Tuesday, 5 October 2010

'On coalitions...'

Coalitions are, obviously, much in vogue in this country at the moment. Despite the oncoming train that is the October 20th announcement on spending cuts, the public appears to be, in the main, relatively content with the Conservative/ Liberal pact. There's a feeling that this might be a new, more sensible approach to dealing with the big issues, rather than the usual Westminster shout-ins and in-fighting.

Much of what I'm reading and hearing about recently re: music education, is similarly focussed on this theme of collaboration and partnerships. In easier financial times, organisations who deliver music provision can more afford to concentrate on their own plans and aspirations, but now, with 'all bets off', people are looking around them for potential allies. But can coalitions prosper in the music education sector, in particular classroom teaching and community music? The nominal wall between formal and informal music education has of course been partly dismantled in recent years, but so many of the projects and partnerships tend to suffer from short-term-ism; plenty of 'value-added' to the curriculum, but rarely a lasting legacy.

The recently announced 'Henley Review' an independent review looking at how the funding available for music education can most effectively be used to secure the best music education for all children and young people - would, I think, do well to look hard at this question. Music departments cannot realistically be run by one individual any more, if they are to engage with the demands of a '21st Century' music education (and the current, fast evolving musical landscape of the UK). By this I mean issues like: in-depth engagement with music technology; small group-based working models rather than 30+ students at once; quality access to music for students with SEN/ disabilities; ongoing CPD for teachers via interaction and support from other music professionals.

We need community musicians/ orchestral players/ talented musical parents (enter your own tag here _) in every music class in this country, working alongside music teachers. That means a compete re-appraisal of how we fund and organise music services and school classroom delivery. The knowledge and experience about teaching and assessing music is held in so many different places and minds. Rather than continuing to merely observe each other across the musical 'dispatch box', we need to make a new deal (ideally one involving a more diverse cross-section than these two...)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

GCSE Music success for Jordan!

Talented Drake Music student Jordan Andow has achieved his goal of passing GCSE Music. Jordan, who attends the City Academy in Bristol, had previously worked with Drake Music (SW) on a range of performing and composing projects. He has been supported over the past two years by Jonathan Westrup, Drake Music Curriculum Development worker. Jordan’s achievement is made even more remarkable for the fact that he nearly didn’t take the course. A mixture of timetabling clashes and other pressures meant he considered having to drop his favourite subject. However, the school stepped in to fund one-to-one support from Drake Music and the result is a fantastic outcome both for Jordan, and for music education generally in this country. Jordan is soon to start college and plans to continue making his own music.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Music for music's sake, or something else...?

What is music for? In a recent Q&A for the upcoming NAME conference, Dick Hallam, National Music Participation Director, was asked why he believed music education is important for all children. He answered by pointing to 'its power to transform lives'. Equally, the phrase 'The Power of Music' has become a main staple of music education speak in recent years. Now, no one would deny that music is a special kind of human activity, capable of grabbing our attention and emotions and even allowing us fresh perspectives on our lives.

And yet...I find myself a bit irked with this power/ transformation speak; it's as if the function of music for young people has become that of a vessel for promoting social cohesion, economic well-being, personal revelation. What happened to music for its own sake, without the baggage?

There are echos here of the debate that occurred around the arts when New Labour came into power, roughly, were the arts to be used for social change, or be promoted for it's own sake and enjoyment? To some extent, the increased funding for music education in recent years has been sold on the back of claims for the 'knock-on effects' eg increased performance in other subjects by students who take music, improved future economic prospects for those from low income families.

However, a focus on music as a transformative 'balm' for the self, and for wider society, has the potential effect of diverting attention away from currently overlooked and under developed aspects of music education. An example, based on my work: many students with SEN/ disabilities currently have sketchy access to quality, ongoing music provision in their schools. It's common for onlookers to describe this group's musical experiences and achievements only in terms of their theraputic qualities - rather than in the context of a normal 'bog-standard' music education with all the usual ups and downs. For such students, music can and should be pursued and enjoyed without hanging tags on it. We should focus on developing their access to workaday music provision and accreditation, instead of automatically looking for the transformative, dramatic effects from often short-term projects.

Because pursuing music as an interest or subject is actually often more straightfoward; it's a series of ongoing, repetitive rehearsals; time spent composing songs with plenty of dead ends; performances that went well but could have gone better...and then, occasionally, magic moments to make all the graft worthwhile. What is music for? It's about the love of it and, yes, it can contribute to young people transforming their everyday situation. But please can we re-balance things towards the former?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Bradley breaks the glass ceiling!

Bradley, our pilot student for our NOCN 'Introduction to Music' Course, successfully passed last week (four units, all at Level 1) This is obviously a significant achievement for him personally, overcoming many barriers along the way, and creating a quality portfolio which is both wide-ranging and musically surprising by turns.

However, his success also plants a clear signpost in the ground for other students to follow. Firstly, he is an excellent role model and a pioneer; he has proven that students facing the barriers he does can independently take accredited music courses and succeed. Next academic year we plan to deliver the course to a class of six students with physically disabling barriers at the same school.

Secondly, the approaches and resources we have used to create the music are now ready for any other student to pick up and use - they won't simply sit there now, in an educational time capsule. The most important task now is to get the course more widely known - and used.

Lastly, it moves the goalposts in terms of music provision in this country for SEN/ disabled students in the UK. Current provision is simply not good enough; we know that educators and musicians and exam boards recognise the need to change this, but it isn't happening nearly as much as it could be. Bradley's success opens the door for professionals to walk through.

If this sounds grand, it really is not; congratulations Bradley!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Wonderful Support for our Curriculum Development Initiative (CDI)

We recently received a very generous donation, made in memory of Jason Morris, to support the development of Drake Music’s Curriculum Development Initiative. The CDI, part-funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, aims to broaden access to the music curriculum in general and to accreditation in music in particular.

Through the CDI we want to ensure that disabled children and young people can pursue the same progression routes as their non-disabled peers, using accreditation as a springboard. As part of CDI, we will support young people with their BTEC in music, and have written and piloted a new NOCN (National Open College Network) course 'Introduction to Music', which will be rolled out nationally over the coming years.

Other key components of this initiative are advocacy, extensive lobbying of key policy makers, and developing a new, fully inclusive music technology exam, working closely with ABRSM.

Jason Morris, in whose memory the donation was made died in 2009. He was a talented, technically adept and very fast guitarist. Music was the centre of his life. He was much appreciated by his peers for the way he shared his knowledge and gave his encouragement, as well as being known for his wit. He participated in Gasfest, a guitar event in support of Drake Music. Jason greatly admired Drake Music's work and this donation is in many ways a fitting memorial to him.

This generous donation – over a four-year period - will have a significant impact, increasing our reach and enabling us to make a step-change in the development and implementation of the Curriculum Development programme.

For more information about CDI, please contact

Jonathan Westrup



Or visit



Monday, 21 June 2010

"It's the creative, dynamic music teachers, stupid"*

(* Apologies to Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville)

What is holding back increased participation and accreditation in music for disabled/SEN students in this country?

It's not the lack of legislation which ensure that 'reasonable adjustments' are made to make music accessible to all children; it's not a shortage of will or enthusiasm on the part of music educators and staff - everyone I talk to agrees on the need for more music and equality of opportunity; it's not a shortage of 'technology': accessible music technology, in essence, means any piece of kit which gives access to music. It could be a Soundbeam, or it could equally be a small practice amp and a microphone with an echo switch. Increasingly, neither is it about the lack of accessible, re-usable resources for students and teachers.

What I believe we need most is, ironically, something we have in abundance already in many of our school music departments, music services, universities and colleges. We need imagination; planning; and 'professional courage'.

Imagination...because, as I've suggested already, many departmental music cupboards already harbour useful accessible music technology. The trick is to look at at it all in a different way e,g, 'could that keyboard be connected to the spare guitar delay pedal you have, and then linked to a small amp, so that when you play middle C, you get a heck of a drone..' It's creative approaches that count, not necessarily big budgets.

Planning...every teacher has to plan and planned lessons are usually more effective and enjoyable. To make your lesson accessible to all students you teach e.g. like the example above, you just need to plan a bit harder. Once you've created a set-up that works, you can apply it to many different contexts, so the planning time pays for itself.

'professional courage'...(hint: it's not attempting to placate your restless Year 9 class on a rainy Friday afternoon in early January by singing/playing Lady Gaga's latest Top 40 hit on the piano after only one listen) I believe that the best way to judge a music department or service is based on how well they cater for those with least access to music. As ever, I'm not saying for a minute that it isn't challenging or difficult for some, based on local conditions. But music teachers and musicians are so often the 'big personalities' in the room. They have the ability to make things happen, to fill rooms with incredible sounds, to encourage, to inspire, to cause laughter. 'Courage' here means going beyond your normal comfort zones and expectations of yourself, trying methods you're not familiar with, taking the chance that you might fail, but crack it next time.

Teachers, as ever, are the biggest resource we have.

Monday, 29 March 2010

'Five films you must see before you teach another music lesson...'

Newspapers and magazines are fond of making lists of films that you absolutely, completely, without fail must see if you are ever to show your face in polite society again. The film I want to tell you about (http://www.teachingmusic.org.uk/resource/16153) was not made in Hollywood, nor on a huge budget (think me + camcorder + no budget) However, I can report that the subject of the film has unquestionable star quality...

Bradley, who attends St Roses School in Stroud, is the first student to pilot the new 'Introduction to Music' course which Drake Music have written. Why does the world need yet another accredited music course? Well, strictly speaking it doesn't; but what it does badly need are accessible, re-usable teaching and learning resources. After years of making music with physically disabled/ SEN students in both mainstream and special school settings, Drake Music have long noted that many of these students would love to be participating more in the National Curriculum for Music and also achieving accredited outcomes, but that the lack of accessible resources was acting as a barrier.

The resources for the 'Introduction to Music' course have been written using Clicker 5 software, meaning that students like Bradley can access the resources using switch access (in his case using a head-switch). This enables him to work independently, even take work home to do. Equally, the format ensures the course is accessible to any student, disabled or not (for more details about running the course, please contact me at jonathanwestrup@drakemusicproject.org)

And so to the film: using his communication aid, Bradley discusses his work and experiences of taking the course in front of an audience of 30 PGCE Music students at Bristol University. His script was written by him with support from his Speech and Language Therapist at St Roses School (see the description attached to the film for more details of this) Later on in the film he answers questions from the students, displaying a laid-back manner not normally associated with teenagers asked to talk to an audience for 20 minutes. It's an fascinating, funny and entertaining film ("Roy Orbison...") interspersed with examples of his music. It demonstrates so clearly the creative achievements that young people like Bradley are capable of in music when they are afforded equal access to provision. I hope it serves as a real catalyst to all teachers and music educationalists who make music with young people with disabilities/ SEN.

And finally, back to those 'best of' lists; after nearly fifty distinguished (and grizzled) years of making music, American guitar legend Neil Young won his first Grammy this year. In typical fashion, whilst accepting the award he declared that "there is no best in music". However, I'll disagree with Neil here and declare an interest: in my humble opinion, Bradley's work must surely be up there with the best of them.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Inclusive by design? The future of Music departments

The music department in my first music teaching job in Bristol was situated on the second floor, not much use for students using wheelchairs (nor for delivery firms bringing up a grand piano). The rooms had huge windows on one side - boiling in the summer, freezing in the winter; the whole class could watch Concorde's descent on it's final flight. When I arrived in post, we were offering the usual option: KS3...GCSE...A Level and so I cracked on, dutifully accepting of the exact same model I had experienced as a student in the late 1980s.

Monks Walk school in Hertfordshire have a school motto: "Vel optima cuique praebere" or "Excellence for all". Nothing radical in that sentiment for a school you might think; but the school's Music department has embarked on a transformation which takes this motto to heart, and could well prove to be an influential model for other music departments to emulate.

The department have embraced a 'personalised learning' approach to Music, based around the Musical Futures model. Students can focus on music that interests them, work at their own pace and the teacher becomes more of an advisor/ mentor than a traditional teacher figure. Students can access a wide range of courses at KS3/4 to suit their individual needs.

The head of Monks Walk said that the benefits of the approach include:

'...motivation, inclusion and the opportunity to follow their own preferred routes through music based on styles and genres they understand and are familiar with, as well as working to their own ability levels'.

What is crucial about this model for music students with disabilities/SEN is that it is inclusive by design. There is no need for any cumbersome 'add-ons' or a two tier approach to teaching, learning and accreditation for disabled and non-disabled students. We know from our own work with disabled/SEN children that this kind of child-centred approach - increasingly based on their own musical interests and to a flexible time-scale - is usually very successful for any child.

However, the model inevitably raises some questions too:
  • It relies on students managing their own time effectively and understanding how they learn best themselves - students need to be taught these skills
  • It’s a potential logistical headache to juggle so many courses at different levels/ timescales.
  • You need a lot of extra room space to allow students to work in peace
  • You require increased support from outside the department e.g. musicians, which also costs more
No-one said that it would ever be easy to transform a department, nor that it would be achieved overnight. But I believe that these types of models are the key to increased access to music at schools for disabled/SEN students in the future, rather than the small, sparodic pots of funding and short term provision which are more commonly the case for this group.