Tuning in is turning on confidence

26th September 2003 at 01:00
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a Glasgow special school are convinced of the value of music in education. Brian Hayward reports on their three-year programme

A partnership between the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Kelvin Special School in Glasgow has begun at a time when the value of music in "extreme" education is being investigated with more interest than ever before.

Educationists are moving towards a more careful assessment of the many roles of music in personal and social development, energised by the work of Nigel Osborne, Reid Professor of music at Edinburgh University, who has worked with war-traumatised children in the Balkans (TES Scotland, September 12), and the value of creativity promoted by training organisations such as Tapestry (TES Scotland, September 19).

Its worth at Kelvin School is not in doubt. In recent years, the RSNO team and the school have created musical events that have left parents profoundly moved at the sight of their children's confidence and skill.

This is more remarkable because Kelvin is a school more selective than most in Scotland, enrolling only those who have one or more disabilities and are sight-impaired.

Engaging imaginatively with the 70 pupils, from pre-nursery age to 18, is as challenging as arts in education gets. However, so strong is their belief in the value of creative work that the orchestra and school have assembled grants totalling pound;54,000 to fund a three-year co-operative music programme.

At the sharp end of this partnership is Karen McIver, recruited from Scottish Opera For All to be the orchestra's music animateur and head of education. She treasures the immediacy of being creative with young, "unmannered" children.

"If they don't like the idea they scowl and shout 'Noa!'. If they like it, there's no holding them," she says of the Kelvin School pupils.

She will draw on players from the orchestra according to the needs of each project with the school. Those who volunteer for this work need to bring a high level of interpersonal skills but they also reap a benefit.

"Orchestra playing can be a constrained and impersonal business," says educational development manager Ewan Small, "but at Kelvin they can see the effect of their playing on the listener and they enjoy responding and adapting. They see it as career development."

For Giraffes Can't Dance, the first performance in the three-year project, four musicians (two violinists, a bassist and a percussionist) spent five days in the school, teaching the songs and devising all the other musical contributions asked of the children. Depending on age, ability and enthusiasm, their input involved some precise percussion on the drums, enthusiastic tambourine shaking, making warthog noises with a kazoo and more besides.

At the same time - and just as important - the musicians were befriending the children, winning their trust and giving them the confidence to discover their musical abilities.

Ms McIver devised the musical from the story by Giles Andreae - there is a copy in the school library - which was chosen because it swims in the mainstream of the Kelvin philosophy. The giraffe is the odd one out: when the animals gather to frolic to the music of the waltz, rock 'n' roll, tango and cha-cha, they laugh at him (led by the first violin) for his clumsy antics. He retires in shame and despair to a quiet clearing where a cricket tells him he is trying to dance to the wrong music. Given a tap-dance routine, his hooves rap the hall floor in triumph.

The message is not lost on the pupils' watching families, friends and supporters, who fill the school hall for the performance. More than that, it is central to the work of the staff and their helpers, who know that if the children are to gain self-esteem and the confidence to make the most of themselves, they have first to believe that disability is a difference and not a disqualification.

The fact that eight musicians come from the prestigious RSNO to share the concert gives a galloping start to the creation of self-worth in the Kelvin School community, in a way that an anonymous group of music educators, however dedicated, could never emulate. Their willingness to commit themselves over three years helps to confirm the faith of the teachers, carers and helpers. These, in turn, win praise from the RSNO team for their "open-hearted co-operation", following the lead of their "inspirational" headteacher, Sister Pat Gribbin.

She is enthused by the project. "Music has a special power, even more so with people who are sight-impaired and, therefore, more dependent on hearing," she says. "The children are deeply excited by the music, they say unexpected things and change their behaviour.

"I think that, because the musical part of the brain is near the part that deals with emotions, the music seems to release parts of their minds that are otherwise closed by their disabilities.

"It's hard to put it into words, but when the RSNO is here there is a sparkle about the place."

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