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It's maths, and all that jazz

Jean McLeish
Published: 11 April 2008

Three schools across three authorities are using the arts to inspire better performance in mathematics. Jean McLeish tunes in

Twelve-year-old Kyle Jappy hasn't had this much fun in maths for a while. And who could blame him? Kyle took up the trombone two years ago and today one of Scotland's leading jazz trombonists is taking the maths class.

"I think it's quite interesting. I have found out a bit about how maths and jazz are quite alike," the Buckie High pupil whispers, so he won't disturb the lesson. He also met professional jazz musician Chris Grieve at the school trombone group rehearsal. "He played `The Pink Panther', he's good," says Kyle, explaining how his class is learning about fractions, using the number of beats in a bar of music as their starting point.

Trombonist Chris Grieve is taking part in a pilot project, Creative Maths, which involves using the arts to inspire better performance in maths. Artists from dance and drama are also involved, in three schools across three local authorities - at Hazlehead Academy in Aberdeen, Portlethen Academy in Aberdeenshire and here at Buckie High in Moray.

Chris outlines how maths and music are connected: "There are loads of parallels all the way along, even from describing a major scale - it can all be described in numbers one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. And that's how we do it in jazz - give all the note names a number and once again it's transportable to any key. Kids are going to have come across that if they are learning music," he says.

Creative Maths is a partnership project across the three neighbouring local authorities, funded by the Scottish Arts Council to support A Curriculum for Excellence. It builds on an earlier Arts Across the Curriculum project, using the arts, culture and creativity to support learning and teaching with a focus on particular curricular outcomes.

"The artist and teacher plan together and then they team-teach. It's very much a partnership between the two professionals in the classroom," says Linda Lees Hislop, cultural co-ordinator at Aberdeen City Council's arts education team. "It is good to identify an area that is a bit tricky that would benefit from a different way of working."

The project involves three artists rotating around the three schools during the academic year. This term, dance specialist Claire Reid is at Hazlehead and Fergus Connor, drama specialist, at Portlethen.

Chris described how he hopes his work will impact on Buckie pupils: "They gain an understanding, certainly from my side of things, that there is something beyond just doing maths in the classroom, that numbers have an application outside the class."

Today, pupils are clapping out rhythms and learning about musical notation and, by the end of their eight-week programme, Chris hopes they will be composing their own melodies as well as having mastered their fractions. "Once they understand how we write music and how music has similarities to maths, then we can start branching out," he says.

Maths teacher Jean Reid admits she's not a musician but she's impressed with what this project is attempting to achieve: "This is only the second time the music specialist has been in the class. I had the drama specialist last term and it was good. The children were enthusiastic."

During one of the drama sessions the classroom was set up as a cafe and the pupils took roles as waiters, chefs and customers learning maths while using it in this different context.

"If they were making a meal for 12 people, they had to work out how much of the ingredients they would need. They were seeing maths in a real-life situation, seeing how they could use it and it's not just sitting at a table with their book," Mrs Reid explains.

Although he wasn't planning to include a performance in today's session, a little persuasion works and Chris plays Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk".

As well as doing wonders for maths at Buckie, it looks as if his visit will swell the sound of the school's brass section.

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