Baker rises to the occasion

26th August 2005 at 01:00
When it comes to youth music, the Outer Hebrides have a recipe to feed the soul, writes Su Clark.

Every afternoon, Louis Macleod trudges up to Stornoway Primary, flour billowing behind him. He sits with four or five pupils for 40 minutes, then wanders home. He is the manager at the local bakery, but it is this time at the end of the day that he loves the most.

Louis is part of the revamped music tuition service offered to every P6 pupil in the Western Isles: he gives guitar lessons.

When the Youth Music Initiative was announced by the Scottish Executive in February 2003, making a commitment to guarantee access to one year's free music tuition to all pupils by the time they finish P6, the Western Isles took the opportunity to overhaul its limited provision. Previously, with just one brass instruments tutor, three pipers and three Gaelic singers in the authority, any pupil who wanted to learn music had to do so with whichever tutor was available on their island.

"There had been a concern that the authority had an instrument-based model that gave no choice to the children," says Donald Macleod (no relation), the integration manager for the Western Isles. "So when the YMI money came through, we reorganised to make it more pupil-centred."

This began with a survey of its schools to find out what instruments the children would like to learn. The authority then went out recruiting: looking for part-time tutors made things easier. It now offers all its P6 pupils the opportunity to learn some instrument.

"We tried to find tutors so that we could offer whatever instrument had been the most requested," Donald says. "Obviously, it wasn't always possible, but we have managed to provide almost every school with its choice."

It still means there is often only one type of instrument available at each school, so not every child got his or her choice, having to go with the majority, but Donald believes that by involving them in the process, they and their parents are satisfied with the outcome.

"We have had a remarkably low fall-out rate," he says, as the initiative moves into its third year. "And we've had a lot of children taking up the opportunity. We are now looking at extending the service to P7 children so they don't have to stop after just one year."

Getting a consensus is just part of the Western Isles's success: it is also celebrating the high quality of tutors it has managed to recruit.

On Barra, pupils have the benefit of a violinist who has played around the world. Duncan Johnstone's experience is impressive: he has played principal viola with Scottish Ballet and Oakland Ballet (of California) and violin with the San Francisco String Quartet; he has performed with Scottish Opera and been a member of the Royal Opera House for nearly 10 years before settling on Barra.

In Stornoway, they have Louis Macleod. A self-taught guitarist, he has been playing for more than 16 years and is currently studying for a national vocational qualification in arts development teaching. He also plays keyboards, mandolin and saxophone.

Few of Louis's pupils have dropped out - or missed lessons - and some who no longer qualify for free tuition are taking lessons privately. He now has 35 pupils in all, enough to allow him to work fewer hours at the bakery.

"I've been able to go part time and, hopefully, I'll eventually be able to teach guitar full time," he says. "Then I won't have to turn up covered in flour."

His approach is child-centred and flexible. He gets them hooked before introducing the more technical elements of playing. "I try to make it fun and as interesting as possible. I give them tunes they know from TV and films, and I don't start teaching them to read music immediately. Instead, I use the tabulated method, showing finger positions on the strings."

"It's fun," says one boy. "I like learning songs I know."

The Western Isles faces greater challenges than urban authorities when it comes to offering variety, but more of its children than ever are learning an instrument and it is an instrument most would have chosen wherever they had lived.

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