Early start keeps band in tune

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Stewarton Academy is a regular award winner. Julie Morrice examines the secrets of its success

The Government's decision to set up a trust fund of Pounds 10 million for the teaching of music came on the news as I drove to Kilmarnock at the end of last term. Scotland did not get any of the money as it turned out, but that evening, listening to the Stewarton Academy Senior Wind Ensemble in the town's Grand Hall, it struck me what tremendous support for the teaching of music there was all around us.

First of all there was the band itself: 60 secondary pupils stretching from the unobtrusive front row of woodwind up to the eight-strong percussion team dashing from snare drum to marimba along the top rank of the platform. The ensemble performed a programme of dynamic contemporary music including a tremendous piece, Paris Sketches by Martin Ellerby, full of contrast and allusion, which went from rumbustious street noises to Satie-esque melancholy, showing off both the big swelling sound and sweet tone of this superb school band.

East Ayrshire's education department organised the concert to recognise and celebrate the tremendous achievement of Stewarton's wind ensemble in winning a third successive gold award in the annual national Boosey Hawkes competition. In a period when music teaching has been under immense pressure and when local authorities have had to dig deep to keep tuition levels up, the council has shown a commitment to music in schools which is the background to Stewarton's success.

Quietly proud, the parents were there too. The Stewarton band is supported by parents to the tune of several thousand pounds a year, raised at barbecues, auctions and lunches. The band now has Pounds 40,000-worth of instruments thanks to their efforts. "The parent support group is the taxi service, the fundraiser and the removal team that gets the heavy instruments around. "It's a big commitment," said Hugh and Ishbel Strathearn, whose son David was lugging a huge black case with a baritone sax in it. "This one will be coming up next," said Ishbel, putting her arm round her younger son. Clearly the results make it all worthwhile.

And the teachers. Several of the instrumental teachers were actually playing in the band, replacing final-year pupils who left school in May. That fact is revealing: a school band is not a fixed quantity. The line-up changes from year to year, and winning gold awards three years in a row shows a tremendous effort has been put in by staff to keep the ensemble playing at a high level when perhaps half the principal players disappear every year.

The key figure among the teaching staff was strangely sidelined at the concert. Nigel Durno, principal teacher of music at Stewarton Academy and founder and conductor of the wind ensemble, had broken his shoulder and could only watch as two stand-ins took his place.

Durno has taught at Stewarton for 20 years and has headed the wind ensemble for 10. He traces the success of the bands (there are five; three wind ensembles and two jazz ensembles) to the inspiration provided by the British Association of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles. Over the past 17 years, through the association's annual conferences and worldwide network of teachers and band directors, Durno has been able to adopt and adapt ideas and apply them to Stewarton.

"We have a properly structured band programme," says Durno, "which we are continually developing and refining."

The programme, which begins in primary 6 and takes pupils from the primary band through the junior and onto the senior band, is designed to be as inclusive as possible. "We want to give as many pupils as good a quality musical education or musical experience as we possibly can," he says. The proof is in the playing. Stewarton Academy has 900 pupils; 220 of them are involved in the bands and in instrumental tuition. They catch them young. For the past two years Stewarton staff have taken 50 absolute beginners from its feeder primaries on a residential weekend. "We basically do a term's work in one weekend," says Durno. "We mix intensive learning with outdoor and social activities, and we go from learning to hold the instrument on Friday to playing their first concert on the Sunday."

Durno believes these "kick-start weekends" solve the drop-out problem which instrumental teaching suffers from. "They are hitting success right away. " The staff enthusiasm that fuels the kick-start spills over into weekdays too.

The wind ensembles' weekly practice is at 8 o'clock on Friday mornings. "They're fresh at that time. We achieve a lot in that hour. And it means we're not competing with after-school activities. No other department is prepared to get out of bed that early," says Durno.

There is no doubt the wind ensembles work hard, but clearly they love it. Principal alto sax player Eric Milligan is a towering rugby player, but he is all smiles and enthusiasm when it comes to the band. "It's brilliant. How could it be anything else when you're with this lot," he says, grabbing half his saxophone section in a friendly scrum.

Stewarton seem to have got round the problem of school orchestras being seriously uncool. "I think a lot of people would like to be in the band, " says Milligan. "There's a bit of jealousy because the bands get a lot of attention in the school." "You only heard three soloists in the concert," said Durno. "But we could have gone to every section of the band and had a soloist; and each of them could have performed not only on that instrument, but as singers or pianists or guitarists. We are giving them lifelong music-making skills"

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