Getting together: Musical partnerships

Scott Price
Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Reaching out to the wider musical world is important, believes Scott Price, director of music at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in West London. He reflects on his experience of making musical partnerships, and how they can benefit any school.

 A side-by-side performance with Southbank Sinfonia
A side-by-side performance with Southbank Sinfonia

We live in difficult times for music education. Every news report, every social media post, every new statistic, appears to confirm that music teaching in schools is under rapid and dramatic decline. Caught in a perfect storm of desperate financial times and an educational climate that seems to care only about the ‘core’ subjects, music and the other creative disciplines have become easy targets. We read about ever-increasing numbers of schools removing music altogether from their curriculums, not offering the subject at examination level, or offering bizarre and rather tragic ‘solutions’ such as taster days. Entry for GCSE and A-level music is in decline; it is not yet in freefall, but perhaps soon will be.

In this difficult atmosphere it is perhaps hard to see what we can do to protect what we know to be so very important. To ensure our survival we need to be perceived by the stakeholders in our work – pupils, parents, staff and governors – as being of importance, or being relevant, of being exciting and innovative. In this article I want to reflect on my experiences of what I feel is one very powerful way of achieving that perception, namely reaching out and forming partnerships with local professional musicians, with music hubs and with individual musicians.

Reaching out

Anyone who has led a music department will know the experience. An email arrives out of the blue from an arts organisation offering to provide their services to your pupils. Your heart sinks as you realise that you've not got the money, the flexibility in your timetable, or simply enough hours in the day to be able to accommodate them, and you quickly move on.

We have all done this and there are times when we need to – we can't agree to every request that we get. But I wonder if now would be a good time to try to look at these requests more positively. Would our students gain anything from inviting in this group to work with them? Can we definitely not find the time? How flexible can the external group be in what they offer?

I understand that music hubs often find it difficult to engage with secondary schools. Harassed music teachers, sweating away under the strain of the latest SLT data request, perhaps find it difficult to see how they can further accommodate the projects of the local hub. I know that feeling too. But recently, seeing how fragile the overall state of music education is becoming, I have made a deliberate attempt to engage more fully with our (very good) music hub. The head of the hub came to see me, and we discussed what they could offer us, and what we could perhaps offer them. We are fortunate to be very well resourced, and were able to offer access to our instruments for some of the new ensembles that our hub would like to establish. Equally, some of the partners of the hub are very interesting to me – the BBC Singers for example – and they can put me in touch with the right people to make connections.

Making connections

Cardinal Vaughan pupils performing in Turandot at the Royal Opera House (© TRISTRAM KENTON)

Not that you necessarily need the links of the local hub to make connections. I have been rather cheeky over the years and approached lots of professional musicians to see if they would be able to help our young people. I won't name individuals here as it would seem a little unfair, but my experience has been that if somebody can slot you into their existing itinerary then they are often happy to come in to the school to talk to the pupils – or to work with them on their music. Sometimes we have had to pay but some musicians have given their time for nothing: indeed the bigger the name, the less likely they are to want any money! In recent years our pupils have enjoyed working with star opera singers, concert pianists, conductors, all kinds of instrumentalists, a leading film composer, music academics, and several jazz musicians – including perhaps the world's greatest living jazz trumpeter. In each instance all that it took to begin a conversation was a polite email, or in some cases a well-placed tweet. One jazz musician, who was playing at Ronnie Scott's for the week and, I suppose, kicking his heels during the day, readily agreed to come in when I asked him – and then emailed back to say that his whole band would like to come!

At the Vaughan School, we have been very fortunate to develop more formal links with our boys’ choir – whose members have sung in the chorus for the Royal Opera and English National Opera as well as with with the Bach Choir, Gabrieli Consort, Monteverdi Choir, Britten Sinfonia and other professional groups over the years. These opportunities can of course be rather scary, and involve a great deal of commitment on the part of staff, pupils and parents – but they are always hugely exciting for everybody involved, not least the pupils.

I know I am lucky to be London-based, but might there be opportunities with local professional or amateur groups close to you? Keep an eye out for a local choral society performing Carmina Burana and volunteer your children to sing the ragazzi part! My experience is that professional and amateur groups are often looking for a solution to the problem of sourcing kids to sing in these kinds of works: if you can provide the answer they will very readily have you on board.

Successful partnership

Our longest lasting and most successful partnership is with an orchestra, the Southbank Sinfonia. This orchestral academy selects a new group of musicians each year from leading young professional players and we enjoy the good fortune of being one of their educational partners – our collaboration this March was the tenth time that we had worked together. The entire 32-strong orchestra comes to the school for four, three-hour sessions, much of which is spent sitting side-by-side with our most advanced instrumentalists learning a major symphonic work. Symphonies by Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Shostakovich, Beethoven and others have all been tackled in the past ten years. Our pupils benefit from being able to perform music that otherwise would not be possible for us – but also, of course, from seeing how professional musicians conduct themselves in rehearsals and performance. There emerges, across the period of the Southbank visit, a new atmosphere among our pupils, one of greater independence and maturity as they rise to the challenge of being treated like adults, and their playing comes on very considerably.

It works for Southbank Sinfonia too – I asked James Murphy, its outgoing managing director, what the partnership means to them. He said: ‘It's a thrill for our orchestra of graduates to partner each year with the remarkable students at Cardinal Vaughan. The students get to meet role models with similar youthful impulses who dispense tips and insights in a friendly, encouraging voice. But it works both ways: it helps our players hone their skills and boosts their confidence as leaders, fulfilling their calling to inspire others. The result of this synergy is big, vivid performances that nobody forgets.’

The power of professionals

The power of bringing musicians into your school is not to be underestimated and it is amazing what people will be willing to do if you are only prepared to ask. We must not lose sight of the fact that all professional musicians, no matter how esteemed, were beginners once: they all had teachers that they learned from, and very many of them are hugely committed to the cause of education.

In these difficult times we must do all we can to make our subject appear important, exciting, captivating. And that's not hard, surely, as it is music we are talking about after all. Reach out to local musicians, invite people in, go out to them. Find the time to reply to that email, get involved with the local music hub, do all you can to make things happen. If we are going down, let's go down fighting!