Big bass fun

13th November 1998 at 00:00
The Association of British Orchestras brings professional musicians into schools. Gerald Haigh sees what a difference they can make - and previews the ABO's plans for 1999

The idea that the musical experience of an urban primary school might be kickstarted into new life by a double bass sounds unlikely. But this is exactly what happened at Cragside primary in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1993, when an Association of British Orchestras project brought together a professional player, a non-specialist teacher and a group of enthusiastic children.

Five years on, the effect is still visible - more than 50 pupils have instrumental lessons from visiting teachers. There are three recorder groups run by teachers, and an orchestra of 30 players.

Perhaps the best way to observe the musical health of a school, though, is to look at a routine classroom music lesson - for example, one taken by a relatively inexperienced non-specialist teacher. Infant teacher Anne MacDonald's lesson with five and six-year-olds provides an impressive example of what can be achieved.

The children sit in a circle around her as she leads them in singing and rhythm games with basic percussion instruments. Most striking, though, is not so much the activities themselves as the spirit the children bring to them. Everything they do, which includes singing enthusiastically and in tune, signals their familiarity with music - in the classroom and as performers and listeners.

The key figure here is music co-ordinator Joan James. Cragside's headteacher, Janet Thomson describes Mrs James as "doing a fantastic job. She's enthused the staff and the children, and we're fortunate to have her."

Mrs James is not, she admits, a trained music educator. "If anything my skills were in drama and English," she says. She did, though, run a guitar club, with the predictable result that primary teachers will recognise. She says: "When the national curriculum was being developed, and a music co-ordinator had to be found, I took it on, although I was a part-time teacher."

As the demands of the job increased, she needed some sort of boost, for herself, the pupils and the school. Right on cue came the 1993 ABO Turn of the Tide project. This put together professional orchestras and schools across the United Kingdom, rehearsing and performing a special composition by Peter Maxwell Davies. This piece had "windows" into which schools could insert their own original music.

The project called for orchestral musicians to visit schools, working on composition and performance with children and teachers. Joan James says: "I jumped at it. It seemed the answer to a prayer. I've always used experts in school in various ways. It was a bit scary of course - was I up to it? After all, this was a professional orchestra with a national reputation."

Cragside's visiting musician was Northern Sinfonia double bass player Jane McDermott. Of course, the double bass is not an instrument often associated with school music - which is what made it so suitable for the task. Jane McDermott says: "It's a brilliant instrument to take into school. You don't have to do anything - their jaws hit the floor as soon as they see it."

The physical presence of the instrument, she explains, is only part of it. "You can see the strings moving, and children can feel the body of the instrument vibrating. I gave them a taste of how it sounds at the bottom of the range, and at the top, using harmonics, and they made use of all that in their composition."

Joan James and Jane McDermott worked as a team to help the children produce a composition that would go into one of the "windows" in Maxwell Davies's piece. "The children were in control," says Joan James. "They knew what they wanted, and Jane made it work. She helped us musically, and I helped with my teaching skills. The partnership was very powerful."

The effect went well beyond her own class and the other children taking part. "A sort of osmosis took place. People honey-beed in to see what was happening. Teachers became interested, and started up projects of their own. One teacher started a recorder group. And when other children saw what was happening, they wanted to play."

The school had, of course, run classroom music lessons before this project. But Turn of the Tide moved it on to a different plane. The project gave Joan James confidence and renewed enthusiasm, and the initiatives that started then - the recorder groups, the orchestra, the willingness of teachers to take on their classroom music - has endured over the past five years.

Now, though, the threat to classroom music is greater than it has ever been. For whereas the advent of the national curriculum helped put music more firmly on the primary school map, the emphasis on literacy and numeracy seems likely to push it off again. Joan James and Janet Thomson will work hard to see that this does not happen, but as Anne MacDonald - whose key stage 1 lesson epitomises the Cragside approach - says: "It's difficult to keep it going now, with the literacy hour. I don't structure my music in the same way I do English and maths - but I know I should."

But she is clear about the benefits of music in the classroom. "There's listening, all kinds of language, and, whereas so much of education has become very competitive now, this is something where they can all join in at their own level."

In an ideal world, every school would have an injection of professional expertise across a wide range of subjects - theatre in education, science and technology projects, singers and players from various musical traditions. These, though, are just the areas that are being squeezed both by lack of funding and by the narrowing of the curriculum. All the more important, therefore, is the work of ABO and the Orchestras NOW (National Orchestra Week) project.

The ABO represents 70 UK professonal orchestras. An important part of its work is to develop the education projects in which every major orchestra is involved and which has grown hugely in the past 10 years. Players and groups are involved now not only in schools but in hospitals, community centres and prisons.

In developing this work, ABO is launching its Orchestras NOW project, with support from The TES Music for the Millennium campaign, which will run during the spring term of 1999, leading up to National Orchestra Week in March. Orchestras NOW has several interesting elements for schools, particularly in the primary sector, which is where the initial thrust is being directed:

* A pack for teachers - Working with Orchestras. Aimed at primary schools and non-specialist teachers, this will have practical information about how to make contact with local orchestras and work with them in school. Information and voucher schemes will also aim to encourage attendance at concerts.

* Six free training days for teachers in various locations in the UK. Each hosted by an orchestra, they will provide a practical introduction to working with orchestras in the classroom.

* Professional partnerships. The aim is to put non-specialist teachers and orchestral players together to develop musical projects for the classroom. The emphasis will be on cross-curricular work, and preliminary training will be included.

* National Orchestra Week - March 6-14 1999. Lots of special events - workshops, meeting players, backstage tours, informal performances, concerts - for everyone. ABO wants to encourage schools to mount their own special events during this week.

Professional orchestras, increasingly aware of the need to develop new young audiences, are, says ABO director Libby MacNamara, responding with enthusiasm to these initiatives. "There is a genuine desire," she says, "to build partnerships with teachers, and to share expertise. I believe it will be inspirational to everyone involved, and stimulate new creative energy in schools."

The project has caught the imagination, too, of Sir Simon Rattle, whose passionate advocacy of school music is well known. Congratulating the ABO, he says: "Research has proved what we all knew in our guts - that music can have an extraordinary effect on every area of learning, binding other disciplines together and imbuing them with meaning."

Schools and families can join Orchestras NOW free. A termly newsletter will carry information on all the events as well as competitions, special offers and vouchers. Tel: 0171 931 7750

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