Reva Klein finds that music is for everybody when a composer visits an east London school
"This is the first performance of this piece," announces David Stoll, struggling to look suitably stern, to the class of Year 4 pupils who have just presented their creation with a certain lack of co-ordination. "And I can honestly say it's an unmitigated disaster."
The pronouncement of the professional composer is met with an outburst of giggles by the pupils at Woolmore Primary School in Tower Hamlets, east London. Their first "performance" of a collaborative composition involving maracas and hand-clapping is rough and they know it. Stoll gets them to do it again and this time they carefully watch the conductor's gestures. It pays off with a distinctly improved rendition. Asked to take a bow to their teachers' appreciative applause, the children do so with pride and dramatic flourish, as if they have not only attended, but starred in operas and orchestral concerts all their lives. But here, literally in the shadow of Canary Wharf, bordered by street after street of joyless housing estates, the pupils' musical imagination has been unleashed and with it a kind of creative liberation has taken place.
The predominately Bangladeshi pupil intake, whose musical experience is for the most part defined by telly theme tunes and action film scores, have taken to David Stoll's approach to music composition like delighted fish to water.
They have been involved in a project to help primary teachers with their national curriculum requirements to teach composition. The project, run by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters and commissioned by the DfES, ran from January to April over a period of four sessions. David Stoll, who trained as a classroom teacher and is a regularly commissioned composer for the Royal Shakespeare Company, worked with teachers and their pupils to explore the process of creating music. The aim is to build teachers' confidence in teaching composition by showing them how to approach what is, for many non-specialists, a daunting task for which they feel unprepared.
David Stoll explains the rationale of the project: "This is about helping composers to help teachers to help children. The role of the teacher in the project is to be an assistant, an observer and a participant with the children. I believe every primary teacher can teach music, but few know how to open up the musical imagination of their pupils. The approach we've used in this project gives the opportunity for that to happen."
As well as believing in the ability of teachers to teach music, David Stoll is convinced that "music is for everybody. At primary school age children haven't yet developed set ideas about which music is for them and which isn't, so they are more open to exploring different styles."
Over the four weeks he devised with the pupils a "musical notation" that involved them making up their own symbols. They explored the concept of music by making noises with their mouths, by clapping their hands, stamping their feet and playing tambourines and maracas.
Julie Harrison, a Year 4 teacher involved in the project, found the sessions confidence-building and eye-opening. "I haven't had an experience like this before, working alongside a music expert. It's given me inspiration to do more music with my class and has given me practical ideas on how to do it. I feel able to build on what David's done, by creating more shapes with music, and introducing more rests. I'd like to look at composing our own music to accompany our drama performances. Although teachers feel that the arts have been squeezed in the last few years, with the national literacy and numeracy strategies, this work has given me ideas for ways of bringing music into literacy work."
For headteacher Tracey Argent, focusing on music isn't an add-on, but an intrinsic part of her vision for the school. Following a good Ofsted report 18 months ago, she and her team decided to build on their strengths, in her words: "by concentrating on oracy, thinking skills and creativity. This ties in with what we are trying to achieve with our pupils."
For their part, Woolmore pupils participating in the project valued their time with David Stoll. Even a task generally considered onerous got the thumbs up. "I enjoyed doing homework for David. We went home and wrote music and then he played it in class on the piano," enthuses Javed, aged nine.
Following on from the project, David Stoll and Fiona Harvey, education officer at the Association of British Orchestras, will be presenting their report on the project to the DfES, the aim of which is to identify what non-specialist teachers need to teach composition at key stages 1 and 2, based on discussions with staff at Woolmore and his own observations.
"This," believes David Stoll, "will open the door to music initiatives in the future."