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Beethoven with a bit of Status Quo

Chris Fautley describes a project that tackles the genre gaps in school music teaching.

Take the musical interests of an average class. Music technology may rank high; the blues, strings, keyboard, garage, Mozart, Westlife might all appear. Some may consider music boring. So how do you make it accessible to everybody?

Cue a music experience where no special musical interest or aptitude is required; where traditional definitions are pushed to the limit; a music experience so successful it has prompted one headteacher to assert: "I defy anybody to sit on the side and not join in."

The headteacher is Jane Oatey from The Lindfield School, a special needs school in Eastbourne; the music is Rhythmix, a project in south-east England funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music.

On the day I visit, Rhythmix is coaching Year 9 students in samba. Project director Mark Davyd explains that Rhythmix was established in 1999 by four local education authority heads of music services with the aim of tackling gaps in their genres such as rock and pop, DJ, samba and African music - traditionally handled in a piecemeal manner.

Instead of teachers, it uses community musicians who have a very informal way of working. "It's more, 'Well, let's do some music,'" he says. He adds that Rhythmix is very much goal-led. A typical course comprises 10 sessions of 90 minutes each, climaxing in, for example, a school performance - Lindfield did this - or cutting a CD.

The concept, he continues, works at all levels: special needs, GCSE, gifted children, after-school clubs. And it is available to everybody - not just those with an aptitude for music. "If they're not particularly mathematical, shall we stop teaching them maths?" he asks. All that is required is enthusiasm and a keen member of staff, not necessarily from the music department. He quotes one example of an English teacher running a music technology project.

Music teacher Karen Rough is overseeing the project at Lindfield. she chose samba because her students were shortly to start on a Latin American melodic project, and samba would make a good foundation. She says the course is "brilliant".

In today's session, everybody, including Karen Rough, is gathered in a circle, using drumsticks to beat samba rhythms on chair-backs. If this verbal description appears jaw-droppingly mundane, be assured the effect is mesmerising. Jane Oatey is right: it is impossible not to join in. Samba Rhythmix-style is toe-tapping, pulse-pounding stuff.

Under the relaxed guidance of the two community musicians it becomes obvious there is more to it than just music: confidence-building, teamwork, and an awareness that the end result is only as good as the sum of its parts. The musicians have built up a rapport with their students, taking the trouble to get to know them and find out exactly what their teacher wants them to achieve.

"The types of activities that they have been asked to do are geared towards their abilities," says Karen Rough. Chair-backs are soon replaced by drums: surdos, tamborims, agogos, darbukas. Before we know it, everybody is walloping out a version of 'The Lambeth Walk" - "The Lindfield Walk".

"Is that really samba?" I ask Mark Davyd.

"If you want it to be," he replies cheerfully. It seems to sum up their whole ethos. Rhythmix is music sans fronti res. Beethoven with a bit of Status Quo? Why not? "It's kind of crossing genres, mixing things up," he says. "Music Services wanted this project to allow young people to have their own voice about what music they would find engaging, and stimulate their interest in music in general."

He admits it is an old cliche but they firmly believe in authenticity of experience. "If you want to teach somebody about music, we think musicians should do that," he says. It is a belief that almost 19,000 students have shared.

In school hours the most popular courses are samba and African music. Out of school: "I couldn't possibly instigate enough DJ-ing workshops," says Mark Davyd. Rock and Pop is heavily over-subscribed, too.

There is hardly anything Rhythmix will not tackle. That, and its flexibility, account for its accessibility. Having Rhythmix in the school has really enhanced the curriculum, says Jane Oatey. "You don't have to play an instrument. You don't have to read the notes on a manuscript. You don't have to be able to do that to be able succeed," she continues. "It is all accessible."

* Rhythmix is available to schools in Surrey, East Sussex, Medway and Brighton amp; Hove. Courses are free. Full details at www.rhythmix.co.uk

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