Where every child can sing

25th March 2005 at 00:00
Headteachers are devising ingenious ways of keeping music on the timetable. Linda Blackburne reports

You see," explains Ravanelli, "opera, in its widest sense, is not just about wobbly sopranos, horned helmets and stupid Italians. No, we take a much broader view. For us, it's about telling fantastic stories with action and music from all over the whole world."

Ravanelli is Ronald Samm from the English Pocket Opera dressed up as an Italian chef. He and his assistant Philip O'Brien are telling a group of primary schoolchildren about the universal ingredients of opera and musical theatre.

Just as flour, water and eggs are the basics for pasta, so action, words and music are the simple ingredients for opera.

"And," says Ravanelli, wiggling his chef's hat, "you know a lot more opera and classical music than you think you do."

The pair clear their throats and the school hall fills with the beautiful sound of two harmonious tenors singing the themes to three well-known adverts. The children are wide-eyed at the powerful song emanating from the two ordinary-looking chaps who have just walked in off the street. The tenors ask the children whether they can remember which product is being advertised. One of the excerpts features in the British Airways advert, and is the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera, Lakme.

The Opera Hotpot workshop ends with an interactive three-part warm-up.

First, the children say tongue-twisters to help limber up the lips, cheeks, tongues and jaws. Then they do a physical warm-up, stretching and running on the spot. Finally, they move on to the vocal warm-up, which develops into a two-part harmony.

The scene would surely please Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. In her essay last year entitled Government and the Value of Culture, she said: "There is no point in my funding the Royal Opera House at one end if schools are not giving pupils the equipment to understand opera as an art form, therefore restricting future audiences to those who have the benefit of an elite education."

Music education has been pared to the bone in the past decade, and without money many music service heads feel their hands are tied. In July, the Government launched its Music Manifesto in which it said the ring-fenced Music Standards Fund would be given a guaranteed pound;180 million between now and 2008.

Despite the struggle of many music departments over recent years, three out of six education authorities The TES telephoned at random were working closely with operatic companies to bring opera into primary schools.

And in Kirklees, Maggie Dunn, former head of music and now assistant headteacher at Mirfield Free grammar, has a few words for Tessa Jowell: "I say make the music. If children can access music for themselves, they become passionate about that music. You cannot just make them into culture vultures. Give them the tools."

By tools she means instruments. Instrumental tuition fees vary dramatically across the country from pound;154 a term for a half-hour lesson in parts of Essex to nil in Doncaster, where each school is given a set amount of free tuition hours according to pupil numbers.

Maggie Dunn's pupils are some of the lucky ones. A Mirfield charity for young people donated pound;10,000 to the school five years ago. Some cash was used to buy 30 saxophones, violins, cornets, euphoniums, clarinets and flutes for free lessons for Mirfield's feeder primaries.

The Scottish assistant head has no doubt that if she had not received free tenor horn lessons at school as a child, her aptitude for music would never have been developed and she would never have taken up a band course at Salford university.

At pound;600 for a trumpet or a saxophone, it is not surprising, she says, that parents worry about splashing out on an instrument one week, only to find their child hating the trumpet a few weeks later.

"Some music teachers and parents get really upset about drop-out rates," she said. "But that's absolutely normal. I would expect a high number to drop out. Musicians themselves often start with the wrong instrument."

Dedication and enthusiasm are just as important as money, according to Nigel Partridge, head of music at Newport Free grammar in Essex. When Mr Partridge joined the boys' school in 1984, music education was "pretty dire" but within a term he had managed to form a 60-strong all-boys' choir.

But, now the school is co-educational, boys think singing is not macho and the choir is dominated by girls - one of the "big disappointments" of going co-ed, says Mr Partridge.

Newport, which has just completed a pound;100,000 extension to its music block thanks to fund-raising, has a strong local reputation for music. One feature of the department, which sets it apart from many other schools, is the teaching contracts for its 12 peripatetic music tutors. The tutors are given staff contracts with all the benefits of security and superannuation according to the number of hours they teach.

Newport has 23 groups of musicians rehearsing every week including the popular big band which regularly performs at social events around the county. In 20 years the number of pupils learning an instrument has increased from 12 to 260.

The school has opted out of the Essex music education service and charges pound;154 a term for a half-hour lesson. Mr Partridge, who believes music should be for everybody, nevertheless accepts that instrumental lessons are dominated by the middle classes. He says: "Sometimes if something is free it is not valued. If a student is not turning up for lessons - when parents pay for them, that is an extra bit of clout."

In Norfolk, Bressingham primary school has chosen Monday as music day for everyone. A passionate belief in giving every child from every background a chance to make music is seeing take-up rates at the school of 95 per cent.

There, all children learn the recorder in key stage 2, and 53 out of 62 pupils are learning a second instrument. Only three of the 62 children have opted out of learning any instrument, despite fees of pound;35 a term.

The children believe it is their right to choose an instrument - one child in reception recently told headteacher and clarinetist Penny Sheppard that he couldn't make up his mind whether to choose the cello or the trombone.

Mrs Sheppard said: "I believe every child is musical. We do not call children who sing out of tune growlers here. We have a singing club and there are children who get to Year 5 or 6 and their singing has come together. A few years ago they couldn't sing in tune."

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