With many universities and conservatoires now offering courses and modules in community music there seems to be no shortage of career development opportunities, but for those already working in music, time and financial commitments can prove a hurdle to further training. An apprenticeship is a more flexible way for working musicians and music teachers to broaden their range of skills and experience and rediscover a passion for music.
One such apprenticeship is run by the Education and Community department at Spitalfields Festival. Young musicians and composers are given the opportunity to work with experienced workshop leaders on a richly diverse programme of music education projects, and to learn the skills necessary to lead their own workshops.
I took part in the scheme because I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the music profession, my long term career prospects as a violinist and the value of some of my work. I wanted to branch out from my instrumental and orchestral specialism and find new perspectives and inspiration.
My first project as part of the Apprentice Animateur Scheme was a primary school composition project inspired by the Voyages of Sindbad, stories of adventure and exoticism from the Arabian Nights. Working with year 3-5 children from Christ Church School, Brick Lane, the brief was to devise new pieces (both vocal and instrumental) based on and evoking the stories. The project was mirrored in a second school, the two coming together for a dramatic and musical performance during the Spitalfields Winter 2007 Festival in Shoreditch Church.
The brief seemed interesting: to take a narrative and create a musical and educational experience from it. In reality it was much more exciting. The feeling of joy and achievement that filled the end performance was more than I had expected.
The project started with some skeleton material- the stories from the tales of Sinbad the Sailor and two songs composed by Paul Whitmarsh, one of the workshop leaders. From there it all relied on us being able to spark the children’s imaginations and give them the skills to create soundscapes, words and actions to dramatise the stories.
Initially, the children were wary of being asked to work in groups using skills that had only just been introduced. They found pitch and rhythm very difficult to grasp. It took great enthusiasm and patience to engage them in learning the songs and practicing and developing their pieces, particularly since this was a new experience, and they had no way of visualising the end result.
Having watched the progress from week to week, it was only during the final performance that I was struck by how far the children had come during the project. As their ideas were explored and expanded and they began to feel ownership of the composition, the children’s trust in the workshop leaders deepened. As a result of this the concentration and discipline shown by each child during the performance was outstanding. It really mattered to them that it was good. This, coupled with the sheer mental and physical energy given by animateurs Paul and Stuart and the imagination they expended to create a real sense of the magic of the tales, was inspiring to observe.
I chose to work on the composition project as the idea of story, theatre and dramatisation appeals strongly to me. I have always been drawn to the concept of music as a part of theatre and love to be involved in music as an interactive and dramatic element rather than always as an abstract art form. I had no idea at the start of the project how much skill and imagination would be needed to put the composition together, nor how much the children would gain from it both in their increased understanding and enjoyment of music, and socially as their teamwork skills and personal confidence grew from one workshop to the next.
The final performance was filled out by a fantastical interlude written by Paul, and sensitive and skilled improvisation from musicians from the ensemble CHROMA. The end result was an evocative dramatic composition which was so much more than just a primary school event. The experience of being part of a truly quality performance was appreciated as very special by everyone who took part.
Other projects I observed and took part in during the year included an electronic composition project with year 10 boys, a singing project in a day centre for elderly Bangladeshi people and guided concerts given by students from the
Royal Academy of Music. During the year I felt myself rediscovering my passion for music and education. Witnessing a child listening to a certain instrument or kind of music or engaging in music making for the first time is very musically enlightening.
My experience on the Spitalfields scheme has convinced me of the value of an apprenticeship in music education. I was free to continue working while the projects I took part in gave me a fascinating window into a huge depth and variety of musical and creative experiences. I was able to validate my skills and explore new ones.
I talked to several of the 2007-2008 apprentices about their decision to take part in the Spitalfields Festival Apprentice Animateur Scheme and how their experiences have benefited their creative and musical growth.
Carly Lake had recently graduated from Trinity College of Music on French horn, and planned to go into a performing career. She began working on education while she was still at college. ‘By the end of my course I didn’t think just performing would fulfil me.’
She embarked on the Spitalfields scheme hoping to polish her workshop leading skills, observe the practices of other working animateurs and gain a clear idea of where to go next.
‘I’d already observed so many projects and animateurs,’ she says, ‘I didn’t know how much practical experience I’d get on a course. I wanted a practical take.’ Penny Manser, who had just finished a master’s degree in vocal performance, agrees. ‘I wanted to actually work on projects straight away that I had influence on; to be involved in real life projects.’
Simon Katan was teaching a combination of peripatetic guitar and classroom music before the scheme. He was looking for contacts in workshop leading for more professional institutions. He now runs his own company taking workshops into primary schools. ‘I’ve taken my experience from Spitalfields in how to structure workshops in terms of content, price, how to advertise and many other aspects into this project’, he says.
Carly feels that the year has been invaluable. ‘I’ve gained a lot of confidence over the year and definitely have a better bank of knowledge for workshop games and activities. I’ve also learned techniques to facilitate getting more out of challenging groups. I now have an idea of exactly the kind of work I want to be doing.’ Simon agrees; ‘I’m closer to understanding the specific field I want to work in and to getting exactly the kind of work I want to be doing’, he says.
Penny has also grown in confidence because of the scheme. For her the apprenticeship was a ‘springboard onto other things’, and her ambitions are now much less in ‘a vocal/singing type box.’ ‘I feel I have many other skills I can now develop in workshops,’ she says, ‘and this has influenced me in the type of projects I’m open to, for example, composition projects.’
Carly gained the same sense of validation from her year’s training as I did. ‘It’s taught me you can be a musician and an animateur without one or the other suffering,’ she says. ‘Before the scheme I felt my career was moving more towards education, now I want to play as well. I’ve fallen in love with my instrument again. I learned a lot about improvisation and composition which orchestral musicians wouldn’t have to do on a day-to day-basis. The scheme challenges your musicianship and gives you a chance to explore your individuality as a musician.’
‘In the 21st Century,’ Carly concludes, ‘education has become a very important part of a musician’s career. Aspects of the scheme also improve your playing and make you rethink. It’s a very valid form of professional development for any musician, and the great thing is you don’t have to sacrifice your own work because it’s so flexible.’
Spitalfields Music Animateur Apprentice Scheme, supported by the Musicians Benevolant Fund, enables musicians near the start of their careers to make their first steps in exploring community music work. Places are advertised during the Spring term and each apprentice receives a fee for their involvement.
© Johanna McWeeney