In praise of music making

Posted By Christina Timms on 04 May 2016

Christina Timms, our Relationship Manager for Music in the Midlands, blogs about the remarkable success of our In Harmony programme, which is using music to transform the lives of school pupils in deprived communities.

A huge orchestra of school children in brightly coloured t-shirts perform in a large orchestra
Liverpool Philharmonic - In Harmony 7th Birthday Concert. Photo © Mark McNulty - In Harmony Liverpool

Busy head teachers are under pressure to make sure children in their schools achieve their best results in SATs, so why would they devote precious curriculum hours to music?

That’s what a group of head teachers were keen to talk about when they met researchers from the National Foundation for Educational research (NFER) evaluation team, commissioned by Arts Council England to review the impact of In Harmony over four years.

In Harmony is a remarkable programme, which aims to transform the lives of children and families in deprived communities through music making. Children spend up to four hours a week making music in ensembles, learning instruments, singing and performing. In Harmony is funded jointly by the Department for Education and the Arts Council, and we manage the development of the programme here at the Arts Council.

The programme is intended to raise motivation and confidence in the children who take part, but also offer wider benefits to their families and wider communities. This meeting made it clear that the head teachers involved are beginning to see this realised.

The group talked about how the programme’s ‘whole school approach’ distinguishes In Harmony from other music initiatives, providing all pupils with the opportunity to perform and represent their school in public. They remarked on how these performances  are helping to raise motivation and pride amongst pupils and their parents.

The teachers had also noticed other benefits, including a greater sense of cohesion within the participating schools, and a boost in attainment. Some of the group talked about how In Harmony was acting as a ‘leveller’ for students. They saw the programme as ‘shifting the hierarchy’, by including all pupils, especially those who may not usually excel in other areas of school life. Students who struggled with academic performance or sporting prowess, were given a chance to engage and express themselves, and it had a visible impact on their self-esteem.

Those of us from the Arts Council’s Children and Young People and Music teams were so impressed by the head teachers’ response to the programme, that we put together a ‘learning day’ with all the In Harmony teaching teams to get a clearer idea of which particular elements make In Harmony so powerful, and to help inform NFER’s work further. We wanted to get at not just what is achieved, but how.

A young girl in a green t-shirt plays the violin with an expression of deep concentration
Liverpool Philharmonic - In Harmony 7th Birthday Concert. Photo © Mark McNulty - In Harmony Liverpool

Among the many different examples of practice from the six programmes, some particular elements shone through:

  • Total school commitment to an intensive programme using all learning styles, in a true and total partnership between school staff and In Harmony team
  • Having a team of versatile, inspiring musicians committed to working together over the long term with school staff, parents and the community
  • Frequent performances, which helps to increase motivation levels amongst pupils
  • Ensemble learning to advanced level, using staff and repertoire across in school and after school sessions

Since that learning day, I’ve been working with film company Junction 15 to produce a short film illustrating all these points. It will feature footage of exciting and engaging music making in classrooms and concert halls, and interviews with children, teachers and parents about the impact of In Harmony not just on musical skills, but on school improvement, pupil motivation, and parental engagement.

The aim is for the film to be used to animate conference presentations and guidelines for establishing new programmes. I’m keen to encourage schools and Music Education Hubs to explore how In Harmony can be a catalyst for children’s love of learning and boost school improvement. The six programmes are always happy to host visits and share the impact of their work over several years.

On my visits I’ve seen first-hand how an orchestra of 100 children can work as a team to make music together, and heard children who might never have learnt an instrument, playing orchestral classics alongside professional musicians. It takes total commitment from a school and a highly skilled team to achieve these results, but the head teachers we talked to are convinced it’s worth it.

Watch this space for the video and NFER’s report into 4 years of In Harmony due for publication in late June.

A group of female school students in purple t-shirts wait with their instruments in the wings
Liverpool Philharmonic - In Harmony 7th Birthday Concert. Photo © Mark McNulty - In Harmony Liverpool

Find out more

Find out more about In Harmony and our other music education programmes

Read more head teachers’ perspectives on the In Harmony programme

Learn more about the work we do with Children and Young People and our Cultural Education Challenge

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