Strings attached

An Ayrshire primary has committed all its P1-4 pupils to taking part in class orchestras. And it's not just about learning instruments – it's creating greater harmony in lessons, too.
13th May 2011, 1:00am
Douglas Blane


Strings attached

The bounce is where the music starts," says musician and freelance teacher Chris Gray. "It's where every note is born." So at Greenmill Primary in Cumnock, East Ayrshire, the wee ones learn about the bounce and the beat before they get their hands on anything resembling a musical instrument.

"There are minims and crotchets," young Halle (P1) takes a moment to explain, as her class files out of the hall and Primary 2 take their places at the seats and music stands.

"Mr Gray tells us to do this for a crotchet," she says, bringing her palm down on her thigh. "And this for a minim," she slaps her leg again and lifts her hand smartly out to the side for the second beat.

"See, it's a two in the minim but the crotchet just has one," she explains. "I like it when you go like that," she does the minim again. "I like learning about music. I don't know when we get to play, though."

Not for a few weeks yet, says headteacher Christine Wilson. "This project began last March, with lessons from Chris once a week for both our P3 classes. They continued as P4 in August and we started the P3s. The P1s and 2s have just begun. It's growing all the time. I'm aiming to get every class involved."

What makes the Greenmill Strings Project different from conventional instrument tuition is that every single pupil participates, explains Mrs Wilson, herself a keen musician. "That might sound unlikely, but it really is everyone in a class."

Since the demise of the coal mines, Cumnock and the surrounding district is no longer an affluent area, and some Greenmill pupils have problems. "There are specific needs," she explains. "Some are looked-after or accommodated children. This project engages all of them. That has a spin- off into the classroom. They're more engaged there too. They have a confidence that suddenly they're good at something."

"We go on concerts," says P4 pupil Kyle. "We went to Cumnock Academy and we're doing another one in a few weeks. If you know something, you can tell other people about it. I like learning new things, like how to play the violin."

"Mr Gray's good," says Dillon, also in P4. "He uses his hands and shows you what to do and points at people in different sections. I don't want to play in an orchestra when I leave school, because I want to be a football player. But I really like this."

Surely making music is all about talent, though? No matter how inclusive a teacher tries to be, not everyone will be good, and bum notes from the second fiddles will ruin a performance for everyone.

"But that's one of the attractions," Mrs Wilson points out. "You become a team player. You're part of something bigger, so you have to listen closely and do your best. Because we started them early and all together, we captured the enthusiasm and engagement young children have. They didn't think `I can't do that'. There's less peer pressure than with older kids.

"They come as a class and their teacher sits in and becomes a learner too. It's collaborative. They each have their instrument, which they learn to take out and hold. They all have the music in front of them. They all play."

It's the difference between coming to orchestra or just to strings lessons, says Mr Gray. "We spend time at the start explaining what being in an orchestra means. It's about teamwork in your section - whether that's violins, violas, cellos or double bass - and in the orchestra.

"Our reward and discipline system of stars and black spots means one person affects a whole section. So they learn to move forward as a team and achieve good things.

Of course musical talent exists, he says. "There are differences in how fast they progress and can achieve their potential. You need to be patient, adapt to your learners, explain things in different ways. But they can all engage. It's about making sure they achieve. If they understand they're getting somewhere, even in small steps, it gives them intrinsic motivation."

Access to genuine musical instruments, cut down to kids' size, also helps generate this. But the basics of rhythm and musical notation are laid down for weeks before these are produced - although they all know which one they're going to get, and sit in the appropriate section of the orchestra, right from the start.

"I wanted a double bass because it's the biggest," says Jack in P2. "But there were only two of them. So then I wanted to be a cello. But they were all away. So I chose to be a violinist. I'm not disappointed. I like the violin."

Providing real instruments helps, but so too does limiting access to these, says Mr Gray. "They don't take their instruments home. That's because you spend so much time in normal instrumental lessons fixing bad habits kids have been practising themselves. By not letting them take their instruments home, we find we make good progress in every lesson."

Surprising as it might sound, extra time to practise with an instrument can be counter-productive, confirms Paul Wood, East Ayrshire's instrumental music service manager. "I once did comparative studies of sending children home with instruments, and Chris is bang-on.

"To learn something new you have to do it right more times than wrong. If they have a half-hour lesson, then go home and spend three hours doing it wrong, they've learnt wrong much more than right. Children want to take the instruments home and play, and teachers think if we don't let them they'll lose their enthusiasm. It doesn't work that way."

If anything, restricted access keeps children keen, Mr Gray agrees. "With the P4s, at the start there would be lessons when we were just bowing, and you could feel the disappointment that they didn't get the instruments. Now because they get them every lesson, they just bounce through that door."

Limited access also builds in inclusiveness from the start, says Mr Wood. "Everyone is on the same footing. It keeps them together as a unit. Chris has worked hard to give them all foundations that are wide and deep. That means you have people participating in the same experience and accessing the same material, and all that can be built on as they move through the school."

Greenmill Strings began as a joint action research project, he explains, between East Ayrshire, educational charity Drake Music - which supports people with disabilities to "play, learn and compose music independently" - and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Mr Gray's employer at the time.

The initial aim was to investigate the mainstream effectiveness of an additional support needs teaching method known as Figurenotes, which uses different colours for the pitch of each note, and shapes that show intuitively how long it lasts. "Young children usually say a crotchet looks longer than a minim because there's more of it," says Mr Gray.

One Greenmill P3 class was taught using Figurenotes and the other using conventional notation. Six months later the benefits of the former were apparent, says Mr Gray. "The class using it were months ahead in their reading and understanding of rhythm. When it came to bowing they could immediately see how long a stroke should be from the shape of the note.

"We converted them to conventional notation in a 40-minute lesson, where I explained it was like different languages and from now on they would be using this new one. They've never looked back. So when it came to starting the P1s and P2s a few weeks ago, we had no hesitation in using it with them.

"When Paul first came to me and suggested trying Figurenotes with young children in the mainstream, I was very sceptical. But there is no doubt that it works."

As always, though, people are more important than pedagogy. "There is a real feel for peer support in the orchestra," says Mr Gray. "We set challenges in sections. If we're looking for the best bow holds, you'll get all the first violins grouped round each other, looking at them together and analysing how they work. I often get the children to teach each other."

That philosophy will be formalised when the infants do finally get their instruments, he says. "Mrs Wilson and I have discussed it and decided to pair each one with a buddy from P3 or P4. They will sit beside the wee ones and help them.

"I will then stand and teach the class knowing I have huge support - not from other adults, but from the children themselves."

`It's a huge part of the week for these kids'

"When you tell the children it's a strings day, they all go `Yes!'" says Lynn Richmond, whose P4 class have been coming to orchestra for a year. "They absolutely love it. Some children like sitting in class doing lessons. Others find that very difficult and struggle with their classwork. But they don't struggle with the strings.

"They might not be the quickest, but they can all do it. They can perform at the same level as everyone else, which they often can't in class. That's a big thing. They've become part of a team."

Her class's first public performance last year, in front of parents and music specialists, was a real milestone, she says. "It was simple stuff, like pizzicato, claps and stamps, but they got so much out of it."

Teachers sitting and learning alongside pupils brings benefits to both, she says. "I had never touched a violin before. When I sat down today, I asked the two boys in front to look at my bow hold and tell me if it was right. There are very few opportunities for pupils to do that in a class.

"It might only be one lesson a week. But it's a huge part of the week for these kids because they look forward to it so much. We are a team. That transfers to everything we do."

Drake Learning and Figurenotes

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