English in Songs continues to educate and entertain

English in Songs - Hello

Released by:Slovak Radio Records
Available through: Oxico bookstore at the State Language School, Palisády 38; the Modern English Language School (JŠMA)

VOJTECH KRESŤANKO believes music and language are inextricably linked.

He should know, considering he’s both a teacher and musician, who became enamored of English at an early age.

Since then, he has founded the School of Modern English (JŠMA) in Bratislava, a private school where music plays a central role in the curriculum.

The school’s seventh CD, Hello, was recently released by Slovak Radio Records.

A lifetime of learning through music

Kresťanko was first exposed to English through jazz, which he listened to while playing in a brass band in Rožňava, near Košice.

“I loved the sound, improvisation, and spirit of jazz,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “And I wanted to understand what Louis Armstrong was saying.”

So he began teaching himself English, using music as a guide. He eventually became an English teacher, and first introduced music in his classroom in 1967.

“Russian was the obligatory language in schools then,” he said, “but English was allowed, and learned among the internationally-minded, even if not to the extent that it is today.”

Kresťanko vividly recalled how the idea to use music came to him.

“It was a way of dealing with the students’ restlessness,” he said. “There was a piano in the room, so it seemed like a good idea to try. At first, I sang short phrases in English like ‘Hello, my name is ...’ or ‘This paper is on the piano ...’ and had the students sing them back to me. It was wonderful how quickly they learned, started to have fun and could remember it.”

Kresťanko improved his English further by traveling to Scotland in 1968 as part of a volunteer youth group. He was there when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Slovakia, but returned anyway because of his family.

Kresťanko went back to the United Kingdom the next year, this time to London, where he landed a job as a cleaner and cook at a restaurant called the Fork and Spoon.

“I was there for the experience with English,” he said fondly. “I remember the restaurant served 40 breakfast meals I had to memorize: Number one was one egg, one sausage; Number two was two eggs, one sausage; and so on.”

“I also heard music playing on the radio the whole time,” he continued, smiling.

English in Songs

In 1992, Kresťanko founded the School of Modern English in Bratislava, a private school on Sekurisova Street that specialises in teaching English to kindergarten and elementary school-age children and preparing high school students for their final exams.

“I’ve found out that some of the students I taught at the beginning of my career have gone on to study or work with languages,” Kresťanko said. “I credit the use of music in their instruction, and decided to develop the idea further.”

In 1993, Kresťanko drew up a plan for a set of CDs called English in Songs. The goal was to create a learning tool that language teachers around the country could use to enhance their lessons. Kresťanko decided the CD should contain original and folk songs that were appropriate for children aged 5 to 11 and set to texts on topics the children would find relatable, such as sports, music and friendship.

Teachers could use the CDs just as Kresťanko had used music at the beginning of his career - by playing the songs one line at a time and teaching the students to repeat them back.

“I think it’s excellent for the children to learn English in phrases rather than word by word,” Kresťanko said. “They learn the vocabulary much more naturally that way.”

Kresťanko wrote the texts to the original songs in English, and for Slovak texts, recruited a former colleague and close friend, lyricist Ľuboš Zeman, who has written for legendary Slovak band Elán.

“English in Songs is really all about fun and cultural exchange, so we included more languages than just English,” Kresťanko explained.

Once the project had lyrics, it needed a composer to set them to music. That’s when composer Ali Brezovský joined the project.

Also a former colleague and close friend of Kresťanko’s, Brezovský is a former film score composer who has trained child musicians for over 20 years. He also works at Slovak Radio, where the English in Songs CDs would eventually be recorded.

Over the next three years, Kresťanko used his creativity and charm to recruit more consultants to the project, including Paul McCullough, an American who worked for Longman publishers, McCullough’s daughter, Niamh, who performs the CDs’ rap music, and Sida Horváthová, the director of the State Language School (ŠJS) in Bratislava, where Kresťanko also teaches.

The project’s first CD, One, Two, Three, was released in 2000. It contained 18 songs in English in Slovak, including the title track, which puts a delightful spin on the English nursery rhyme:

One, two, three,
Včelička je bee.
Four, five, six,
Prasiatka sú pigs.
Seven, eight, nine,
Môj sa povie mine.
Eight, nine, ten,
Sliepočka je hen.

In 2003, English in Songs was awarded the European Label for innovative initiatives in language teaching and learning by the European Commission for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism.

Seventh CD released

The newest English in Songs CD, Hello, consists of 25 vocal and orchestral tracks, most of which are Irish, American, and Scottish folk songs, such as Old MacDonald and London Bridge is Falling Down. The others are originals by Kresťanko and Brezovský, including One, Two, Three, which is aimed at pre-schoolers, and My Best Friend, which is suited to 11-year-olds. Some of the songs are in Slovak, German, or Hungarian.

“I’m particularly proud of the Hungarian song Kéményseprö (The Chimney sweep), which featured the voices of two very lovely, talented Slovak-Hungarian girls, Rebeka Dusík and Eszter Szatmáry,” Kresťanko, who also speaks Hungarian, told the Spectator. “This reflected the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, which was just wonderful.”

The Chimney sweep is a gentle ditty based on the Slovak superstition that touching a button after seeing a chimney sweep brings good luck. The lyrics ask the chimney sweep to bring luck to the singer’s entire family, friends and teacher.

The CD also includes an English version of the song.

Hello also marks the return of Michal Dukes, a talented young singer who’s sung with the project since he was nine years old. Now 16, Dukes got his own solo, a slow ballad called Taste Your Lips.

“The whole point is for the students to sing about what they’re interested in,” Kresťanko said.

As well as Row, Row, Row Your Boat and an English version of Frére Jacques, the CD includes original songs Cindy, a song about parents, and Hip Hop, about break-dancing.

Present and future

Kresťanko said the English in Songs project was supposed to end in 2005, but that he has been inspired to keep it going.

“Over 30 schools across the country use the CDs,” he said, “and more than 10,000 children have performed at our presentations in Bratislava. Why stop?”

Kresťanko laughed as he recalled one time that his students “demanded” to perform Jingle Bells at an upcoming concert.

“The school was preparing for St Nicholas Day at a time when I was out of the city,” Kresťanko said. “When I came back, the teachers told me the students had all ‘demanded’ to sing Jingle Bells, and that one little boy had sprung up shouting ‘And I want to translate it!’”

“I thought this was a wonderful testament to their devotion,” he added.

Kresťanko’s plan for the next English in Songs CD includes adding a group of Roma children, who will sing in the Roma language and English.

“Singing gives children courage,” he said. “They feel independent, like they’ve really achieved something, and it brings out creativity and personality.”

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