Skip to main content

Don't stop the music

Playing an instrument increases children's confidence and cultural awareness. Seven rural primary schools joined forces with an arts college in a bid to keep pupils keen on music for longer. Carolyn O'Grady reports

E arlier this year a lunchtime concert was held in the atrium of John Masefield High School in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Nothing unusual about that. In fact, John Masefield has a lunchtime performance in its entrance hall once a week. What was unusual, however, was that the children were from a local primary school, and were supported by their parents and other pupils.

They were from Cradley Church of England Primary School - one of seven primary schools with which the 900-pupil comprehensive has been working to foster musical ability and, particularly, to improve the transference of musical skills from primary to secondary.

With the help of John Masefield school - a designated arts college with a brief to work with primary schools - Cradley has built up an orchestra of about 30 pupils. This year the secondary school will reap the rewards. Starting in September the majority of that orchestra will be taking their musical skills to John Masefield.

"But the true test of the scheme will be whether the school can keep them playing," says Steve Tommey, director of the arts college's community section.

He is optimistic, but recognises that he will be bucking a trend. The tendency is for primary musicians to drop out of playing musical instruments when they get to secondary school. It is more likely that they will continue playing if they have been learning an instrument for at least a year at primary school, says a report from Keele University on sustaining children's interest in playing instruments.

Other factors include having a teacher who communicates a belief in their ability; being involved in performance groups, and having supportive parents. On all these the John Masefield pyramid scores highly. Out of 175 Year 7 pupils starting at the college this September, 100 will already be playing a musical instrument.

Steve says this compares well with the previous year's intake, when the figure was around 40. This means that next year, in Year 7, most pupils will be playing an instrument, "which will hopefully make it a 'cool' thing to do, and to continue to do".

The primaries are all different in size and catchment, but being in a rural area is something they have in common, says Steve. As a result, they are limited by what is available to them culturally, and there is a dearth of transport.

"The last bus out of Hereford - the nearest large town to Ledbury (11 miles away) - goes at six o'clock," he says. "Cultural enrichment is a large part of what the project is about."

But distances have been overcome. The Cradley pupils would have had no fears about playing at John Masefield. They have been part of performances and other combined musical projects with their sister primaries and the secondary school for a long time. But most important is that, along with the other six schools, Cradley pupils have had the benefit of Steve's enthusiastic and musically talented teaching. He has been working a total of two and a half days a week as an advanced skills teacher, sharing the time between the seven primaries. He will also be taking most of Year 7 music, "so when they arrive at the secondary school they will find a familiar face there".

Judy Cecil, head of Bosbury Primary School, where half of the children were playing instruments before the scheme began, says: "One of the best things is that he organises ways they can come together in school time and perform with the other primary schools and John Masefield. He also scores music for all ability levels."

"On the first visit I see all the musicians, hear them, and write arrangements which suit the particular ensembles in the school," says Steve. "I make sure the beginners are not left out and the more advanced pupils are not bored."

Performing, however, is "what it's about", he says. "Confidence-raising" events include combined carol concerts, the lunchtime concerts at John Masefield, and "a pyramid prom", for which students from both the secondary school and the seven primaries audition.

These are performances which, Judy Cecil says, "the pupils love", and which also get parents on board - another important factor in children continuing to play musical instruments.

How Steve works with each school varies depending on their needs. In four of them, he develops instrumental work - setting up orchestras, writing arrangements and rehearsing with them. He also does some in-service training, and gives advice and demonstration lessons to teachers.

In the secondary school, instrumental lessons are given by peripatetic teachers on different days of the week. At the moment the most popular instruments are the saxophone, flute and clarinet, but the school and county are anxious to promote brass instruments. To this end, teachers of brass instruments and schools with strong brass ensembles are giving performances in those schools with fewer brass players.

Working together is part of a policy which John Masefield school hopes will encourage children to take up a musical instrument and keep it up throughout secondary school. Steve concedes that the price of lessons - which are more expensive at secondary level because pupils need more one-to-one tuition - is another reason why students drop out. However, he hopes that parents who have become enthusiastic about music in the primary schools are now more certain of continuity in the secondary school, and will feel able to meet the costs.

The primaries and secondary school have been beneficiaries of Herefordshire Instrumental Services' expansion over the past few years. The service has encouraged schools to take advantage of government funds for buying instruments.

Another issue is academic pressure, which often drives students to give up instrumental work, and Steve says he can only hope that students'

enthusiasm and parental support will see children through.

And the future? He admits that it won't be possible for this support to be offered indefinitely. However, primary school teachers are already getting together to work out how they can continue the work he has begun, and are even writing their own arrangements and exploring music software.

Judy Cecil has no doubt about the benefits: "Children who play a musical instrument gain hugely in self-esteem. Some pupils who are not able to achieve success in the more conventional national tests sense can receive acclaim for their musical ability. It's very necessary to provide a balance to the academic emphasis. This has helped us do that."

The report of the Young People and Music Participation Project, by Keele University, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is available at:

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you