Let's hear it for the orchestra

28th October 2005 at 01:00
This year's Schools Proms demonstrate what can be achieved by developing a school orchestra. Gerald Haigh finds out how to make it happen

A school orchestra from Oldham, 60 strong, with children across the whole age range from 11 to 19, will hold the key finale spot at the Schools Prom on Monday, November 7. Pupils from Crompton House C of E High School will mount the platform at the Albert Hall to perform Malcolm Arnold's Little Suite for Orchestra, and then sock it to us in traditional Prom style with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No 1.

Once upon a time, that last Prom spot would invariably have been filled by a county or a city youth orchestra, and it's a measure of rising standards that there are now school orchestras easily capable of rising to the occasion. This year, in addition to the Monday finale from Crompton House, Tuesday's concert ends with a performance by Lady Manners School from Derbyshire. As Music for Youth's director, Larry Westland CBE, says:

"School orchestras are so incredibly improved. And it is a Schools Prom after all." So how is it done?

If you're an up-and-coming music teacher with an ambition to build a superb orchestra - or, indeed, if you're a head with an eye to just what musical excellence can achieve for your school - what are the essential ingredients?

Probably the first thing to come to terms with is that it's not going to happen overnight. Jack Pickford has been director of music at Crompton House for 16 years. When he arrived, there was a band and a choir, and about 50 children were taking instrumental lessons. Now, 300 children learn insruments, there's a choir in every year group plus a senior choir that has sung in St Paul's Cathedral, and lots of instrumental groups. It's taken virtually all of the 16 years to get there, and there's no secret ingredient.

"You need enthusiasm and the right sort of repertoire," says Jack, who writes and arranges music so as to include players of varying levels of skill. "You also need worthwhile experiences," he says - by which he means memorable concerts with appreciative audiences. Many leaders of good school groups, from infants up to sixth-formers, mention this. Every player, every singer, wants to perform. It gives them something to aim for. Above all, there's the applause telling the group that maybe they really are as special as their mums and dads keep telling them.

Crompton House is a Church of England comprehensive with about 1,200 pupils drawn from across Oldham and neighbouring Rochdale. Music, clearly, is a great strength - but, according to Jack, the department doesn't always have its own way.

"Things are pretty competitive," he says. "Sport is enormously strong here, and music is only one facet of a really vibrant community."

It helps, though, that some staff, including senior managers, sing in the choir or play instruments. There's strong support, too, from the head and the governors, who ensure that the school subsidises pupils' instrumental lessons.

As Jack acknowledges, one of the main drivers of the quality of Crompton House's music-making is the high standard of the young musicians coming from partner primary schools. "We have strong players coming in, with Grade 3 and 4 exams, and two or three of the local primaries have string ensembles."

One of the partner schools, Thornhill St James C of E Primary, has its own school orchestra, and although there's excellent music teaching in the school, headteacher Margaret Johnson is full of praise for the instrumental tuition provided by Oldham's music service. "They're wonderful," she says.

"We have 36 children learning violin, and 15 learning cello - that's in a school of 210."

She's delighted that so many are able to continue making progress in secondary school. "It's good to go to a concert and see them going on to reach such a high standard."

Jack Pickford is equally enthusiastic about Oldham's provision, and the way visiting instrumental teachers collaborate with his department. "My string section rehearsals are taken by a specialist from the music service," he says. "I can pick her brains about details, and get advice about repertoire."

Local authority co-operation is also there when it comes to providing the orchestra with what Jack calls "endangered species" instruments, by which he means the less popular choices, such as bassoon, oboe and double bass.

"We provide free lessons for about 16 players, who take them up as second instruments. It's financed from the gifted and talented scheme and it's phenomenally successful."

* The Schools Proms take place at the Royal Albert Hall on November 7, 8 and 9.

There will be further coverage in next week's Friday magazine.

Music for Youth: www.mfy.org.uk

Schools Proms: www.mfy.org.ukeventsschoolsprom.html

How to build an orchestra

* Have patience. Lay careful foundations in class as well as in rehearsal. Crompton House staff sometimes go to music festivals with whole-class groups rather than "special" ensembles.

* Search out opportunities. On September 14, Crompton House choir - including a dozen Year 7s just days into secondary school - was singing at St Asaph Cathedral.

* Build links with primary schools. Crompton House uses beacon status funding for this. Crompton House orchestra has helped primaries with the "sound" section of the primary science curriculum. Some schools delegate some of their instrumental tuition time to partner primaries.

* Work as a team with colleagues; allow people to develop their own contribution. Make allies in senior management - players, singers, or just enthusiasts.

* Make links with parents and supporters. Make sure the music department is well represented at evenings for new parents, and nourish parental contacts.

* Cultivate the local music service. Some are better resourced than others, so it's a case of knowing the people, and being understanding their problems.

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