the extent to which traditional songs (often with a strong emphasis on the natural world), remained relevant to the diverse musical childhoods of children growing up in the UK today. NYMAZ decided to explore this idea through commissioning the Songbook, and developed a brief around the core theme of ‘Songs for Modern Childhoods’. Composers were invited to write songs on themes which would resonate with young children including friendships and playing to outings and special events. We were particularly interested in songs which could enhance wellbeing and support emotional literacy. It was also important to us to reflect the UK’s diversity, from varied family units to different cultures.

Commissioning music can often present an uncomfortable dynamic between musicians and commissioners. How can composers’ integrity as artists be protected whilst also meeting the desired outcomes of commissioners? We had to make decisions about our commissioning process, including setting appropriate fees – we wanted to make sure composers were paid a fair fee for their work, and were not expected to write music for free in exchange for ‘exposure’ or the ‘opportunity’ of being published. We chose to encourage songs from composers based in North Yorkshire, where NYMAZ is based, though we didn’t exclude those from further afield. In the brief, we also included some pointers on writing for young voices. We asked selected composers to highlight musical tips and starting points for engaging children with the songs, such as accompanying actions/signs or using instruments.

We also didn’t want to simply publish a compilation of existing songs – so we agreed that the selection process should ask composers to submit proposals for songs rather than finished works, alongside CVs and examples of their previous work. Members of the NYMAZ Early Years Music Network Steering Group, which includes experienced freelance music leaders, delivery partners and Local Authority early years officers, then ranked the proposals according to our chosen criteria, which included composing experience, quality of previous work, response to the brief, and understanding of writing for early years.

Copyright was an important factor to agree in advance and in written contracts with composers/songwriters. We specified in our original brief that commissioned composers would retain the copyright of their song but, that they must provide permission for their song to be included in the NYMAZ Early Years Songbook. We were also clear about what format the finished songs should be submitted in (Sibelius files in our case), so that we could edit the format of the songs to ensure consistency throughout the final Songbook.

Once the composers had gone away and written, and submitted their final songs, the Songbook was illustrated by designer David Caines. We're pleased with the results: the new commissions mirror modern, everyday life: a long journey to see relatives becomes an adventure; festivals from Diwali to Chinese New Year are observed; a curiosity in exploring the great outdoors is fostered; cross-cultural friendships are celebrated; and the concept of a ‘family’ and its different forms is neatly explained.

The Songbook was launched in July at Harrogate International Festivals, and we are in the process of making recordings of the songs in local early years settings for an accompanying CD.

Over the summer a number of settings in North Yorkshire have hosted music workshops delivered by Hannah Dilworth and Kathryn Sturman, two of the Songwriters who contributed to the Songbook. One setting said afterwards:

The songs and tunes were entirely appropriate for this age group of children (this afternoon we had children between 2½ and 4½ years old). The children were able to offer ideas and learn the lyrics and melodies with ease. I would highly recommend the materials for any Early Years class. It could be used as a resource for teaching singing and musical concepts, but there were also so many extension activities beginning to run through my head too, covering all areas of the Early Years curriculum! 

Here’s a flavour of some of the songs in the Songbook:

Whoops-a-Daisy Down! Written by Jess Hayne, a primary music coordinator for schools in the Boroughbridge and Thirsk areas of North Yorkshire and a teacher from nursery to Year 6. ‘Falling down is an occupational hazard for children who have only recently found their feet. This song gives a chance to get back on their feet, with the support of their friends.’

It’s My Turn, It’s Your Turn Songwriters Anna and Ed Snow have been writing children’s songs together for a number of years. Individually, Ed has worked as in-house songwriter and Anna regularly composes and arranges pieces for her group, Juice Vocal Ensemble, who perform her works across the UK and on BBC Radio 3. Anna is also involved in delivering NYMAZ music projects. ‘Sharing your favourite toys can be very hard! This song explains how it feels good to share with a friend and play together.’

Come and Sing and Play with Me Lindsay Ibbotson leads NYMAZ’s Music for Two music sessions at Catterick Garrison with the Army Welfare Service, and is involved in research into the impact of musical activities for the very young child. ‘Playful companionship is of universal and timeless importance, central to musical activity at any age, and especially important for the very young. This simple song supports interactive, creative games that a child and a companion could play together and which encourages face to face interaction.’

Songs for Modern Childhood is available:

Full Song list:

Come and Sing and Play With Me by Lindsay Ibbotson Whoops-a-Daisy Down by Jessica Hayne It’s My Turn, It’s Your Turn by Anna and Ed Snow We’re Off On An Adventure by Hannah Dilworth and Kathryn Sturman Out in the Woods by Claire Tustin It’s Time to Go, Go, Go! by Danielle Ballantine-Drake Steering Wheel by Steve Grocott Out in the Garden by Pete Lynn and Sue Scargill What is a Family? by Sally Kee Friends from Everywhere by James Moriarty I Can Fly in the Sky by Tom Riviere Celebrations by Andrew J Smith