First Access and general music education

In last week’s blog I set out the programme presented by Ely St Marys C of E Junior School’s Yr3 String Orchestra (scroll down for this).

Since the beginning of the school year ‘Cambridgeshire Music’ [1] has provided an ensemble music making programme making this possible. Specialist teachers have visited the school on Monday mornings when pupils have been taught class by class and in instrumental sections. This has been complemented by String Orchestra time on Friday afternoons.

A principle of such First Access programmes [2] is that while the year’s work is of immediate and longer term musical value, it is at the same time a basis for on-going progression in instrumental learning. The string players of St. Mary’s may, if their parents choose, continue with small group lessons. (Across Cambridgeshire the continuation rate is about 25%.) For those pupils continuing there are opportunities to further develop ensemble music making, firstly in their immediate vicinity and then county-wide and for some  wider still. In this way wider opportunities are created, in theory for all children.

But taking a step back from musical progression thought of in this way, the question in need of attention is, how does First Access fit into conceptions of a general music education for all pupils at the primary stage? After all the majority of pupils will not be on the flight path to wider opportunities.

St Mary’s is fortunate in having its own specialist music teacher able to build on the musical knowledge, skills and dispositions established through the String Project.

So what might these be?

Most fundamentally these pupils are learning how to think and feel music (often more weakly expressed as the development of aural skills). While I haven’t observed the Monday morning sessions, I know singing, moving and playing is integral, and this involves the imaging and imagining (thinking and feeling) of music whether it be absent or present.

A highlight of the Ely Cathedral performance was Concertino requiring pupils to count, listening, and play together whilst other parts were being played, a process of de-centering musical thought and a significant step in a child’s musical development.

The capacity to differentiate between musical stimuli simultaneously presented, the capacity to attend to one in the context of another is an example of what Charles Bailey refers to as a ‘serving competency’. This  is a capability that enables future ‘knowledge, understandings, makings and doings to be valuable in themselves.’ [3]

Charles lists seven dispositions that enable in this way.

(i) attend to something or somebody,

(ii) concentrate on something,

(iii) cooperate with others,

(iv) organise time, thought and actions,

(v) reason

(vi) imagine possibilities, and to

(v) inquire – try to understand [4]

So, we can say that here in Ely St Mary’s Year 3, soon to be Year 4, the pupils’ music education is serving the future flourishing of musical makings and doings, musical knowledge and understandings and greater fulfilment as part of a broad and balanced musical education. The pupils of St Mary’s are fortunate in having a music curriculum on which First Access can build.

While First Access is not designed to offer a complete music education, it can assist in contributing to a comprehensive music education that is worthwhile in itself, a music education that reveals music’s significance in human life and culture. And this will be much more than learning to play a musical instrument.


[1] Cambridgeshire Music ‘Music Explorers’ programme embodies the principles of First Access and is targeted at the primary age range. (See )

[2] See

[3] See Bailey, C. (1982) ‘Beyond the Present and the Particular: A Theory of Liberal Education’. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.

[4] Ibid page 113.

Below the children of Ely St Mary’s String Orchestra with thanks to the Ely Standard.

Stillness and composure in the Year 3 String Orchestra

Entering Ely Cathedral on Monday morning there came from under the distant Octagon the sound of a string orchestra rehearsing. I had come to hear 120 seven and eight year-old children playing violins, violas, cellos and double basses.

This was the culmination of Ely St Mary’s Church of England Junior School’s participation in the Cambridgeshire Music Service’s First Access instrumental learning programme. The local paper covered the event here.

I found a seat in the second row and in a state of unalloyed joy wiped tears from my eyes, a kind of ‘moment of truth’ when all appears good and whole.

I sat next to a proud parent making frequent affirming eye contact with her daughter and there were other pupils scanning the audience in order to make their own familial connections as they do.

The children presented an hour-long programme showing how their varied repertoire had provided the basis for mastering fundamental string playing techniques. From pizzicato to col lengo, from open strings to first finger positions, from sustained bowing to dramatic tremelandos, the children made music in disciplined fashion. There was a stillness and composure in this string orchestra as each musician listened to the recorded music that provided the ground for their playing, while watching attentively the hand gestures of their conductor. The concert unfolded thus:

Bow warm up routine to check bow holds along to the beat of the accompaniment of staff playing folk music

Open string pieces from the first term of study

At the Ballet – playing only the desired string and changing between strings

Sailing Home – long, slow bows

Clown Dance – long short short pattern with bow

Circle Madness – bow circles to have two consecutive down bows

First finger pieces to practise putting down and lifting off one finger to raise and lower the pitch by one tone

Engine Engine

Two at Twilight

Sectional pieces

Cellos and basses: Walking in the Park

Violas: C string Boogie (pizzicato, plucking the string)

Violins: Country Joy (using 3 fingers to change between 4 pitches on one string)

Piece with staff playing different parts

Concertino composed for the children by Rhodri – developing the children’s skills for counting, listening, and playing together whilst other parts are being played, and using the effect created by hitting the string with the wood of the bow (col legno)

Learnt using solfege singing and signing and call and response

Barrier Reef – strumming all four strings as pizzicato chords whilst holding the bow

Sad movie and Action movie- creating a mood to tell a story

Simple Syncopation- syncopated rhythms

Broadway or Bust – call and response with the children playing phrases


Their playing encompassed soh, lah, doh and ray and simple time rhythms supported by fine sounding backing tracks.

The audience of some two hundred parents and supporters relished the childrens’ achievements as they witnessed the foundations of a strong musical education being laid and celebrated.

Included in the audience were the children from Spring Meadow Infant School who will be following the programme next year as they become year 3 at St. Mary’s. I wonder what they were thinking.

But then I wondered about the place of this First Access programme in the wider scheme of music education for all children.

More on this next week.

A music teacher’s professional development

It was in the early 1990s that I made an application to my school’s deputy head to attend a weekend course at Dartington College. The course was on music and special needs education. But would my school fund my attendance? There was a period of deliberation and then two questions were presented to me: ‘how would the course enhance my teaching’ and ‘how would it contribute to the school’s priorities for development’?

I had taken the course to be self-evidently valuable to both my own and the school’s development. However, I made the case in writing and was duly funded. Whether the course had any long term impact I can’t say. It was certainly an enriching weekend.

It was at this time in the early ninties that the culture of education significantly changed. While teacher control of the curriculum had been taken away by the mid eighties there now came the terror of performativity. The new managerialism was beginning to bite and with it the teachers’ struggle for agency.

CPD was now a means of serving a culture of accountability, unremittingly generic in nature and  linked to accountability measures derived from whole school improvement agendas involving the silencing of what teachers might see as beneficial to both their professional and personal development. But now in 2016 headteacher Tom Sherrington writes:

‘CPD should be teacher-centred (as opposed to school-centred); it needs to be designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers: their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or skills need to change as a consequence in the long term.  In the same spirit, appraisal or professional review systems should be geared towards supporting teachers in their career development – rather than serving accountability processes as the prime objective.  Teacher-centred appraisal can still be rigorous at the same time as being developmental and positive for all concerned.’ [1]

Tom is opening the door to fresh possibilities. CPD ‘designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers.’

I was interested to hear from a music teacher whose school has exemplified just this principle. I have invited the teacher to tell her story of change and this is change for the long term.

On singing and changing a culture: reflections on a year as Head of Music

I teach Music in a large mixed comprehensive academy in Kent, with ten classes of about 26 pupils in each year 7, 8 and 9 cohort. This year is my tenth at the same school, which I joined as an NQT, and where I am now completing my first year as head of department.

Despite my (excellent) PGCE training course which included a strong and varied focus on the teaching of songs, in the early years of teaching I found singing in the classroom an uncomfortable challenge. I found pupils were embarrassed by the very idea of singing in front of each other, and looking back I was overwhelmingly anxious that they should enjoy Music lessons and be instantly engaged by them. Most of us have experienced as new teachers the cringingly awkward moment when a class proves very reluctant to sing, or refuses completely, and I either moved on from singing activities quickly with relief or, increasingly as terms went by, avoided them altogether. My schemes of work used to have a diligent little tick sheet at the front, with the old KS3 Programme of Study so that I could show to anyone who cared which parts of it would be covered. The first of its “Key Processes” used to read “Pupils should be able to sing in solo or group contexts, developing vocal techniques and musical expression”. This always seemed a ridiculous impossibility if I’m honest, and this tick box always remained blank, as I preferred to do without the embarrassment, hassle and (I assumed) poor results that would ensue. Nobody ever commented or even noticed.

I had a choir, which contained in those early years about fifteen girls from a range of year groups. Never any boys – what boy would go to that? – except for the occasional year 7 who’d perhaps sung in choir at primary school, came for a few weeks and soon lost interest. I suppose the sound my girls made was adequate, sometimes good, and we went on the department’s first Music Tour in 2010, also taking the Jazz Band and the newly formed and popular African Drumming group, but the choir was the smallest ensemble and I felt pretty powerless to do anything about it.

On returning from maternity leave in June 2012 I noticed that the upcoming year 10 class for the following September contained several boys who had sung quite willingly in pop bands that my maternity cover had organised. I decided to grab this opportunity and make the choir compulsory for all GCSE Music students from that point onwards. The events that followed this decision are another story entirely, with resistance (including some tears) from many and even some letters of complaint from parents, but we stuck by the decision as a department and by and large we had a choir which now included boys and girls.

Soon after my appointment as Head of Music last year I met with the leaders of our local Music hub (Bromley Youth Music Trust, an excellent Music Service which has always provided us with peripatetic instrumental teachers). I asked for a new singing teacher to be provided, as I had noticed dwindling numbers of singing pupils and wanted to be able to recommend a teacher to any potentially keen pupils, something I’d not felt confident to do with the existing teacher. Almost as an afterthought, I mentioned that I had never had any singing lessons myself, wondering vaguely if some instruction on vocal technique could be passed on to benefit my newly reformed choir. The deputy principal of the hub happens to also be the head of vocal teaching there, and he offered to help. My school agreed to pay for four lessons as CPD; I never intended to have any more than this as I was not particularly interested in singing for myself at that point.

I was completely unprepared for what happened in those four lessons. Completely amazed at how many things I had been doing (and teaching) wrong in my own singing in the classroom, and at the difference in both the sound and the physical sensation of singing with an improved technique. I had always assumed that you could really only sing well if you were gifted with a nice voice, which I was not, and I had absolutely no concept of technique. Looking back I’m embarrassed by my own naivety in going into those first lessons. I know there are different ‘schools’ of singing teaching and do think I was particularly lucky in my teacher, but from what I discovered I was able to do things immediately with my choir that helped improve the sound. I was hooked! At the end of four lessons I persuaded my school to pay for another ten – they were happy to, as ten lessons costs around the same as a single day’s inset normally would. I’ve had about 20 lessons now and, following the events described below, the inset coordinator at school offered of his own accord to fund another term of 10 at the end of this one. I’ve joined the Music hub’s adult choir, attending as and when I can fit it in around work, and also auditioned successfully for a local chamber choir, relishing the challenge of the required sight-singing that this has presented. I always thought I was an alto, but it turns out I’m actually a soprano and, although I’m still only very much at the beginning, I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey and the learning process.

It might sound a bit trite, but I’ve found singing to be of huge benefit to me personally as well. I suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of my second child in 2013, and am still prone to bouts of anxiety and feeling very low. Singing, though, really does help. I don’t understand why, but I am happier and more relaxed when I’ve been singing – just teaching it in the classroom sometimes now as well – and my family have commented on the change. I’ve even been inspired to practise the piano again after years of not really touching it. Small children have inevitably been the main reason for this of late, but somehow I now feel like a musician – and a learning musician – again, instead of an often exhausted mother and teacher with little time, energy or enthusiasm for new ideas.

The principal of the Music hub suggested in our initial meeting that I put on a concert in the autumn term involving the whole of year 7. I remember smiling politely, privately remembering my past attempts to involve whole classes in concerts, which were exhausting to pull off and had short-lived (albeit satisfying) results, and resolving not to attempt anything so ambitious in my first term as head of department. However, later following my first singing lessons, I decided to try it. I had read some material on project-based learning and was inspired by the idea of giving pupils a real performance to work towards, so with the agreement of my second in department I designed a scheme of work and we started in the first weeks of September.

Year 7 responded positively on the whole, with the inevitable few reluctant participants, but an explanatory letter home signed by myself, the head of year and the headteacher proved helpful in quashing most parental objections, and in fact we found the vast majority of parents to be very supportive. Each class was taught a separate song to perform, which were to be judged as a competition, in addition to a massed medley of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and Debbie Wiseman’s “No wars will stop us singing” – this one was added only in the final weeks before the concert, which happened to fall on Remembrance Day. I taught seven of the ten year 7 classes myself this year, and found teaching so much singing very tiring, but also exhilarating; my own singing lessons were continuing roughly once a fortnight, and my teacher was an invaluable help in showing me how not to over-use my voice, and suggesting ways of making particular phrases or parts of the songs easier. He also agreed to be the competition judge. I gave the concert the name “Everyone Sings” because I found myself saying this constantly to pupils (or anyone for that matter!) who said “I can’t sing”. The final event was something of a logistical challenge, which we simply could not have managed without the support of the head of year and the ten form tutors, but the Hall was packed and the sound of 260 pupils singing en masse was an extraordinarily arresting finale. Medals were awarded and pupil reports later written, allowing us a fascinating insight into their perception of the event, and showing how memorable it had been for them.

Back to the compulsory GCSE choir for a moment. I am now in the second year of insisting on this, and also made a point last year of explaining to year 9 pupils considering GCSE Music that this would be required. The current year 10 class of 17 pupils (6 boys, 11 girls) contains several confident singers and many reluctant ones, but I have tried to be relentless in getting them to sing not only in the weekly choir rehearsal but in lessons too. When we studied Handel’s “And the glory of the Lord” we spent several lessons just singing it, working through each part in turn and singing along to the recording in whatever register was comfortable. They sang a gospel version of “Joy to the world” in the Christmas assembly for a week (although some bribery in the form of chocolate was needed for this) and I have a stash of quick rounds and simple part songs that I pull out for moments when they are doing something menial – putting resources away in their folders or waiting for computers to load, for example. They will now sing anything and at any time – on several occasions I’ve returned from a last-minute dash to the photocopier at the start of a lesson to find them singing, sometimes in several parts, whatever happens to be on someone’s mind at the time.

Year 11 complained, by the way, at the start of the year that “choir had got too big” because of the influx of year 10s, as well as the growing number of lower school pupils who come along (I don’t think I mentioned that everyone who comes on the Music Tour now has to sing in the choir) It’s actually now called “Big Choir”. I was really surprised, but suggested half-heartedly that we start another smaller group for them. Chamber Choir was born and now comprises 6 girls and 6 boys, mostly in years 10 and 11, who are able to access harder songs with a greater focus on reading music.

Although we left singing with year 7 for a while in the term that followed “Everyone Sings”, to focus necessarily on other skills (including whole-class keyboard lessons) I wanted if possible to rekindle some of the enthusiasm the concert had generated, before the summer and the start of year 8. So this term we have embarked on an Africa project, which will culminate in an afternoon concert given by each half of the year group, to an invited audience of years 4 and 5 from the Junior school down the road. Each class will perform a piece of West African drumming and sing an African song, and then join in a massed performance of “Shosholoza” in (hopefully) three parts. I have drafted in my year 10 class to boost the part singing and demonstrate that boys and girls higher up the school are also singing (and because I tried out teaching the African songs to them ahead of starting the project, to see what would work, and they were intrigued!). So far, year 7 have accepted it without complaint – watch this space!


[1] See


Mashing the Song Book

In last week’s blog (scroll down to view) I reported more about the establishment of music in the curriculum of the Isaac Newton Academy (INA) in East London. I had first reported on progress with their Big Band centred curriculum at a time when the first cohort of students was beginning year 8. The good news then was that the two weekly music lessons (one Big Band, the other core music) would be sustained through to the end of year 9.

I noted last week that a good proportion of students are now following a GCSE course in music, and I referred to the preparation for a Gala performance at the Barbican involving forty pupils.

But Greg, head of music, was keen to tell me about something that happened last term and that he and the department are wanting to better understand.

Greg writes:

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)

A similar thing happened when we took a group of thirty students from various years on a trip out. On this occasion the guest conductor was completely taken aback (even annoyed!) by such spontaneous music making and deemed it musical misbehaviour. As a department we have discussed this phenomenon. What are the conditions that have made this possible? Could we recreate these conditions with more regularity?’

One rhought I had was that what begins as spontaneous behaviour may well become a ritual. If that happens at INA then the ritual can be interpreted as a celebration of the INA Song Book and a merging of individual, group and school musical identity. The ritual would be as an emblem of identity. We await further developments.

Greg told me how the repertoire learnt throughout key stage three had come to be thought of as the INA Song Book. Year 7 students soon became aware that the music they were leaning was known throughout the school and older students were at hand to play alongside them.

This is how a musical community works. New comers’ participation is in a sense peripheral as they come to realise that there are ‘old timers’ and gate keepers of the community higher up the school. [2]

Six issues arise from my learning more about INA and its music.

  1. The music introduced to the students is East London vernacular. However, in working it into a Big Band frame we see a pedagogy of interruption. Meanings change, student’s perceptions are disrupted.
  2. The accumulated learning from both big band and core music lessons creates a school Song Book. A common unifying musical culture develops that hints at a community of practice.
  3. As students progress so spontaneous music behaviour emerges alongside increased levels of musical autonomy.
  4. Musical creativity is rooted in a performance tradition.
  5. The flourishing of music in the school is indebted to both philanthropy (generous supply of instruments) and a highly skilled, musically participating departmental staff.
  6. Many students at INA are members of the Islamic faith. This can create tensions between music in school and the faith community. The school and music department work to uphold an ethos of full musical participation. [3]


The landscape of secondary school music education is changing fast. While diversifying (some would say fragmenting) the system creates fresh models of practice, it produces inequalities and a music education that is arbitrary.



[1] In my recent visits to secondary schools I have noted that ‘mashing’ as well as meaning ‘an explosion of contrasting things, stuck together’, can mean a medley of songs.

[2]  The term ‘community of practice’ is a popular one and too easily used. It sounds such a good thing. See  for its theoretical basis. One of the conditions to claim the definition relates to the longevity of the practice.

What we can say about the INA case is that it shows a number of characteristics of a community of practice. There is a shared domain of interest and relationships are built in a way that learning from each other is enabled. There are oldtimers and new timers and there is peripheral participation.

We might ask what of future developments?  What will emerge as students make music post 16? Will there emerge a version of New Orleans Marching Bands within the wider community?

[3] Here is an issue of great complexity needing much more investigation.