What I learned from… being seen and heard

How many times does a young person experience live music in their life aged 0-16? When I stop and think, it very much depends on what happens at home – a parent may play an instrument, or take them to a concert, but otherwise, if we don’t consider this in our schools, they experience very little. Perhaps only walking past a busker in town.

They may well have seen a musician ‘playing live’ on television or on YouTube, but the ‘live and in-person’ experience is so different.

I was very fortunate in my childhood that musical instruments were often played at home. I also clearly remember concerts I attended at the Victoria Hall, Hanley to see the Liverpool Philharmonic, I remember my first experience of Rach 2 especially and of my own experience of playing in music centre and county youth orchestras. But more and more, I’m finding these experiences were unusual, and many young people do not have them.

This term we’ve tried something new that could be tried in any school. We’ve moved our orchestra rehearsal to be in the centre of the school.

The Manor Concert Orchestra rehearses every Thursday 3.30-4.30. It is a completely open orchestra – students can join from the moment they get an instrument and know how to get it out of the box. We write parts so that everyone can be involved from day 1 and be challenged enough to develop themselves, as well as being able to grow something together. Then once they reach grade 4 standard, they’re invited to MCO leaders, which continues 4.30-5.30 on the same night. The leaders orchestra members are an important part of the main orchestra in helping young players to get started. Currently there are 45 members of the full orchestra and 15 in the leaders group.

We’ve run these orchestras for about 11 years now, but until two weeks ago our rehearsals have been out of sight and not heard. Following the lockdowns, music rehearsals were not allowed in school. There was then a period when they could be allowed ‘socially distanced’ or in same year groups only, so there are some students who have experienced even less live music.

The area we’ve moved to is a balcony overlooking the lunch eating area. It is right in the heart of the school. Everyone walks past there to get across the school and to arrive and leave the site. We’ve had SO MANY lovely comments from staff who would never usually hear the orchestra and are loving the Super Mario and Cantina Band arrangements we’re currently working on. Some have said it’s one of the highlights of their week to hear the live music while finishing their work. Students who walk past say “Wow!” and stop to ask what’s going on. It has been a brilliant move.

The organisation of setting up and putting away the rehearsal is key and an opportunity for the students to do something together. They meet in the music room for after-school register and for us to share news and information. They then carry across chairs, music stands, drum kits, keyboards (we have 5 piano players at the moment), bass amps – it takes them 5 minutes. Then instruments out and off we go. They work together so well and this ‘working together’ is evident in the way they listen to each other in the rehearsals.

We try to offer as many opportunities for students to experience professional-level live music. In the autumn, 93 students (mostly year 7s) came with us on a journey as part of the Gabrieli Roar project with conductor Paul McCreesh and Soprano Emily Dickens. They performed music by Praetorius and Schütz at York Minster in November. This week, we’ve been studying instruments from around the world in year 7 music. A highlight was a girl towards the front lept to her feet shouting “Ah! It’s a harpsichord!”. She was so excited! When asked how she knew, she shared with the class that in her singing position at York Minster, there was a Harpsichord player right in front of her and the experience clearly meant a lot to her.

We should never underestimate the importance of playing music live for our young people.

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