It's the kind of work that may not have been necessary 20 years ago when, he believes, there were more teachers who could play piano and other instruments. But today it's not unusual to find primary schools where there are few if any instrumentalists. Roberts is involved in the Bristol and Gloucester Youth Music Action Zone (YMAZ), a unique venture that is bringing musical expertise to young schoolchildren as part of the national Youth Music initiative. The Bristol and Gloucester YMAZ focuses on early years, but all schools in the country can get involved in the scheme.
The Bristol YMAZ is called Remix. Remix is being co-ordinated by Sarah Rickard of the Arts Council of England, who is heading a concerted approach to the arts in schools generally.
As the plans developed, the YMAZ has incorporated schools in the north of the city and also Gloucester and complements Bristol's bid for European Capital of Culture 2008. The guiding principle behind the Bristol project is that teachers need both practical skills and the confidence to teach music, since so few have specialist backgrounds. So in a pilot that will inform the direction that the other YMAZ schools take, two schools ran their own projects with funding from the Arts Council. At St James and St Agnes Nursery School, musician and teacher Vicky Meadow ran workshops over six weeks last autumn as an induction exercise for children and parents to make them feel at ease in their new school. "We're a small inner city nursery where 80 per cent of the families have English as a second language," says headteacher Lucy Driver. "So we used music to create a common language and it worked so well that we're going to do it again next year."
Bill Roberts has been working at Sefton Park Infants and Nursery one day a week over the past term. YMAZ aims to strengthen the skills of all teachers working in early years, not just the music co-ordinators, so he does a range of things designed to help the schools take over where he leaves off. "I listen to what staff say they need, which is always varied. I've helped get their assembly singing going by teaching them a range of songs and working on actual singing. It takes a lot to sing in front of 30 kids and what a lot of people lack is confidence. I also play instruments and pass on to teachers exercises that they can do, like warm-ups and composition."
But his most important role, he believes, is "showing teachers how to have the courage to treat music as a creative subject, not just a technical one". During the training sessions he ran over a three month period at Sefton Park, some staff spoke of the "chaos of noise" during music sessions. Roberts believes this is part of the problem of music in schools. "On the one hand teachers do regimented exercises, which involves no creativity. Or they find themselves in the situation of 'noisy chaos'
without discipline. But there's something in between and the skill is in finding the balance. The trouble is that a lot of teachers are afraid that things will descend into chaos so they don't allow children to have a go. Kids really want to bash instruments and have fun with them. It's part of the process. Music has to be fun first and foremost."
* Youth Music provides up to pound;500,000 in each Action Zone to build on existing good practice and to create new musical opportunities for young people.Youth Music information line Tel: 08450 560560
Youth Music Action Zone enquiries Tel: 020 7902 1060 www.youthmusic.org.ukBristol and Gloucester youth music action zone Tel: James Hutchinson, 0117 9224276 Bristol 2008, European Capitol and Culture Tel: 0117 988 1569 www.bristol2008.com