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In Harmony Staff visit Leeds, spotlighting In Harmony Opera North

Posted on 6 February 2015

By Chrissie Slater – In Harmony Newcastel Gateshead Viola Teacher

On a slightly snowy Friday morning we arrived at Windmill Primary School, a school with over 300 pupils, long corridors and, usefully, two school halls. Our first taste of the action was the orchestra; made up of around 60 string players but I gather the project is looking into reducing the numbers in ensembles to half that. Running simultaneously to this was the Year 2 choir.

A quick cup of tea and an overview of the project from Jacqui Cameron and her team followed, after which we watched a Year 1 musicianship class. These children had not yet started on their instruments. Four music tutors led different activities: a story of explorers and giants had the children creeping quickly (quavers) or stomping (minims) to the music of In the Hall of the Mountain King played on piano. Rhythms were read from the big screen and after hearing a tune on violin the children had to choose which rhythm they heard, top rhythm or bottom rhythm.

We then experienced the Year 5/6 choir learning a spoken piece, the idea being that rhythm is intrinsic to language. Without pitch to worry about, the children could concentrate solely on the rhythm. The ensemble had to be perfect as they would be performing it in canon in the future! Before singing the hippopotamus song, the vocal director showed the children a short BBC wildlife clip about hippos. She asked them questions about it afterwards and lots of hippo facts had been remembered. She told us later that she likes to throw a bit of learning into her sessions. Singing does give scope for lots of background knowledge on the song’s subject. She was getting the most out of the children with direction on breathing, diction and posture, which we experienced ourselves when we joined her community choir later in the day. This was a nice little group who meet weekly in the school. They did not appear to be parents, a little more senior than that.

It was interesting to hear the head teacher’s thoughts on the project and how he felt it had affected the children and wider community to date. He felt it had transformed them and had noticed a development not just musically but in wider skills; they had become more tolerant and respectful of people and equipment, showing self-control and self-management, pride in their work and a good spirit of teamwork. He loved to hear the parents casually talking about opera now, an indication that the project had opened a whole new strata of culture to the families. Teaching staff were successfully learning instruments too, made possible by whole classes having instrumental lessons simultaneously. No curriculum time is lost to the individual child as the school day has been extended to 8.25-3.45, finishing early on Fridays.

The Head of Music, Matt, gave us an artistic overview of the project. He outlined seven principles the children are reminded to work to:

  • Think smart (use your brain)
  • Be family
  • Persevere
  • Take a risk
  • Use initiative (do we need to be told to be good?)
  • Express yourself
  • Communicate

Being linked to an opera company, this project obviously is very strong in the singing department. The children sing as much as they play their instruments and the quality of their singing in assembly was notable. There was a great spirit of togetherness in that assembly, with the head teacher accompanying the singing on piano. We also had a funky performance by some children who attend after school hub, designed to encourage more children to join.

We did also visit the hub, a little way down the road. Being a Friday, we experienced their more relaxed session, the more intense work being undertaken earlier in the week (Mondays and Wednesdays) when the children are fresh. So dancing, drumming and improvising were the order of the day. There were around 20 children and 5 music tutors, so splitting up into groups was possible. It had a fun, social atmosphere and all the children were engaged in the activities. All in all it was a very informative, valuable and interesting day, with lots of ideas shared amongst the projects.

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