Children singing, playing orchestral instruments and learning music for four hours a week - how does a busy primary school make the time? And why should they?
Our schools are situated in Belle Isle and Hunslet, in industrial South Leeds. They are in areas considered to be ‘hard-pressed’; one school is nestled between an adult club and an ex-offenders’ institution, the other is in one of the 10% most deprived wards in the country.
This hardly seems the sort of neighbourhood on which an internationally regarded opera company might focus their attention. But when Opera North brought the In Harmony programme to Belle Isle in 2013, it changed things.
In Harmony is a national programme that aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities, using the power and discipline of ensemble music-making. It’s been running in schools in six areas across the country. All of us commit significant hours each week to music-making, through instrumental lessons, singing and musicianship sessions.
The In Harmony team is made up of practising musicians and teachers of the highest calibre, known as ‘teaching artists’ whose role involves building relationships with our children and becoming an integral part of the school team, working alongside our staff.
In Harmony has given our schools a distinct identity
Fully embedding In Harmony into our schools has meant building in over three hours per week of musical tuition as part of the regular curriculum, physically restructuring buildings to accommodate 600 instruments, and recalibrating the ethos and vision of our organisation.
All this could have been an impossibility. Timetabling a primary school week in which orchestral, choral and instrumental sessions were to be as valid as Maths and English, valued by the staff and pupils and accommodated by the governing body, took careful design and substantial risk.
Learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble takes time and dedication... It’s the same with academic subjects – the two go hand in hand.
We embarked on the In Harmony journey in Windmill Primary in 2013, and the impact on the children was so significant that we expanded the programme to Low Road Primary School in 2015. Daily, we see a tangible development of team work, leadership, empathy and social skills through the regular musical activities.
Learning an instrument and playing in an ensemble takes time and dedication, both as an individual and as a group. You must keep repeating things, trying again and again to break through a barrier and achieve success. It’s the same with academic subjects – the two go hand in hand.
Through In Harmony we’ve learnt that children learn well in groups through positive peer support, giving pupils a sense of camaraderie and of progressing together.
We’ve seen staggering evidence of how music can change things.
I’m also delighted that through this project we’re developing our learning community. Teachers have become learners again. Inspired by In Harmony, many of our staff have taken up musical instruments and this has created a different sort of bond between pupils and teachers, helping teachers to develop empathy and understanding as they learn alongside the children.
At the very beginning of In Harmony in Leeds, I remember sitting with teaching assistants explaining that they would have the opportunity to learn violin, viola, cello or double bass. “Nobody ever gave me the chance when I was young…” was their response, and they knew instinctively that they were going to be part of something special.
In Harmony has encouraged parents to get much more involved with school too - within two years we had an increase of 43% parental engagement in school life, and some have even hosted concerts in their living rooms! We’ve seen staggering evidence of how music can change things.
We’ve proved that music can complement the primary curriculum effectively and to everyone’s benefit.
When we gave our first performance at Leeds Town Hall alongside the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, parents and families were bussed in, and we were so proud. One team. The Opera North teaching artists, children, staff and parents as one, celebrating our pupils and their extraordinary achievements together.
In Harmony has given our schools a distinct identity, something special, and it has impacted upon our culture profoundly. We’ve proved that music can complement the primary curriculum effectively and to everyone’s benefit.
The children have developed a sense of performance – value, self-esteem and self-confidence. They have developed social etiquette – how to sit, how to hold themselves in public, engage people from all backgrounds and all generations in sustained conversation, to know when it is appropriate to speak, to listen, to direct, and to be directed.
They have also developed respect, friendships, collaborative skills, leadership skills, the conviction that barriers to learning can be defeated, the willingness to take turns, and an awareness that perseverance and resilience will always be rewarded. This is the foundation for lifelong learning:
They can because they think they can.
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