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Taking music down to the seashore

The abiding memory of music teaching for many people is a weekly class taken by an agitated teacher who would put on a record and attempt to control the small group of boys for whom the class represented a prime opportunity for miscreant behaviour. Over the past five years, however, Edinburgh University's faculty of music has been attempting to introduce new elements through the Music in the Community course - which last month won it the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

The course allows honours and masters music students to use their talents in the development of music in the community and in schools. It also encompasses work with disabled people and those with speech and hearing difficulties, the rehabilitation of offenders and work to restore the teaching of music in war-damaged Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Beverley Scott and Claire Gates, two final-year honours students, are working on an on-going teaching project at Preston Street Primary School in Edinburgh. "For one lesson, I went down to the beach and I got sand and shells. I got them to think about what sounds these might make," explains Beverley Scott. "Another time, we sang a song about rowing a boat down a stream which is fairly standard, but I got them to make the shape of a boat and move in time to the song and they got the feel for the rhythm. Some of them try and play up because you're not a teacher but the class is disciplined and not a free-for-all. "

Claire Gates says: "By getting them to make sounds, you can eventually build a composition without really knowing it. They're not going to be able to learn theory, but you can show them where they have to join in with the sounds you get them to make. That's what they understand."

The course is the brainchild of Professor Nigel Osborne who says teachers have been least competent in areas with a strong creative element. "They've been happiest with the listening and playing aspects of the syllabus."

The initial pilot in 1991 was a collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that took Standard grade music pupils in Lothian through the work of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. The principles and idiosyncrasies of his music were examined in a workshop with students from the course and the musicians. Professor Osborne describes this as an "active relationship" and it culminated in a performance of work that borrowed elements of Lutoslawski's style. The pupils also met him when he visited Edinburgh.

"In Lutoslawski's music there are certain ideas about rhythm, and giving the kids the ability to experiment with his work gave them an insight into his work," explains Professor Osborne.

The students and musicians also helped Edinburgh primary and secondary pupils to adorn the Botanic Gardens with ethnic artefacts to serve as a backdrop to the performance of their composition on the theme of the rainforest. Professor Osborne says this type of collaboration is an enlightening experience for all the students, whether or not they eventually go into teaching: "It's essential for people who are studying music to understand what its relevance and usefulness is. The best thing that you can do as a musician is to prepare yourself as widely and deeply as possible. The popular conception of the ivory tower is absolutely wrong."

For further details about the Music in the Community course, contact the Faculty of Music, Edinburgh University, tel: 0131 650 1000

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