More than half of the UK’s primary school teachers have inadequate training or lack confidence to teach music, according to a recent survey by the University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE).

Researchers recommend that the problem could be tackled by using specialist teachers to teach music in primary schools, and for class teachers to develop their skills by working with specialist teachers.

The idea of professional musicians running music workshops in schools is by no means a new one, but in addressing this problem the role of the musician as educator becomes broader; school music workshops must not only be designed to teach the children, but also their teachers.

The Apollo Schools’ Project aims to ‘bring classical music to life’ for primary school children in Hackney, East London. Run by a small core of players, all members of the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, the course consist of six progressive classroom sessions, an orchestral workshop and a schools’ concert.

I talked to David Chernaik, professional cellist and conductor of the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, about how his programme of workshops has benefited both teachers and pupils in his local community.

The idea behind the workshops is simple. The reason children find classical music boring is that they don’t know it, they have no starting point. In other words, David hopes ‘to get kids from different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and religions to come to a concert and get something out of it.’

He uses the classroom sessions to create points of reference, introducing the instruments of the orchestra, the people who play them, and their music. Each lesson focuses on ideas the children can identify with, showing them storytelling, colour, contrasts and conversations through the medium of classical music. This is equally valuable for the teachers, whose involvement in the sessions is vital to the programme’s success.

Hermia Innis, Music Coordinator at Rushmore School, explains, ‘It’s given me more confidence. It has helped me in how I listen to music. Now I know what sort of questions to ask the children. When I first came to the job I didn’t know the names of some of the instruments. Now, for example, when we listen to a piece of music I can say, ‘Can you hear the horns?’’

Andrea Bycroft, class teacher at the school, told me how she felt about music lessons before the Apollo workshops. ‘It’s funny, because you have all these other subjects like art, P.E and design, I don’t mind teaching those, but if someone asked what I’d least like to teach it would be music, because I just don’t understand how I would teach it.’

Lessons are structured so the length of musical excerpts and the number of instruments gradually increases, preparing the children for the full length symphony orchestra concert. ‘What we’re teaching the children is how to listen,’ David says. ‘Learning how to listen can be very liberating, but it’s no good telling children to listen if they don’t know what they’re listening to. A lot of British orchestras have signed up to a scheme that says every kid should come to a live performance, but I really think that unless they’ve had the sort of preparation we give them, the live performance is wasted.’

The benefits of having live performance brought into the classroom are plain to see. The children listen attentively, almost perfectly still, and when given the opportunity they ask questions enthusiastically. The wealth of knowledge the musicians can share with the children is extraordinary.

‘It’s usually very hard to encourage the children to ask questions,’ says Andrea Bycroft, ‘but because they have the instruments in front of them and they’re watching people play, they ask questions.’ Hermia Innis agrees that the workshops have helped with the children’s other subjects too. ‘It teaches them listening, which crosses over into their literacy.’

The teachers have also noticed big differences that they weren’t expecting. ‘It’s interesting to see the level of focussed listening compared to when I’m just talking to them,’ says Andrea. ‘There are kids in this class with Asperger’s, Autism and behavioural problems. They are definitely more focussed during the sessions.’

‘I really think teachers should have training in how to use music, how to access music,’ says David. With 78% of teachers feeling insufficiently trained to teach music according to the IOE, perhaps the teaching of primary school music by a generalist teacher is best achieved with input from dedicated musical educators such as the Apollo musicians. ‘We love doing it,’ David says. ‘The kids love having us and the teachers really get something out of it.’

A comment on one of the evaluation forms returned by the class teachers sums up the experience- ‘Thank you! The children enjoyed the lessons as I did. It helped enhance my own knowledge of music and how to structure music lessons.’

Researchers at the IOE concluded that ‘children have a right to high quality music education.’ With such dedicated musicians prepared to take their expertise into schools, there should be no excuses for poor provision.

© Johanna McWeeney