'Trust in the music': Pandemic recovery and putting music at the heart of the school
by Michael Loncaster, Head Teacher of Molescroft Primary School and Riding Forward TSA, Beverley
Music is the heart of the school and no pandemic was going to stop that. In times of crisis, as a nation we tend to turn to what inspires and promotes positivity to see us through dark days. Look at the legacies of two world wars – often it’s written in song; the soundtrack which saw a nation through its nightmare.
A school needs to vibrate with the happy sounds of children, engaging in the full diversity of the curriculum. The temptation to focus purely on the core is not new. When Ofsted was apparently focused on only the measurable in English and Maths, it was easy to forget that the rest of the curriculum leads the inspiration to drive the learning forward in all subjects. We all know happy engaged children learn more, behave well and subscribe to the ethos of the school. We are human and the Arts and Sport provide the mental well-being for our pupils. Any teacher will always assess where their pupils are at the start of any unit of work. There will be those who have misplaced their previous learning and need the connections rewiring, but it’s doable and learning moves forward. As a profession we will achieve “Catch up” and I am convinced the shadow of Covid 19 will diminish. Children who have had their time at school disrupted unprecedently have learnt one thing “they know just how much they like school and how much they want to learn and how it boosts their self-esteem”. This is not the time to deny them the full broad curriculum.
So what does music at Molescroft look like?
A comprehensive music curriculum is led by our music coordinator who teaches the classes on Week A with the class teacher attending, the class teacher then continues the programme of work in Week B and so on. We call it the “Penny Model” after the teacher who delivers the units week on - week off and it ensures structure, progression, expertise and the ongoing training of the rest of the non-specialist staff. Incidentally this is the same model we use for teaching foreign languages.
Singing is a large part of the music curriculum and this extends into assembly time which is at times a powerful, spiritual moment. We sing with gusto and passion, because that is what we do. The final live assembly before Lockdown last March resonated with 420 children singing and believing “Make Your Own Kind of Music”. The emotion was palpable.
Music is one of the most impactful aspects on all our lives. We associate places, friends, partners, happiness and sadness with songs and melodies. I can’t hear “Nimrod” without welling up and seeing an imaginary Spitfire flying through the sky. Music and singing became part of our special weekly assemblies which we have filmed and shared in every school week over the past 16 months and continue today. We suddenly realised we had a repertoire of songs which resonated in a way they never had before. Parents snuggled up on sofas with their children seeing the power of music to keep us together and yes a bit of love too. Parents wrote to tell me that they were emotional seeing their children leaping up to songs of hope and togetherness: “We are Family”, “Tomorrow”, “Spread a Little Happiness”, “Love Shine a Light”, “Halleluia”, “Oh Happy Day”, “Neighbours” (as in the theme tune), “My Favourite Things (we wrote extra verses) and many more.
The door to being a music performer is being able to read music. This can be through using programs such as Garageband where position and length of line demonstrates their composition, but musical notation opens such opportunities. Therefore every child from Year 3 leans to play the recorder. Not wishing to offend the recorder lovers out there, it generally is not the most beautiful of instruments, but it is a means of teaching notation and all the associated musical vocabulary of dynamics and tempo. Every Christmas we have 210 pupils all playing the recorder in Beverley Minster. 210 potential weapons of musical destruction, but on the contrary, it’s absolutely magical. The acoustic of the minster does help I admit.
BUT having a purpose, a reason for being is so important. The recorders are back in action for the Summer Exhibition of work evening. A Beatles melody? no problem. Being able to read music leads the children to be encouraged to take up orchestral instruments. Violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, horn, trombone, percussion all are offered and out of 210 KS2 children nearly half take up one of these instruments. The novelty of playing a violin all alone wears off on young children, they need the magic of playing together so an orchestra provides this. They meet IN SCHOOL TIME every Friday afternoon and then stay in place to play the assembly hymn which they do really well. Like the recorders, they have two annual bookings including their own 75 minute long festival of Christmas Music. For this to work there needs to be investment. So orchestral instrumental lessons are charged for, but Pupil Premium children get their lessons and the instruments free of charge as does anyone else in financial need.
Playing in an orchestra is a thing of status. Like the recorders, being in school time ensures it doesn’t become a niche market where only the most committed turn up.
It all comes together for Theatre Club. This is a club in the Summer Term open to Year 4, 5 and 6. However such is the entrenched position of music in the school that 140 children volunteer their time after school to be in a full scale musical. Designed and staged to be the nearest thing we can get to a West End show. Huge staging, projected imagery, fantastic lighting, soloists wearing mics and amazing choreography and costumes. The children have the music to learn from, because they can read it and therefore made short work of learning shows such as “Cats”, “We Will Rock You” and “Into the Woods”.
Everything has to have context, historically, culturally, socially. Every year we organise a three week culture and international festival. The vehicle for driving the festival is always the arts with music in the centre.
The question remains though, how did we keep the music alive during lockdowns?
Whereas teachers were setting the lessons, music was set centrally so that the progression could be maintained. It also ensured that the work was devised in a way that it could be enjoyed in the home context – with inspirational music mood boards and contextual displays. It was amazing how much the parents enjoyed it too.
Recorders were seen as a step too far, all that air being blown down tubes by 30 at a time was seen as possibly a little dangerous, so we switched the programme to keyboards. The key objective was always after all to learn to read musical notation. We may not have had 240 recorders playing in Beverley Minster this year, but we did manage to film 240 children playing a selection of tunes on their keyboards. These were slipped into the Orchestra’s Christmas Festival which was filmed in sections and edited together. Of course having one orchestra across numerous year groups would have compromised the “bubbles” but we split into three orchestras until the end of October; Year 3 traditionally join after Christmas. After a bit of clever filming and editing, the traditional Christmas Festival was beamed into parents’ living rooms as were two nativities (FY and Y1) and the traditional Y2/Y3 Pantomime which was filmed twice with each year group and edited together with separate soloist casts.
Thankfully, our music service was willing to work with us to ensure Covid Security. In the tightest part of lockdown, peripatetic teachers were beamed onto a large screen into the rehearsal room for those at school, while those at home had specially scheduled sessions on Microsoft Teams. Now we are all back, with a bit of tweaking of group dynamics, ensuring good social distancing and excellent ventilation, live lessons are fully operational.
You will recall I mentioned our International Festival, well this year with a bit of lucky reorganisation we launched on the day all the children returned on 8th March 2021. With one way systems fully established, cleaning of the building four times a day, all doors held open by electric doorstops (which close in case of a fire alarm) we were all set to ensure the children could explore the culture of the chosen country through cookery, sculpture, dance and music. Every child had the experience of playing on a Gamelan led by an expert. Of course he was masked on arrival and tested each day.
Finally the show must go on, so this year’s production is being made as a movie. Yes, licences are available for some shows. The film set has been created in the hall and songs and dances shared between the three year groups who are doing their song and dance in curriculum time. Just Y6 this year have the solo roles and attend the after school club. We will be recording the backing track next week.
At the end of the day, if you believe it’s possible it usually is. There is a way in most cases. It’s exhausting at times finding the way, but the reward is a school full of happy children and staff. Morale is high and children are happy and engaged in their classrooms in all their lessons fuelled by the Sound of Music.
To my fellow colleagues I urge you to trust in the music; it won’t let you down and it makes a community feel alive and find its soul.
Head Teacher of Molescroft Primary School and Riding Forward TSA, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire