Playing to a different tune

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Specialist music schools don't have to be the preserve of child prodigies. Wells Cathedral School has 800 pupils, many of whom are admitted regardless of musical talent. But music is their key learning tool, reports Joanna Snicker.

Sixteen-year-old Felicity plays the violin exceptionally well. She is a specialist musician at Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, one of the four special music schools in Britain. Her work schedule is intense: music lessons every day, practice sessions in the evening, and concerts around the country, as well as studying for her GCSEs. She and the other 150 specialist musicians at Wells are undoubtedly gifted, geniuses even. But they are not allowed to become obsessed with their own achievements. Wells is unique among British specialist music schools: it is a conventional, co-educational school of about 800 pupils aged 4 to 18, with an "extra-special" music faculty.

The specialists may have all their lessons together, but at other times they can develop friendships with the other pupils, all within a musical atmosphere. Roger Durston, head of music at the school and chairman of the Music Education Council, argues that pupils everywhere, whether in the state or private sector, primary or secondary, musically gifted or not, should be educated through music. Research has shown that creative arts stimulate under-used areas of the brain, whereas traditional academic subjects concentrate on linear intelligence. Mr Durston, who was county music adviser for East Sussex until 1995, goes further, arguing that music is the only subject to encompass all aspects of learning.

"Engagement in musical activity from an early age enhances other areas of development," he says. "It deals with three areas of activity: the affective - the development of an emotional response; the cognitive content, which involves learning patterns; and fine and gross motor skills.

"It is different to all other arts subjects. Take painting: it is largely a solitary activity. Music is often a team activity, and what's more it takes place in time. The sculptor does not line up in quarters or quintets to sculpt with minute-time accuracy, simultaneously expressing the same thing in a team effort. There are near analogies with dance, where movement and technique require simultaneous action. But there you don't get the element of reading that music requires."

Wells Cathedral School became specialist in the 1960s following a report, Making Musicians, by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which said music was neglected as a serious academic discipline. But unlike the other three specialist schools in this country - Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, the Purcell School, Harrow, and the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey - Wells remained mainstream, exploring issues of differentiation some 20 years before the Warnock report called for pupils with special educational needs to be educated at the same school as other pupils.

The Wells model, with its emphasis on discipline and perseverance, is likely to appeal to politicians and some educational commentators. But music, being generally perceived as a "high" art, seems out of step with the needs of Britain's inner-cities and the demands of the national curriculum. Wells school, however, has advantages. It is 800 years old, in beautiful surroundings close to the 14th-century cathedral, and charges fees of about Pounds 1, 800 a term.

But Mr Durston, who taught in a state school for six years and worked at a senior level in two local authorities for more than 10 years, argues that every child can relate to music; and popular music, he says, is just as effective as traditional classical sounds: "Cities are a problem. People get lost in them. We have unknowable communities where people disappear without a trace. Somehow we've got to get back, to rebuild that sense of community. And we can do that through music. Look at how rock bands can build that sense of community. " Wells is determined to tune in to popular culture: it offers non-classical music lessons and boasts a rock band of its own called Cage.

But what about the teenagers and young adults who long ago gave up music; can they rediscover a sense of interest and enjoyment? Mr Durston is optimistic that everyone has the potential to be musical, but admits that a good grounding at home from a young age is essential. He suggests parents introduce music to the child from the beginning and has little time for those who do not.

"Bringing up a child is a highly active business," he says. "Too many people do not understand how demanding it is, if you are going to nurture that growing organism properly."

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