Prelude to success

Biddy Passmore

It might be small, but Conwy's music service is proving a real draw to pupils. Biddy Passmore reports

How many authorities have seen the number of pupils taking weekly music lessons nearly double over the past 10 years? Not many, for sure. But music has taken off in Conwy. Relatively few used to learn an instrument, which makes today's figures look impressive, but the subject has always been strong in the primary curriculum.

Today, 2,000 pupils have weekly tuition in strings, woodwind, brass, guitar, percussion, harp and singing. The authority's many music groups are invited to play on public occasions more and more often. And Conwy pupils are breaking through into national ensembles, with a record four in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales this year.

Conwy also has the distinction of having the only music service in Wales run by a dancer. Julie Meehan, slim, straight-backed and dynamic, was running a community dance group in the former Gwynedd when she was head-hunted to run the expressive arts when Conwy was created in 1996.

"I've learnt an awful lot in 10 years," she remarks.

She attributes the music service's success to the team of enthusiastic and highly professional tutors she inherited from Gwynedd and Clwyd. Eight years ago, they decided to set up a 15-strong staff ensemble, which goes on a popular tour of primary schools every summer, playing anything from The Simpsons' theme to opera or jazz to an audience totalling 5,500.

Designed to encourage the sheer pleasure of listening to professionally played live music, the concerts also give pupils the chance to make an informed choice about which instrument to choose to study. (They start at the age of seven.)

"We're disposing of the idea that all musicians are dead and rather crusty," says Ms Meehan. "For instance, you can play Bach on the electric guitar.

"And (the tour) is great for the music staff too. They often lead very fragmented lives and it brings them together."

The service lends instruments free of charge to schools, who lend them free to pupils. Most ask for a parental contribution to tuition fees, ranging from pound;10 to pound;25 a term. And travel is free to the three weekly after-school music centres that let pupils play in an orchestra, ensemble, band or choir. About 250 attend regularly.

Ms Meehan stresses that the intimacy of Wales's second smallest music service is a real strength, enabling it to match pupils' needs. One reluctant school attender, for instance, found her drum lessons at 9.30 were "a bit early" - so she didn't show up at all. The lesson was changed to 10.30 and now she comes and stays all day.

And a guitarist just about to take his GCSE music found himself faced with a dilemma. He was in the Welsh judo squad, where long nails are banned; but if he cut his nails, he could not play the guitar. The music service solved his problem by lending him a lute.

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Biddy Passmore

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