Lippy Kids...?

David Ashworth - Freelance Education Consultant.

Reproduced from the Teaching Music website by kind permission of David Ashworth.

At more or less the same time as Elbow were preparing to take the stage for their triumphant Glastonbury gig, a dozen or so teenagers were working in a secondary school in Preston on some of the same songs from Elbow’s wonderful recent album.

The task?
To rehearse and play some of the best songs from Elbow’s ‘Build a Rocket Boys’ to as high a standard as possible. And this they did. Next week, these kids will walk into a local Arts Theatre. When they play, jaws will drop. Their families and friends will have had no idea that these students could achieve so much in such a short space of time….

It all sounds very high risk – and certainly my co-tutor, who had never engaged in this kind of thing before, had some misgivings. Throw a bunch of young people who are complete strangers to each other into a room. Give them some fairly demanding songs that they may not have heard before – and expect them to perform them four days later?

Well it works. I’ve seen it happen time and again. And it gives the students an experience they will never forget and something that many will build on in the future.

Twelve years ago, I was first given the opportunity to explore this way of working on a project called
York Rocks. This was funded by the Performing Arts Service in York and continues to this day.

The rationale and method is simple:

  • give students extended time. You cannot expect to achieve much if a bell rings after 50 minutes and you then have to go tramping off to Geography. And expect to pick it up a week later?
    • Provide an environment where keen, committed students can work together pursuing a common aim. They don’t all have to be particularly talented or experienced. This model will accommodate a range of ability.
    • Help them learn how to set up equipment properly and to use the space efficiently
    • Ensure a good balance between directed and undirected time. This facilitates social cohesion and allows those unexpected creative moments to emerge.
    • Encourage a professional working ethic. Everyone using pens, paper, folders. Have proper non-music making breaks. No musical doodling during discussion…..
    • Put an emphasis on quality singing. Make sure they are amplified adequately. Encourage detailed harmony/backing vocals.
    • Use repertoire that stretches and inspires. The music of Elbow provides an excellent current model - 'intelligence, heart and great tunes'
    • Bring in other instruments – orchestral instruments can add great colour and diversity and will bring in other musicians
    • Encourage and support songwriting opportunities, drawing on aspects of the style of the cover songs you are rehearsing
    • This all needs to lead somewhere. A performance in a decent venue should be the aim. Recording is valuable but provides nothing like the buzz of live performance.
This model has worked well for me for many years and typically takes place during school holidays or consecutive weekends. But to take it further, I wanted to see how it works within the school day, using curriculum and after school time.

I wanted to design a project that would bring together some of the musical ‘sub groups’ working and performing in schools. Typically these are choirs, orchestras, wind/brass ensembles and of course rock/pop bands.

Usually the choirs and ensembles in schools are led by music staff and are challenged and encouraged to perform to high standards, taking on more and more ambitious works. Rock bands are usually left to do their own thing. The school music department will often help in finding space and equipment and help with performance opportunities for rock bands, but tend not to get involved with the musical development of these self managing groups.

However, we now have the opportunity to go further with rock and pop in schools. Musical Futures and significantly more instrumental tuition on rock and pop instruments, means that we now have players of these instruments in these genres playing to very high standards. So now we can challenge and encourage these students to be much more ambitious – to raise the bar far higher than they might realise they are capable of achieving.

David was the Lead Consultant on Music and ICT for the National Association of Music Educators and now works for them as Project Leader on . He is also a Regional Subject adviser for the New Key Stage 3 National Curriculum for Music.