Music – luxury or nurture? A peripatetic music teacher advises parents.

Today I’ve got a guest blogger.

“A Peri” responds to my last post and adds some important advice for parents choosing schools:

You’ve hit the nail on the head with the luxury or nurture about the lack of music specialists.

I feel parents are not very clued up as to what to look for in a music department. If parents ask careful questions about music provision they can find out quite a bit. Here are some suggestions:

1) How many instrumentalists performed solos last year in concerts? Choirs etc. are great but it is by finding out what is being done for the children that learn instruments that you can tell the true level of support for music in a school. Sample concert programmes might reveal only one or two being showcased.

2) If the school is in a position to offer scholarships how many music scholarships does the school have and to what value? Make sure you know what some of the opposition are offering. Ring round a few other local schools.

3) Does the head always allow children out of school to go and perform at local, regional or national concerts? You would think this was a given, being good PR for the school, but not so. Imagine your child having practised for years and on being invited to perform at a prestigious event being told that they are not allowed to!

4) Do the school employ music peripatetics (specialist instrumental teachers) to coach string quartets, jazz groups, brass quintets etc? Any kind of chamber music or traditional music groups? These groups, if they are regularly rehearsed will be being entered for competitions and festivals e.g. National Chamber Music competition. The headmaster/headmistress should be able to tell you about them or you should see timetables in the Music department as you are being shown round. Look for details on noticeboards of groups other than orchestras being coached by named peripatetics specifying who is doing what on which day of the week. This should be happening in senior schools.

5) Are there concerts set up every term to give instrumental examination candidates practice just before music examinations?

6) How many teachers are involved in the running of junior orchestras and for how long each week? If there is a half hour session with one teacher then, by the time everything is set up and instruments tuned, there is not much time left. Plus as inexperienced junior school players frequently get lost when starting new tunes, it requires a high level of teacher competence/availability to keep players together. If management are prepared to offer the support of two teachers one can keep going on the piano or conducting and the other can go round rescuing players reducing the need for continual stopping and starting and avoiding pupils sitting there being miserably lost.

7) Does each school orchestra run for the whole year or is it a one term/two term option? Half a year can be the norm and even if it is two terms – just think – March to September without any rehearsals!

8) How many orchestra rehearsals are held as a minimum per term/year? If the music teacher is ill or unavailable is orchestra cancelled? Does a replacement music teacher/peripatetic get booked to take the rehearsal? It is possible to lose a huge amount of rehearsals this way and pupils get very fed up and drift off. I have known whole terms to go missing. In small schools you might judge this hard to avoid but certainly it should not be the case in larger schools or junior schools attached to senior schools. Staff could be shifted across if management support is there.

9) Is there an excellent pianist on the teaching staff or do the school hire a trained peripatetic to help out with accompaniments. Pupils can get to Grade 5 and find the school simply cannot cope with the piano accompaniments that are needed at this level. Some of the piano parts can really be very tricky. Pupils then find they are not selected to play in concerts or else parents end up sitting through concerts listening to somebody doing their best to stumble through the accompaniments.

10) Does the school take any kind of hire fee/rental/commission from the peripatetics? Is the peripatetic actually receiving what you are paying? It is a question well worth asking your County or Borough music service as well. Any organisation that really values their music staff will not be doing this. After all the rest of the teachers are not charged for teaching.

11) How does the school’s system of extra curricular activities work? A junior school that requires that pupil’s sign up every term is likely to lose pupils as they forget or just don’t feel like it when the notice is up at the start of term. Encouraging children to think that they permanently belong to the orchestra and that this activity is part of their lifestyle is what is needed.

Likewise a senior school that requests pupils do two extra activities a week encouraging them to change activities every term is not a successful receipe for anything the music department might be wanting to do. Years of study turns out useful players by the time pupils reach Years 12 and 13. A term or so here and there will not do it.

Even worse if all music groups are only allowed to be counted as one activity whether it be orchestra, choir, jazz group etc. and the children are required to do something else in a different subject as well. Making progress on any instrument is exceedingly time consuming and musicians ought really to learn two instruments before even beginning to think about taking it up as a career. Many professionals play a lot more than two instruments. Encouraging instrumental students to do as many musical activities and styles of music as possible with consistent attendance at rehearsals is the way forward.

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Once you are in the school and watching concerts how do you keep track? If the orchestras are populated by a lot of peripatetics is this just for show or are the peripatetics actually paid to attend the rehearsals as well? I have taken part in a concert where the orchestra would have completely fallen apart if visiting teachers had not agreed to go in and shore the whole thing up. This made the orchestra seem a viable proposition for parents in the audience when it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. We weren’t there at the weekly rehearsals.

If your child’s instrumental teacher is there it might be worth discreetly asking if they were paid to play in the concert. A lot of goodwill by peripatetics goes unnoticed. You are in a position to thank them and a little appreciation goes a long way.

Listen for the level of difficulty of piano accompaniments that are needed. They take hours of extra time to practise and rehearse for whichever member of staff does it. Make sure the school knows you appreciate it if you feel they have invested in employing a really decent pianist on the teaching staff. It is the kind of leg up for your child at Grades 5,6,7,8 and beyond that you’ll notice dreadfully if lost. Plus having a competent pianist around is a gift for all the instrumental teachers. It means they do not have to rely on choosing pieces for their students on the basis of what the pianist can manage.

So……………… the website or the prospectus or even both may have a picture of children playing violins, cellos, horns but do the actions match the publicity? That is what parents need to find out in order to assess whether the deal is reasonable.

Asking these questions also has the added bonus that if the music passes muster then it will tell you a lot about the school as a whole.

Happy school hunting.

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