Lessons in harmony

6th January 2006 at 00:00
One of Scotland's big successes is its specialist music schools, four centres of excellence funded by the Scottish Executive. Miranda Fettes reports

raditionally, specialist music education has been the domain of the independent school system. Providing music schools is something which states in Europe don't do, as a rule. Except Scotland, that is.

The Scottish Executive funds the country's four centres of excellence in music through its Excellence Fund. They provide specialist music education in addition to the full curriculum of their host school, with many pupils progressing to prestigious conservatoires and Royal Colleges of Music.

Tudor Morris, director of the City of Edinburgh Music School, based in Broughton High and Flora Stevenson Primary, says 63 per cent of the school's leavers go on to conservatoires and music colleges around the UK, predominantly the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Many have also gone to London to the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. And 35 per cent go on to university, about half to study music.

"The Royal Northern College is popular because of a joint course with Manchester University that is incredibly demanding but can lead to a double first (class degree)," says Mr Morris.

"Some students go abroad, to music colleges such as Berklee College in Boston, the American School of Modern Music in Paris and the Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music in New York."

The City of Edinburgh Music School has 50 pupils from P2 to S6, of numerous nationalities. Sixty per cent are local, 20 per cent come from the rest of Scotland and 20 per cent from further afield. The past five years have seen pupils from Peru, Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Spain, Germany and Mexico, playing everything from piano to alphorn.

It is becoming the first official "Steinway school" in Europe, with Steinway pianos replacing others. "It's quite a prestigious partnership,"

says Mr Morris.

Public performing plays an important role in the school's profile. "We played for the opening of the new Scottish Parliament, the millennium Hogmanay celebrations, royalty and visiting world leaders," he says. "Music school students performed at over 60 public performances last session, including the opening of the national Mod."

They recently performed with the three other music schools in a concert at The Hub in Edinburgh - the first time the schools have performed together - to an invited audience of civil servants, educationists, HM Inspectorate, musicians, teachers and parents.

Pupils follow the normal timetables of Broughton High and Flora Stevenson Primary, but are taken out of mutually agreed lessons. The primary pupils do two half-hour music sessions a day; in S1 and S2, a quarter of the lessons are specialist music; the proportion rises to half by S5 and S6.

"We try to get whoever would be the best match to come and work with them,"

explains Mr Morris. "If someone's doing traditional music, we'd ask somebody like Aly Bain to come in. If someone wanted to be a rock singer, we'd ask Shirley Manson (of rock band Garbage), a former pupil."

"We fast-track them in academic subjects to create time further up the school. They nearly all leave with five Highers and an A-level in music.

"A large proportion of our students have additional academic needs," he says. "I am not sure if this is coincidental or maybe linked to being gifted and using music as an important means of self-expression. Among the recent specialist students are children also coping with Asperger's syndrome, dyslexia and severe emotional problems."

Dougie Pincock, director of the the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in Plockton, Wester Ross, feels the music schools are "one of the very few success stories of the Scottish Executive", along with the sports school and dance school, because they are genuinely accessible.

"The opportunity is there for the pupils and it doesn't matter how poor they are or where they come from. The only criterion is ability."

Pupils from all over Scotland board in the school hostel at Plockton High.

Of the 21 pupils at the school, which is only five years old, 17 are in S5 or S6. "Most of our pupils join us in S5 or S6," explains Mr Pincock.

"There are very few S1 pupils who are able to perform at the level we operate at. At 15-16 they're ready to perform, ready to move away from home."

Music accounts for 10 hours a week plus one weekend a month for the pupils, over and above their normal education.

"They're doing this as well as Highers, so it's hectic but it's very rewarding. The kids put a lot into it but they get a lot out of it too."

The full range of traditional music - bagpipes, fiddle, accordion, clarsach, piano, guitar, whistle, flute and Gaelic and Scots song - are on offer, with tutoring from some of Scotland's leading traditional musicians.

"They each have to do a first and second study. If clarsach is your main instrument, you might do a second study on piano. It's to give them a breadth of musical experience and understanding."

Mr Pincock says about 60 per cent of pupils go on to study music. "Quite a lot go on to the RSAMD to do a BA in Scottish music, some go to Strathclyde and do a BA in applied music, we've placed a couple at Newcastle University - they've offer a BA in folk and traditional music - and one's in Limerick doing a BA in Irish music and dance."

S6 pupil Kimberley Mackay, from Wick, plays fiddle, pipes and piano. "We get great opportunities, like gigs and workshops, and good tutors once a week, people like Iain MacFarlane, Jack Evans, Andy Thorburn," she says.

The school has a proud tradition of producing a CD every year in its studio and released May the 4th Be With You last month.

Bodega, comprising five former pupils and one current pupil, recently won BBC Radio 2's Young Folk award.

Public performances include the Mod, Celtic Connections, the Scottish Parliament and in 2007 the launch of the Highland festival.

Dyce Academy plays host to the Aberdeen City Music School, which can take up to 50 pupils. "We take people on merit," says its director, Stephen Pinnock.

"In addition to that, we've got a number of primary school bursary holders where we offer free tuition to pupils who demonstrate exceptional promise.

"As a rough guide, when they come in at S1 they've got to be somewhere in the region of grade three, four or five with distinction. Once they come into S5, they're grade six and above with distinction. Our job is to get them to that stage. We've got dozens with grade eight with distinction.

Seven have the diploma of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and one has the licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music."

Ten pupils will be leaving at the end of this session. Several are going to the RSAMD and Royal Northern College of Music and one has been offered a place at both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Others have gone on to Guildhall and the Royal Academy.

"Ninety per cent go on to conservatoires," says Mr Pinnock.

The pupils come from all over Scotland. Of the current role of 38, 31 are boarders.

"We get people from all sorts of social backgrounds and they're judged purely on merit and potential. It's equal opportunity. We've got some from lower income bracket homes and there's no way they could have afforded the amount of tuition we give or the fees to go to a private school."

Public performing is central to the ethos and success of the school, says Mr Pinnock. "The more public performances, the better. We played to the Queen when she was in Aberdeen on October 4; we do a major concert in the Music Hall in Aberdeen every year and we do dozens of other concerts for charity, citizenship ceremonies and so on."

The music school at Douglas Academy in East Dunbartonshire is the fourth centre of excellence. Its director, Ronald McIntosh, believes it is far-sighted of the Executive to fund the centres within the state sector.

"From whatever background, boys and girls throughout the country can benefit significantly from courses which combine normal day school education with specialist tuition in a wide variety of musical opportunities," he says.

Mr Morris agrees. "In England there are specialist music schools but they're in the independent sector. In Scotland, our specialist colleges are funded through the state, which is marvellous."

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