A taste of creative freedom gets pupils playing while they learn new skills and techniques, says Tom Deveson
It is half-past four on a damp Thursday afternoon but that doesn't stop the stream of boys and girls from local primaries coming into Cardinal Wiseman Secondary School in the Kingstanding area of Birmingham. They are carrying guitars, clarinets, flutes and trumpets, while the music department supplies a double bass and a set of keyboards. Soon the ensemble is in full flow. The timbres blend and separate, the rhythms are crisp and forceful.
Listeners soon realise two things about this warm-up: the music is richly built out of one note spread over several octaves, and it's being improvised.
The group has been brought together with support from Birmingham Music Service, Sound Futures (the action zone of Birmingham Youth Music, operating in an area of social and economic deprivation) and the school itself. The most important contribution comes from Team World Music, the inspirational pairing of Richard Duckett and his son Ed. Richard has vast experience as a teacher and performer, and is author of the popular Team tutor books for a range of instruments. Ed is a fine guitarist and an impressive organiser. Their aim is "to help children get access to the music that is already in their heads."
The Ducketts' product, Explorations, provides a set of musical starting points which allow instrumental teachers to give pupils' musical creativity its freedom at the very time that they are acquiring specialist techniques.
The children in Kingstanding are using the book Classroom Band, which makes it possible for any combination of instruments, with players at all levels of fluency, to work together.
Richard and Ed recognise that we all have different ways of learning, and that musical resources have to be adaptable to children rather than the other way around. Children can play by ear, from notation or by copying their teachers and friends, and they can use all these methods within the same activity.
In the one-note piece, Richard reminds players: "It's not how many notes you play, it's what you do with them." With a firm pulse supplied by the adults, children volunteer to do little solo breaks which everyone then imitates, before creating a giant rondo in which each player in turn produces a two-bar rhythmic phrase of their own. The note A constantly shifts in timbre, taking on beautiful, unexpected changes in colour.
Players - some of whom have attended for just a few weeks - are learning to speak the language of music with fluency and assurance.
The next activity uses three notes to create a 12-bar blues. As the piece grows, you can hear children doing things they might not have realised were within their reach. One girl moves her notes around the keyboard, enjoying the effective contrast of high and low sounds, then begins to syncopate her riff as she realises how much variety can be cherished even within a small phrase. Some children find they can use more than three notes. One boy with a guitar has discovered that he can make the same pattern as he did last week, but higher up on the fretboard. Other children shape their blues into three four-bar phrases, exploring structure as well as texture and timbre.
The session finishes with a "haunted house" piece, which allows everyone to add something spooky in response to Richard's gestures. Flutter-tonguing on flutes blends into sliding tremolandi on the double bass or notes hummed into the guitar. Then it's time for a drink and biscuit and the journey home.
Cheryl Taysum appreciates the value of all this for her nine-year-old son Andrew. "He's learning to listen and play at the same time, which is what real musicians need to do."
Caroline Cotterill, mother of Andrew (trumpet) and Robert (keyboard) agrees. "They get a great amount of confidence from this - it's about being individuals and being part of a group."
Luke Brady and Emily James both bring their guitars to the sessions. "We can make things up that work because we're listening to other instruments and listening to our own sounds, and putting them together. It's good when you hear other children play something you just made up."
This sense of discovery also underlies the work of an enthusiastic listener here, education officer for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Nancy Evans. "These are just the kinds of skills we're encouraging professional musicians to develop, the kind they need in performing new improvisatory works where individual players contribute to the overall orchestral sound."
John Clemson, head of Birmingham Music Services, is also very positive. "There are many benefits gained from this kind of work. It's challenging but not scary; it gives children a sense of purpose, making their solitary practice worth while, and provides a sense of progression so they don't feel they've hit a wall; it allows everyone to join in, whatever their instrument; and it suggests dozens of ideas to instrumental teachers for making their lessons more lively and invigorating."
There are plenty of delightful ideas in Classroom Band. Players can try pieces in Chinese, Japanese, Caribbean, salsa or minimalist styles, or use their fingers, mouths and ears to give substance to concepts such as "raga"
or "Dorian mode". Teachers can be confident that musical literacy is given a secure foundation - indeed, notation, far from being neglected, goes hand in hand with improvisation within each activity.
Children are encouraged to play more than they know. And the procedures work with classroom instruments too, so that ensembles can be created from xylophones, recorders and glockenspiels. Talent developed in-house can make 5G's assembly into a musical event. "Explorations" is a fitting title for an enterprise that allows such heart-warming, mind-stretching and ear-pleasing occasions to flourish.
* Explorations materials, including teacher's edition and DVD (pound;19.99), can be bought at www.musicroom.com
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