Blog-post by MEL Teacher Advocate Katy Ambrose:
This term has been a busy one, and we’re now all getting ready for the Spring Concert. The Music teachers are busy rehearsing ensembles, preparing copies, checking arrangements. The students are coming to extra rehearsals and practising at home. And the rest of the staff? They’re practising too.
This year we have had an extra musical number in our concerts. As well as the usual choirs, orchestras and bands, we have had a performance by our newly-formed Community Choir. After our (brilliant!) debut performance at Christmas Concert, we will performing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in a few weeks in the end-of-term concert.
The motivation for setting up the choir grew out of a desire for our Music Department to contribute to the community outside the school. We have loads going on for the students in school, so it seemed right that we should offer something to parents, staff and the local community. We expected it to make people feel good, and to be great fun; what we didn’t expect was the impact it would have on the place of music in the school. (I hate to admit that neither did we expect the choir to be quite so good!).
I can’t claim that Music was unsupported by SLT before the choir; however, with the introduction of the EBacc, we have suffered. Students have one hour of Music a fortnight at Key Stage Three, and all Year 11s are in after-school interventions every day for other subjects. At times this makes running ensembles (not to mention completing Controlled Assessments) almost impossible. If ever there is a clash with another subject, the Arts seem to go to the back of the queue. The school has tried to help ease this conflict; Music teachers do not have forms, for example, so that we can run our ensembles in morning registration. SLT do come to our concerts and events, and are appreciative of the work that goes into organising them.
As Head of Department I will soon be moving on to a new school. But when I said I would be leaving, the school planned not to replace me. It looked like we would have non-specialists from other subjects (those who were under their teaching allocation) teaching Key Stage Three Music and Music GCSE. I felt incredibly deflated and disillusioned. We have worked really hard over the past 6 years to raise the profile and standard of Music an; it seemed that the school might not be willing to invest in the Arts after all. It was not the legacy I wanted to leave.
I asked for a meeting to discuss this with SLT; I was ready to fight and had every piece of evidence I could gather to justify the importance of Music and the Arts. In the meeting was the Head and Assistant Vice Principal – a member of the choir. And my work was done. There suddenly seemed to be no question of the importance of Music. I still had to explain the reasons behind needing another Music teacher; I still used all my evidence. However, the conversation was not a fight; instead we discussed how we could take Music further in the school and how we could get more students and staff involved. The power of Music to have a positive impact on well-being, self-esteem and social inclusion were all discussed with real commitment from SLT.
I might be reading into this, but I am convinced that the Community Choir has ignited a bit of passion for Music amongst the staff. Music doesn’t just belong to the department, it’s our Music; it’s part of the identity of the school and the community. And those that are in the choir really feel something for Music. We leave after choir on a Monday evening feeling really great! I truly believe that our SLT member in choir has stepped away from thinking about the value of Music, and now feels the value of Music. As musicians, we never question the value of Music; it seems that I just needed to turn SLT into musicians and let the Music do the talking.
I think the key has been making the choir accessible and inclusive – anyone is welcome, regardless of experience or language – and also picking repertoire that allows us to sound really good. Simple 3-part arrangements of well-known songs have been well-received so far. There has been a surprising appetite for the choir at school, and staff in particular have been really keen. And so I would urge anyone to give it a try.
We have employed a new Head of Department, and in the interview they were asked: ‘would you be committed to continuing the staff choir? Because it must continue!’
About the Provider
From 2015 to 2017, Music Excellence London ran as a dynamic network of classroom music teachers, music education hubs, cultural organisations, and the wider music education community, supporting excellent musical teaching and learning at Key Stage 3 in London schools.