Of all the issues that feed into ensuring the health of music scenes both local and national, perhaps the most fundamental question we need to ask is where the next generation of musicians are coming from. Due to the pressure of schools being judged so heavily on maths and English assessments, time to focus on music is increasingly squeezed out of the curriculum.
Furthermore, this problem is becoming increasingly systemic – teachers themselves may not have had a well-rounded musical education. So, if access to opportunities in music is declining, where is musicianship nurtured? How can music be a skill children can explore – never mind master – if they’re lacking the opportunities to do so?
Enter IN HARMONY, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic-led programme working to bring music into the lives of primary school pupils in Everton, and now Anfield. This year marks In Harmony’s 10th anniversary – a perfect opportunity to look at the programme’s achievements.
In Harmony embeds music into education; they don’t just run tokenistic sessions. Instead, they focus on creating a culture of musicianship in schools, so that music becomes a natural part of children’s lives. As well as having several hours of music a week in school from the early years upwards, children are encouraged at every step to think of themselves as musicians. Each child, for example, gets their own instrument allocated – which sounds obvious, but can be rare in tightly resourced departments. Yet as Rod Skipp, artistic director, conductor and session leader for In Harmony explains, this can be a deceptively simple way of getting children to take ownership. “Sometimes they name their violin or their cello; say good night to it as they pack it away. They really appreciate it, having their own instrument to look after and taking it home, to share it with their friends and family.”
There are unique benefits that come from teaching music through an orchestral setting. “You come together with your friends, play music, and you’re all trying to achieve the same thing,” Skipp explains. “You’re not trying to beat each other or to win, but you’re working together to create the best version that you can.”
They invited me to attend an afternoon of in-school sessions and see this manifested. Seven and eight-year-olds, all equally new to the joys and challenges of learning an instrument, all making an equally significant contribution to a great sound. While learning the basics of reading music together, there are also smaller moments of learning from each other, as children help each other out with technique, instrument care and ensuring their section is in sync.
The school’s management love it, of course, and not just because it ticks a box in terms of curriculum coverage. Zoe Armfield, In Harmony Liverpool manager, shares some of the feedback she’s had from the nursery settings in which In Harmony teach musical activities to pupils as young as two. Even at an age where socialisation and communication skills are still being developed, the impact is being noticed. “Actually, the music can be the thing that joins them together. Because you don’t need language, do you? You can join in and be part of something.”
Executive headteacher of The Beacon CE Primary School, Sally Aspinwall, has also seen the impact of the In Harmony reach way beyond the hours of the session. Some of these are academic: “The musical vocabulary – they probably wouldn’t have that at the age they’re having it. We would say that’s impacting positively on reading ages, on their English curriculum scores.” But Aspinwall spends most of our conversation focusing on the aspect of the programme that is brought up more than any other by everyone I speak to: the impact it has on children’s confidence. In Harmony may be based around teaching music, but at its heart is the drive to develop a mindset that you can learn and achieve anything.
Part of this comes from the performance opportunities embedded in the programme. In Harmony couldn’t let its 10th anniversary pass by without celebration, and the weekend of 9th-11th March saw a series of concerts to mark the occasion. The pupils of In Harmony were the stars at two of these occasions. Sunday 10th March saw pupils of all ages perform on stage alongside their In Harmony counterparts from Leeds and Newcastle Gateshead. It recalled an inspiring anecdote Zoë had shared: responding to a child’s questions about her own school musical experiences. “I was like, ‘I think we did recorder lessons when I was in Year Six…’. They couldn’t believe that it’s not the norm that every child has music two or three times a week and that they don’t all play in orchestras. They think that’s just part of the normal fabric of school life.” Bringing pupils from across the north of England together like this develops precisely the culture this child articulated; one where music is an everyday, shared activity.
The spotlight was solely on the Liverpool participants on Monday 11th, with a celebratory concert that was live-streamed on Facebook. To see these young children coming together as an orchestra, and observing how they all took it completely in their stride, was truly inspiring. Of all the things they may have been feeling about being on stage in one of the most famous classical music venues in the country, nerves were not visibly one of them.
It was also notable how ambitious the programme of each performance was. Alongside the pieces that demonstrated how they were introduced to reading music, the concerts included renditions of Sibelius’ Finlandia and Bizet’s Toreador. Familiar tunes – and challenging ones. Their inclusion makes a statement: why can’t, and why shouldn’t, we be playing these pieces? Not to mention the fact that they played alongside the professional musicians of the RLPO as well as internationally renowned soloists, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and trumpeter Pacho Flores. Their performances are masterful and, from the looks on the faces of the young people on stage, they are just as amazed by these virtuoso performances as the audience.
Now that In Harmony has been going for a decade, the ways these experiences are actually having an impact on people’s lives are starting to reveal themselves. Parents are sharing regular anecdotes with headteachers and confirming through surveys the positive impact In Harmony has upon their children’s confidence and engagement. What’s also interesting is that the first few cohorts who In Harmony worked with back in 2009 are now adults themselves. Stories about the life-changing impact of In Harmony are beginning to filter through from the participants themselves. Armfield is convinced of the direct link between a can-do attitude and the In Harmony performance opportunities: “If they’re having that experience once a term from the minute they enter school, that’s what’s going to give them confidence: ‘If I can do this, maybe I can go and study engineering,’ or whatever they want.” It’s a hugely positive validation that In Harmony’s 10 Years of Learning report is filled with inspiring quotes sent from young people about how the programme has filled their lives with confidence.
This is what creating a culture of possibility really means. In Harmony’s leaders understand that not every pupil will go on to become a musician, but the evidence suggests that even for those who don’t continue, the culture that the programme creates endures. Skipp shares his observation from a decade of working with schools: “There’s a lot of pride from the children and the families around what they’ve achieved. And a lot of encouragement from the older children, even if they’re not still playing with us, encouraging others to stick at it.” Armfield, too, is confident that the impact of the programme is a lasting one; that it’s creating new expectations for music accessibility from within communities themselves. “People are saying, ‘We want to make these choices, we want our children to have music as part of their lives – how do we make that happen?’” Indeed, according to In Harmony’s data, 50 per cent of participants in the primary programme continue learning an instrument in secondary school – an impressive statistic.
As it begins its second decade by consolidating existing relationships and expanding into Anfield, it’s clear that In Harmony teach possibility, not just skill. They’re making real changes in attitudes towards the accessibility of music education. Performing music is as much based on having the confidence to stand on stage and share your skill with an audience as it is about talent. In this regard, the young participants of In Harmony may lead the way not only in deeply engaging with music, but in applying the self-belief that performance teaches to every aspect of life.