Unorthodox instruments inspire a new musical era

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The Independent Online

Five years ago, when David Blunkett pledged that every primary school child should be able to learn a musical instrument, All Saints Primary in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, thought it was an impossible dream. Some pupils were learning the recorder and a few were having lessons on the clarinet or violin, but class music was in abeyance and the majority of children were receiving little music education at all.

Then came the djembes. Few, if any, All Saints children had ever heard of a djembe before, but when the county music service lent the school a set of 30 African drums, as part of the Wider Opportunities music pilot, pupils and teachers were transfixed.

"It was a total revelation to us," says Year Four teacher, Claire Lawrence. With the djembes came two African drumming teachers, who spent an hour a week with a class of 30 eight- and nine-year-olds, showing them techniques and building up intricate rhythmic patterns.

"We'd sometimes have eight or nine different rhythms going on at once," says Claire Lawrence. "Being part of a team of musicians gave the children a huge sense of their own worth."

So successful were the djembes that, when the pilot ended in 2004, the school found the money to continue to employ the drumming teachers. Now every child leaves the school with at least a year's experience of drumming, and many choose to continue in after-school clubs.

The Wider Opportunities music pilot ran from 2003 to 2004 in 13 local authorities, with funding from Youth Music and the Department for Education and Skills. Last December the Government announced an additional £26m for music, from 2006 to 2008, to be given directly to primary schools, to fund Wider Opportunities programmes. The key feature of these programmes is that they introduce children to instrumental playing in whole-class groups (for free), rather than in traditional one-to-one or small group lessons (for which families usually have to pay ). In the process, they have ushered in a wider range of instruments than children normally meet in primary schools - djembes as well as recorders; samba, steel pans and tabla as well as violins, flutes and clarinets.

Portsmouth music service even pioneered harmonica playing with the help of a charismatic, if educationally unorthodox, blues harmonica player called Johnny Mars. Schools were so pleased with the result that harmonica will be a firm feature of Portsmouth's new Wider Opportunities programmes to be launched in the autumn.

"The harmonica is a great motivator," says Andrew Atkins, head of Portsmouth music service. "After only one lesson, children are playing recognisable tunes. It doesn't come with any of the old-school baggage of the recorder, and whereas the sound of a whole class playing recorder can be quite sharp, harmonica is softer. It's also very cheap - a starter instrument costs as little as £5."

But this does not mean the harmonica is a replacement for the flute or trumpet. Rather, it is intended as an introduction to general musicianship - to pitch, pulse and rhythm, and the skills of playing in an ensemble. In Portsmouth, Wider Opportunities schools will start with a term of harmonica playing, before moving on, alongside harmonica, to violin, clarinet, trumpet or flute, again taught in large groups for the first year, with the help of two specialist musicians and the class teacher.

The recorder, much maligned in some quarters, is still a popular starter instrument in many schools, and more music services are introducing children to "world percussion", such as djembes and steel pans. Maureen Hanke, head of the Norfolk Music Education Service, has been experimenting with whole-class xylophone teaching, using good-quality instruments shared one between two. In schools where behaviour is a problem, 30 children with xylophones can be quite taxing, she admits, and she is desperate for some real xylophone repertoire to be written."But it's a lovely sound with a whole class. It gives them access to melody and harmony and it should lead on to the keyboard," she says.

In Barking and Dagenham, teaching is carefully targeted. Some schools get string programmes, with a whole class doing violin and another class viola and cello, others learn wind (for instance, a class of trumpets and clarinets), and some groups do world percussion. All begin in year four with general musicianship, moving on to instruments in year five. By the time they leave primary school, all the children feel like musicians, says Rita Burt. Fifty to 60 per cent opt to continue with their instrument after year five.

According to Margaret Smith, head teacher of Richard Alibon Primary School, Dagenham, the music has done wonders for children's concentration and their learning. "Learning an instrument used to be about children who showed talent. Now we are a musical borough - we've never been able to say that before."

Some real challenges remain. Finding enough teachers can be difficult. Then they have to be persuaded to work with a class of 30 - something few of them have done before. The Music Education Council is currently bidding for £1m from the DfES to launch a national Wider Opportunities training programme to help teachers.

Music services, which have a crucial role to play in organising county-wide ensembles and musical activities, are concerned that they are being side-lined in terms of funding arrangements, and there is widespread anxiety about what funding, if any, will be available post-2008. But Leonora Davies, chair of the MEC, remains upbeat. "Without a doubt, Wider Opportunities has proved to be the answer to David Blunkett's prayer," he says. "We still have a long way to go. But this is the only way to give larger numbers of children that first-base musical opportunity."