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
Two at Twilight
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.