We took to music on a rising scale

Mike Kent

I've realised a 25-year-old dream. I believe music is a vital ingredient of the primary curriculum, although when I joined Comber Grove Primary School in the early 1980s there wasn't an awful lot of it going on.

Five guitars - two broken and one too large for a primary child - a handful of percussion instruments, and a box of recorders was about the sum of it, plus a bit of singing now and again. Years 5 and 6 boys didn't join in, though. Singing wasn't considered cool when you were at the top of the school.

Where to start? Well, I had time in those days because headteachers didn't spend hours filling in silly forms and gathering useless data. I could throw myself wholeheartedly into my new job. Since I played guitar, the first step was forming a guitar group, so I asked the local music store if I could have some discount if I ordered more than one instrument. When I said I wanted 25, he was my friend for life.

I started virtually all of Year 3 on weekly lessons. Within a short time, they could play six tunes. They'd pluck the notes, I'd pick the chords, and they made an impressive debut one morning in assembly.

Soon we'd added recorder groups and tuned percussion, and together with a talented and musical member of staff, I formed a choir. There was no problem in getting girls to join, but when the boys saw that singing could actually be fun, and that even with my cracked voice I was willing to have a go, our choir expanded rapidly, although the quality was questionable for a while.

But we'd still only achieved what most primary schools achieve. Now I wanted something more challenging. So I bought six second-hand brass instruments. I couldn't teach brass, but I knew a man who could. Joe, an orchestral player, had taught brass at the school where I'd been deputy head, and he agreed to join me. By Christmas, his little band was playing "Jingle Bells" in the school concert.

Around this time, my friendly shopkeeper had some violins for sale. They weren't in great condition, he pointed out, but I could have them for a song. And he knew somebody who had a spare hour on Thursdays to come and teach us how to play them.

We'd also added tenor recorders to our stock of descants, and more and more teachers were willing to have a go - even if, like me, they couldn't read music. The children handled the tenors well, so why not get a few clarinets as well? Or would they prove too difficult for our children? I bought five, found a superb teacher, and before long they could play "Jingle Bells" too - a stunningly effective jazzed-up version.

As the years passed, we added more and more instruments. Then, last September, I realised we had all the components needed for a full orchestra, and a recently appointed deputy head who could put it all together.

We practised like mad before school on Thursdays, and for a while I wondered if it had been such a good idea. Then, one morning just before Christmas, everything seemed to gel. Every child knew that something magical had happened and that they had played together beautifully.

These days, the reputation of our school orchestra is spreading quickly, but the excitement of their first "gig", opening the Southwark deputy heads' conference at a swanky seaside hotel in June, was a highlight.

"I'll never forget today," whispered a little violinist happily on the coach going home. "Neither will I, Chloe," I said. "Neither will I."

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. mikejkent@aol.com.

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Mike Kent

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