Three for the price of one

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Andrea Oates describes a scheme to enable primary children to try a number of instruments

Foxfield Primary School in Woolwich was one of the first schools in Greenwich to benefit from money to support the government's Wider Opportunities pledge that every primary child that wants to should have the opportunity of learning a musical instrument.

Its pupils could not be further away from the white, middle-class stereotype of children who play instruments. Nearly half the children at Foxfield get free school meals, almost a third have special needs and about 40 per cent speak English as a second language: Tamil and Yoruba are the most frequently spoken languages after English.

Through the Wider Opportunities programme devised by Greenwich Music Service, all Year 4 children have a year of tuition that includes three different instruments. They learn violin, guitar and djembe drums for five weeks each in the first part of the project, then in the second half of the year, they have more in-depth tuition on one instrument.

The programme includes music making and music reading, although the ethos of Greenwich is that there should be a balance between aural learning and learning from notation. In addition, a general music strand runs through the programme, akin to national curriculum activities that might take place in class, such as singing, learning songs, and pulse and rhythm games.

On the afternoon I visit, the class starts with a warm-up, playing pulse and rhythm games while singing "Mr Walker", a song from the Caribbean that has become a favourite with the children. The class then splits into three groups to learn guitar with Ian Russell, lead music tutor in the project, violin with Kathryn James, and djembe drums with Tiago Alves. The groups then come back together for ensemble playing, which Ian says is a very important part of the lesson: "Music is all about playing in ensembles. You need to look and listen to other people playing so listening skills are very important."

The children also take turns to conduct the group and learn how to respond to and give signals, for smooth, or longer notes, for example.

Deputy headteacher Joanna Gledhill says the scheme, now in its second year at Foxfield, is "brilliant. The children look forward to Tuesday afternoons so much, it's one of their favourite lessons. The enjoyment factor is definitely the most successful feature of the project."

It also links with other areas of the curriculum, particularly science.

"For example, the children learn about pitch and vibration, how sounds are made, and when they learn about sound in science, they have experienced making it first hand so the topic makes more sense to them," she says.

The programme also provides opportunities for teachers to gain musical and teaching skills, an area where many lack confidence. Joanna says: "It has taught me how to manage a group of children playing a tuned instrument, given me new ideas about teaching music, and most importantly, it's taught me just how inclusive music is - it brings a sense of community and togetherness. The project has raised self-esteem among many of the children with special needs, both behavioural and medical. It gives children who don't do so well in academic subjects a chance to shine, and usually behaviour in the lessons is excellent because they enjoy it so much."

Pupils Abdul, John and Robin said their favourite instrument was the djembe drum, while Lucy enjoyed playing all three instruments. John said: "You can make so many wonderful sounds, just using your two hands."

Ian says: "The children are very keen, very glad to see you when you arrive." And working with teams in Foxfield and other schools has given him the opportunity to work with tutors from different educational and musical backgrounds.

He has also been pleased with the way it has brought parents into school, with good attendance at the termly performances, and is delighted the school has found a way of providing continuation for the children's musical education after their one-year programme.

Greenwich received pound;10,000 to run the Wider Opportunities programme in four schools in the first year (20045) and the same amount in 20056, when the programme was extended to five more schools. The funding pays 85 per cent of the initial outlay for instruments, 45 per cent of tuition costs in the first year, 30 per cent in the second year, and 15 per cent in the third. But there is no additional money for continuing with instrumental tuition after children have taken part in their year-long programme.

At Foxfield, the parents' association has received a grant from Capital Radio's Help a London Child charity, which pays for the music tutors to run an after-school music club on Tuesdays. This means that children now in Year 5, who were the first children to pilot the project at the school, can continue with their musical education. Together with money raised by the parents' association through sponsored events and fairs, the grant will also buy instruments for children to use at home.

John Stephens, Greenwich co-ordinator, is also pleased that Foxfield has found money to enable children to continue: "Continuation is of vital importance and a difficult aspect because of funding. If we can't extend in a long-term way, the project doesn't succeed."

* More details from John Stephens co-ordinator, Greenwich Music Service Email:

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