Archives for posts with tag: music education

I was asked recently to comment on whether we are assessing too much: a very interesting area for debate in music education.

I would like to make a contribution from a very practical point of view, leaving serious theoretical propositioning and statistical analysis to others more qualified in those areas.

I was representative in Madrid of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from 1997 to 2004, when the ABRSM exams were relatively unknown here. On the many occasions when I acted as steward at examination centres I often used to ask the candidates three questions:

Did you practise more than usual in the weeks approaching the exam?

Did your playing/singing improve as you practised more?

Have you enjoyed playing/singing more as you have got better?

The answer to all three questions was invariably positive.

More recently, when we introduced Rockschool exams at school parents commented that their son/daughter’s preparation on electric guitar had become more disciplined, more focused and more productive in the weeks leading up to the exam.

The crucial question here is that the candidates found the exam process to be worthwhile and positive, not a trauma to be endured. In these cases there was a genuine sense of assessment for learning, with a structure over time that the candidates themselves clearly understood and bought into.

What are features common to these experiences, involving as they do very different styles of music?

Ownership: in most cases the candidates had a part in deciding whether or not to sign up for the exam;

Integrity: candidates are confident they will receive a fair and objective assessment of their performance;

Positive outcomes: for well prepared candidates exams with the ABRSM or Rockschool provide positive feedback, recognition within school and beyond, and a platform for future success.

Were these candidates assessed too much? Apparently not, as a high proportion of them came back for more in following years.

A full debate on this question will be found in the February 2011 issue of Music Teacher magazine, edited by Christopher Walters:



Gillian Howell, musician and educator, is in Timor Leste. Her blog posts are original, informative and moving. Here’s a taster…

Thursday, Day 56

Today was the first day of The Right To Play project and I’m relieved to say we got off to an overall strong and productive start, especially given my anxiety of the previous day! We had a group of about 20 children (fewer than planned, but perfectly good numbers for a project of this kind). Marqy and his team worked alongside Tony and myself, and it was a good day.

We started with some music games and warm-ups, establishing some foundational music disciplines in eye contact, imitation, careful listening, and cuing:

  • Physical warm-up with stretches, copying hand gestures
  • Call-and-response structures, using names and rhythms
  • Passing the clap swiftly around the circle, changing direction in response to clear eye contact, and being ready to respond to unexpected changes
  • Passing multiple contrasting sounds around the circle in opposing directions, first with eyes open, then with eyes closed.

We introduced our framing theme of human rights, and children’s rights in particular. We asked the children if they could think of any human rights, and their responses brought about some clarification of what is meant by rights, and how they are different to wants, or likes.

Then we started on some music-making. We had the idea of presenting children’s rights through the music in the context of a child’s childhood years, from birth through to the age of about 12 or so. Today we focused on the music to represent brith and the start of life. Read more…



It so happened that just when the Georgia Regional Girls’ Choir were visiting us in Madrid, Spain, we also had a group from… let’s just say a European capital city. Our European guests had also promised to sing and I thought it would be great fun to put our two sets of visitors, one from the USA and the other from Europe, together in the concert. Unfortunately, the European visiting group’s teacher was held up and was not able to be there to prepare her group to sing, so…… we waited….. and then waited some more.

With endless patience Ms Rawson started her Choir’s  performance and very kindly agreed to let the other visitors  take their place when their teacher arrived……Short stop for a changeover of choirs…no teacher…. no choir….please continue…and so it was that we had a double helping of the Georgia choir and missed out on hearing our European visitors. Our gain, their loss….but what exemplary charm and patience we saw that day from Ms Rawson and her excellent, dignified young singers, I congratulate them all.

Over the past years we have been fortunate to welcome visiting choirs from the United States, and one of the most striking groups which has performed for us is the Georgia Regional Girls’ Choir led by Jennifer Rawson, Artistic Director and Tour Choir Director

The Georgia Regional Girls Choir is a nonprofit, non-denominational organization for all girls in the 3rd through 12th grades and includes Tour, Apprentice and Training Choirs. All choirs perform two major concerts each year — one during the winter holiday season, and one during the spring.  The Tour Choir performs throughout the year, including a summer tour. (GRGC notes).

For eleven years, Ms. Rawson has conducted the Georgia Regional Girls’ Choir, a premiere girls choir in North Georgia, which has toured throughout the United States and Europe under her direction, performing in Italy, London, Washington D.C., San Diego, Boston, San Francisco, the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, and the Biltmore House. Ms. Rawson has been a member and frequent soloist with the Atlanta Singers under the direction of David Brensinger for fifteen years and has had past positions with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, The Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers under the direction of Robert Shaw. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her high energy, animation, and creativity combine to make GRGC a fun, as well as educational, experience for all the girls. (Ms Rawson’s notes)

Here is the repertoire sung by the Choir on their visit:

1) Pueri Hebraeorum                                    Randall Thompson

2) Salve Regina                                                Javier Busto

3) Psalm 23                                                        Z. Randall Stroope

4) Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser        Canadian folk song

5) Niska Banja                                                  Serbian gypsy dance

6) Duerne Negrito                                          Atahualpa Yupanqui

7) Las Amarillas                                                traditional Mexican

8) How Can I Keep From Singing              Quaker song

9) Keep Your Lamps                                      traditional spiritual

10) Hello, Girls                                                 American folksong

As you can see, the choice of repertoire shows a wide range of national origins and stylistic influences, and a perfect balance of inspirational and fun songs. Surprising as it may seem to readers in the USA, much of this repertoire is unknown here, and was appreciated even more for its novelty.

The concert performance was excellent, with a refinement in tuning, tone and control that was exceptional and deeply appreciated by our audiences, which were made of school students from around Madrid of exactly the same age as the singers. How we all admired your wonderful singing!

Please forgive me for not including the photo of the girl singers here: it is my policy not to include photos of minors in my blog in order to protect their privacy. As expected, their presentational skills were wonderful and their parents back in the USA can be duly proud of them in every way. I hope you will come back to Spain soon, and include us on your list of concert dates.

Thanks to Wens Travel, who coordinate all the arrangements so beautifully to guarantee a happy occasion for all.

The great thing about the Georgia Regional Girls’ Choir is that, not only do they have angelic voices, they have the patience of a saint.



I was recently interviewed by Nicolas Jackson, writer and presenter of the programme North by Southwest, which is broadcast weekly on Spain’s national radio station, Radio Nacional de España. This edition of the programme features the British Council School on its 70th anniversary.

Here is the link to listen to and/or download the programme:

In the interview I explain how  my students have had the opportunity to take part in institutional events and experience government in practice at different levels, with the Madrid city authorities, to the regional and national government, and the offices in Madrid of the European Parliament and European Commission. Beyond Spain, our students have performed at the IMF/World Bank Community of Artists theatre in Washington, and at centres of the Instituto Cervantes in New York, Berlin and Beijing. I also talked to Nicolas about the value for my students of our long-standing contact with Morpeth School in London. Morpeth School is in Bethnal Green, a multicultural,  inner city community and the quality of teaching at the school represents some of the best of current achievements in education in England.

Morpeth School music groups, led by Peter Romhany, have visited us on several occasions, and theywere actually playing  in the 70th anniversary event while we were recording the interview. As my students meet and get to know this multi cultural  group from London they are experiencing the reality of British society today.

I’d like to thank Nicolas Jackson for inviting me to  be included in the programme, and I hope you enjo listening. You can find more about the North by Southwest programme at this link:

Quality at the heart of Spain’s national conference on Social Inclusion in Music Education

Maybe it was the sheer number of green-shirted children on the Philharmonic Hall stage; perhaps it was their correct posture and the well-rounded arm movements which helped them make sense of the bars’ rest; or was it the RLPO players’ commitment, with a little help on open strings from Julian Lloyd Webber at the back of the cello section? In the end it was the overall musical quality in the video of the Liverpool In Harmony project performance which transformed the graveyard slot at the end of a long day conference into the day’s crowning moment, perfectly summing up the message which one speaker after another had argued: that an experience of social inclusion in music education is no longer, if it ever was, a matter of being a passive recipient of therapy, but rather an active participant in a well-defined process which is driven towards a product of recognisable quality.

Spain’s second national conference on Social Inclusion in Music Education was organised by Nicolas Jackson, Arts officer at the British Council’s Madrid office, with the Ministry of Culture and the Dutch Embassy. Speakers included Richard Hallam and Peter Garden (RLPO) from the United Kingdom, and specialists from Spain and Holland, and approximately 200 sector professionals attended from around the country.

The conference was opened by Spain’s most senior arts administrator, D. Félix Palomero, Director General of the Ministry of Culture’s Instituto Nacional de las Artes Escenicas y de la Música. In his opening remarks, the DG stressed the important role of the arts in progress and social integration, the need to establish and maintain structures which are sustainable and free of political considerations, and the importance of achieving results rather than just filling in forms. It was D. Félix who instituted an innovative education programme at the national orchestra (OCNE) when his tenure as chief administrator there coincided with the arrival of Josep Pons as Principal Conductor and Musical Director, forming the basis of a sustained quality education programme.

Rod Pryde, British Council Director, Spain, explained how this conference is part of the Council’s continued work to connect the United Kingdom with the rest of the world, and that it follows on from last year’s event in Madrid which took a wider look at social inclusion in the arts, and from a recent conference on the same theme in Barcelona.

Jorge Fernández Guerra, Director of the Centro para la difusión de la música contemporánea was host for the day, as the conference facilities are part of the concert hall development built for the CDMC in the extension of the Reina Sofía art gallery. In his introduction he remarked that the expression music for all is widely used and there is a need to define who is included in this concept of all; he went on to talk about the vital part music can play in progress towards equality.

Richard Hallam, National Music Participation Director, was the first speaker. After a look back to a photo from 1895 showing hundreds of children taking part in music in a school hall, he summarised his presentation in three words: Quantity, Quality and Vision. He described the work of the three main actions in England: the inclusion of music as an obligatory subject in the National Curriculum; the Wider Opportunities initiative which is funded up to 82 million pounds per year, and the Sing Up! campaign, with funding up to 40 millions. For the Spanish listeners, the most striking part was certainly the explanation of the class teaching of instruments through Wider Opportunities, which was supported by a video excerpt. Over coffee my Spanish colleagues were interested to know whether classroom teachers were paid extra for participating, whether the teachers felt embarrassed at being beginners alongside their pupils, and how much other class teachers complained about the noise. There is considerable interest in hearing more about the Wider Opportunities provision.

In response to questions about how to win political support, Richard Hallam insisted that it is essential to demand high quality from providers and to provide evidence of high quality outcomes to funding bodies, and he cited recent research by Dean Susan Hallam and Professor Ann Bamford. He also made it clear that the timing of the end of Year of Music is geared to coincide with the expected arrival of a new government after the general election. This up-front campaigning spirit was unexpected in a Spanish context.

Richard Hallam finished by returning to the issue of quality: firstly, how studies have shown that poor quality provision is not better than nothing, it is actually worse that nothing, and secondly, the ongoing debate as to how to define what is good enough.

Janneke van der Wijk is Director of the Muziek Centrum Nederland, which was established to promote live music in all styles, to be a provider of information and documentation, and to attempt national synchronisation (her expression) in music education. Four areas of work in social inclusion in the Netherlands were covered in her presentation: the national orchestra’s NedPhoGo! outreach programme, the Leerorkest, a Rotterdam cooperative venture, and music with deaf youth.

“A modern symphony orchestra wants to reach out, it is not just a duty”, is a quote from one of the Netherland Philharmonic players, and they are seen at work in hospitals, schools and prisons. A video clip was shown of a string quartet performing to an audience at a Turkish cultural centre.

The Leerorkest is a training orchestra started in an area of social deprivation in south east Amsterdam in 2005, and which now has 600 young members. A video clip was shown with their parents’ rapturous response.

In Rotterdam, the local symphony orchestra is cooperating with the city council and the conservatoire to develop their youth music participation.

Finally, a video clip was shown of provision for deaf youth, with extra loud dance music and specially prepared moving floors to allow the participants to feel the music.

The speaker explained that education in Holland is devolved to local government; there is no national curriculum and content is demand led. Every school receives a voucher of €20 per student to spend on music, but there is no prescription as to how it should be spent. As a national coordinator, Janneke van der Wijk is responsible for supervising the implementation of actions, but decisions are made locally. In the end, her criteria for accepting projects is not the musical style involved or even the project design, but the quality of the proposal and the quality of the final product seen over time.

Holland is modelling a campaign to gain extra support for music education based on the Music Manifesto with three strands: Music for every child, Sing Up and An instrument for every child.

Gloria Cid is in charge of the Departamento de actividades culturales de impacto social of the La Caixa bank’s foundation. According to the bank’s own figures, La Caixa is Spain’s third largest banking group, and the annual budget for cultural activities with a social impact is 1.5 million euros.

Gloria Cid began her presentation with a quote from François Matarasso: “It is time to think of what culture can do for society and not what society can do for culture.”

Four areas of La Caixa’s work in social inclusion were described: Diversons, funding for performing groups made up of immigrants; large scale participative concerts; projects with the mentally challenged; and funding of social action arts projects. Participation is the key in all of these areas.

Selection for groups to be included in the Diversons project is based on several criteria, including the legal and residence status of the performers, the relevance of their music to immigrant groups established in Spain, and, above all, musical quality. Experience has shown that, thanks to professional advice on contracts, licensing and marketing, 70% of groups funded have continued to function after the bank’s funding period has run its course.

The participative concerts have taken place in major cities around the country and have included repertoire such as The Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. Choir trainers and pianists work with large groups of volunteer singers in the weeks leading up to shared performances which are given in major venues with a professional orchestra. One of the main features of inclusion in this project is age: a large proportion of the participants are near retirement, and some of them have brought their grandchildren along to sing.

A video clip was shown of music workshops with mentally challenged adults. The power to choose  and make musical decisions and the sense of responsibility for the final group performance combine, according to the speaker, to take these actions beyond the level of therapy to genuine musical participation.

A video was shown of the fourth area of La Caixa’s work: women prisoners who worked with a choreographer to create a dance piece. The process, according to the choreographer, gave the women a sense of ownership of their prison spaces, helping them to see the space and their relationship to it in a new way. With the help of a team of professionals, the women produced a video dance work, and the project has recently been awarded a national prize for its contribution to the place of arts in social inclusion.

The theoretical basis for La Caixa’s practice was outlined with the help of various graphics: one of a triangle with Art for art’s Sake, Culture as an educational force, at the top angles, and culture as an instrument of social impact at the third angle. Another graphic showed participative activities at the centre of a matrix including cultural professionals on one side, persons forming the target group for action on another, and the outcomes on yet another side: social inclusion and cohesion, social regeneration and personal development.

Lastly, a graphic which illustrated the important, but different roles of artists on one side and social agents on the other, both groups working towards the needs of the third element, the participants: an understanding of the difference between these roles, and the separation of their functions is crucial to any project’s success.

Gloria Cid concluded her presentation with a quote from Vanessa, a participant in one of La Caixa’s social impact projects: “I was never interested in art until art showed an interest in me”.

The conference’s fourth speaker was Rogelio Igualada Aragón, coordinator of the national choir & orchestra of Spain’s education project (OCNE). The speaker outlined the history of educational work at the OCNE: until 2005 it consisted of open rehearsals and schools concerts. With the arrival of Josep Pons as Principal Conductor and Musical Director, the orchestra began a more ambitious education programme, including Mark Withers as composer/director. My students and colleagues were fortunate to be involved in two projects, one based on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and one on  de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, which included working with orchestra players and performing on the national concert hall stage with orchestra players and children from a wide range of Madrid schools.

The speaker went on to explain how this project has been continued with local composer/directors, and how other actions have included performances by orchestra players in hospitals. He explained how participation of orchestra players in these activities is voluntary. When asked to clarify this point he explained that the musicians, civil servants with lifelong contracts, are paid extra when they take part: the voluntary element is that there is no obligation for players to take part.

Peter Garden’s presentation followed on and confidence, passion, ambition and a sense of purpose flooded the lecture hall and swept everyone up in a wave of positive energy. Next to me were colleagues from a local authority education service, and in front of me were senior administrators from the Ministry of Culture and from Spain’s leading conservatoire and the admiration towards the speaker and the project was palpable. Peter Garden is Executive Director (Learning & Engagement) at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the theoretical basis and conviction for his work are as deep as the river Mersey and as solid as the Liver buildings.

I stopped taking notes as the list of initiatives went from one slide to another, looking back at the European City of Culture achievements (the RLPO was described as having “provided the soundtrack to the year”), taking in the collaboration with Liverpool Hope University in the European Opera Centre, and the 45,000 persons of all ages involved throughout the year, and looking forward to participating in the Shanghai Expo (Liverpool is the only English city to have a presence at Expo.) Peter Garden’s plans for the RLPO include targets up to 2015, and nobody in the room doubted that they will be met.

Just when some were beginning to doubt that all this could really be true, along came the video clip of the green shirted children and we saw and heard what is being achieved in one of most socially disadvantaged areas of Europe. Peter Garden introduced the video: “On 13 July 2009, the children and staff from Faith School performed at Philharmonic Hall for their debut performance as West Everton Children’s Orchestra, barely 12 weeks after having picked up their instrument for the first time. They performed a programme of 10 pieces to demonstrate their music skills, with a special arrangement of Hey Jude as a finale, performed alongside musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chair of In Harmony, Julian Lloyd Webber.”
Peter Garden referred to one of the West Everton schoolchildren’s father, who said that he never felt so proud of his child, and felt overwhelmed with pride seeing his child play in the Philharmonic Hall concert. The achievements in Liverpool are noteworthy in any context, but when seen against the backdrop of current provision in Spain, they are stunning, and this presentation made an excellent conclusion to the conference, reinforcing what other speakers from Spain, England, and Holland had referred to during the day, that quality in the process and in the product is achievable and is demonstrable.

This article has been published in Spanish at the British Council’s Spain web

Yo fue el responsable de un grupo de treinta alumnos acompañados por tres profesores del colegio que  salieron el 16 de febrero de 2006 de la nueva Terminal 4 de Barajas para pasar siete días en Londres y ofrecer tres conciertos a un total de 450 espectadores.

En nuestro hotel del centro de la ciudad se alojaba otro grupo de dieciocho alumnos de nuestro colegio acompañados de dos profesores de la asignatura de Arte con los que hemos disfrutado parte del tiempo libre en su compañía.

Al llegar al hotel, los alumnos y alumnas se dedicaron a descubrir el barrio de Bloomsbury, dominado por los edificios de la Universidad de Londres y por residencias privadas, cerca de la estación de metro de Russell Square y a unos 15 minutos a pie de Oxford Street. Numerosas rutas de autobus de transporte público salen de la misma calle. El transporte en autobus es gratis para todas las personas menores de 14 años, y también para los residentes menores de 16. Los autobuses tienen un horario continuado hasta las dos de la madrugada.

Nuestro primer día lo pasamos en el Guildhall School of Music & Drama, uno de los cuatro Conservatorios Superiores de la capital. Sean Gregory, el director del Connect Project, departamento de la Guildhall School, ha visitado nuestro colegio en varias ocasiones desde el año 2004. Ha sido él quien nos invitó a participar en un taller de improvisación con sus colaboradores, junto con un grupo de alumnos de Londres que procedían de Angola. Ha sido muy grato ver a nuestras bailarinas participar en las clases de improvisación con los músicos. El director del Guildhall nos invitó a comer. Almorzar a las 12.15 fue una sorpresa para algunos, pero uno se acostumbra a todo cuando es necesario.

Dedicamos la mañana del sábado a visitar el Museo Británico, a cinco minutos a pie del hotel. Después de la visita, nos dividimos en grupos para intentar vaciar las tiendas de Londres de todo su contenido. Si no fue posible no sería por falta de intentos: desde los almacenes Hamley’s hasta Harrods, pasando por HMV y la Virgen Superstore. Después de recuperar fuerzas en el hotel fuimos con el grupo de Arte a Leicester Square y al barrio chino. Algunos alumnos que intentaron refugiarse del frío- según nos dijeron- en los bares y los pubs de la zona, fueron recibidos con un portazo en la nariz, tal es el seguimiento de la normativa respecto a la admisión de los menores de 18 años en los lugares de ocio.

El domingo regresamos a la Guildhall School para participar en el concierto del Connect, compartiendo programa con unos sesenta alumnos de los colegios de la zona y estudiantes de la propia escuela Guildhall, para dar un concierto de música improvisado. Las bailarinas de Lola Moreno fueron las primeras en incluir la danza española en un concierto del Connect Project. Al salir del concierto nos encontramos con tal mal tiempo que durante unas horas nos refugiamos en el hotel para, más tarde, ir al cine y disfrutar de un “teen-flick” (una película para jóvenes).

El lunes empezamos con vistas desde lo más alto gracias a nuestro viaje en la gigantesca noria del río Tamesis, el “London Eye”. Después montamos en un barco para realizar un crucero al largo del río, acompañados por un comentarista británico divertido y bien informado. Desde allí cruzamos el río para hacer nuestra privilegiada visita al Parlamento, gracias a la invitación de Lord Kinnock, el “Chair” del British Council en Londres. Como sabrán, las visitas al Parlamento sólo se realizan a través de la invitación de un miembro de una de las dos cámaras. Me es muy grato informar de que los guías que nos condujeron durante la visita han felicitado a nuestros alumnos y alumnas por su buen comportamiento y más aún por sus conocimientos de la historia del Reino Unido. Nos recordaron con orgullo que en ese país ha habido un parlamento ininterrumpido durante quinientos años. Dada la feliz coincidencia de que sus señorías estaban de vacaciones pudimos entrar en las dos cámaras, de los “Lords” y de los “Commons”, para estar de pie justo donde el Primer Ministro se levanta para realizar sus intervenciones. Pudimos tocar la misma mesa que ha dominado la cámara durante sus ciento sesenta años desde su reconstrucción después de un incendio. Estoy convencido de que a nuestros alumnos no les ha escapado la importancia  de la cámara.

Desde la historia regresamos a la más absoluta actualidad de una noche de jazz. La Big band que actuaba en la Sala de jazz de Ronnie Scott mostró un nivel técnico y musical de primer orden. Ya hemos felicitado a nuestros alumnos, y quiero reiterarlo ahora: su comportamiento ha sido ejemplar y han escuchado la música con atención y deleite.

Cuando viajé a Londres en el mes de julio pasado para preparar nuestro viaje, quedé impresionado por las instalaciones de Morpeth School. Cuando lo visitaron el martes pasado nuestros alumnos, les costaba creer que este edificio fuera un Instituto de Secundaria público. El barrio de Tower Hamlets, donde se encuentra este instituto, es uno de los más desfavorecidos de la capital. En el colegio brilla una multitud de culturas, siendo gran parte del alumnado de religión musulmana. El director de música pidió a varios grupos de alumnos del instituto que se encargaran de recibirnos y que hiciesen de guías para nosotros .Todos el alumnado lleva el uniforme “a rajatabla”, y no vimos en todo el día ni un par de trainers o deportivas.

Por la mañana, nuestros alumnos tuvieron clases con los profesores del instituto tocando instrumentos de percusión de origen indio y otros instrumentos de las islas del Caribe, Trinidad y Tobego. El director del colegio nos invitó a comer, y después presentamos nuestro concierto a los alumnos y alumnas del Morpeth School y a muchos otros de los colegios de Primaria de la zona. Los asistentes escucharon y observaron con gran atención mostrando su entusiasmo con calidez. Nuestro día en el colegio fue memorable y esperamos que un grupo de alumnos del Morpeth School nos visite en el mes de mayo.

El miércoles cruzamos la calle para llegar al edificio de la Universidad de Londres, al departamento de Educación. Allí presentamos nuestra música y nuestros bailes en un ambiento informal, de sobremesa, para profesores y ayudantes de administración de la Facultad. Fueron muy atentos y apreciativos. El director nos invitó a comer un buffet caliente después del concierto.

Regresamos al hotel para hacer las maletas; después salimos para asistir a la representación del “The Lion King”, el musical de la empresa Disney. Fue una velada muy entrañable, en el corazón de la zona de los teatros de Londres. Por desgracia, no había más tiempo y sólo quedaba la tarea de recoger todo para estar preparados para el regreso a Madrid el día siguiente.

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