Music outreach trip to King’s Hedges Educational Federation primary school
Alumna Rachel Addison (2000) is the music teacher at King’s Hedges Educational Federation, a primary school not far from Cambridge city centre. Since the school is in an area where there are high levels of economic and social deprivation, and the vast majority of pupils do not have many musical opportunities outside of school, she asked if any students from St John’s College would be able to give a live demonstration of their instruments to the school children. As Alumni Publications Officer, I was invited to join the representatives from St John’s on the trip and spoke to Rachel about the importance of outreach.
Our student contingent from St John’s consisted of Flora Tassinari (2021) on French Horn, Francis Bamford (2020) on bassoon, Josephine Cowley (2020) on viola and Jenny Ryan (2021) on oboe. Each student had been asked to perform a jolly and fun piece, give a brief talk about their instrument and answer the children’s questions.
It was a pleasure to be asked to take part in a musical outreach event with a local primary school. The importance of this kind of event cannot be underestimated in the education of children at this crucially formative time. We hope that we have encouraged in them a further passion for music. Our students were so generous in giving up their time to enable this and they all related to the children with kindness.Sophie Kirk, Music Administrator at St John’s College
In the school’s main hall, Flora was first up with her French Horn. She began by asking the children if they had ever seen one before, and a handful of proud hands shot up in the air. A smaller number remained up as she asked if any of the children played instruments of their own. Flora’s chosen tune was one of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, which was met with a fervent round of applause from the audience.
Questions followed about what the horn was made of, how so many notes could be played with just three keys and how much breath was necessary to play the horn. One pupil asked if Flora knew any other tunes and was delighted to discover that the Star Wars theme was amongst her repertoire! It was at this point that it occurred to the children that the musicians might all be able to play their own renditions of the Harry Potter theme tune… The French Horn version did not disappoint.
Next up was Francis and a rather large instrument which the children correctly identified as a bassoon. Before playing his chosen piece, a sonata by George Telemann, Francis played the reed on its own, prompting lots of questions about reeds.
When asked what had inspired him to start playing the bassoon, Francis admitted that a school visit had allowed him to see one in real life and that he had been fascinated from that point on; a testament to the importance of musical outreach.
Instrument number three was the viola and much of Josie’s introductory talk focused on the differences between the instruments of the violin family. Josie gave an example of both bowed and pizzicato techniques and played one of Bach’s solo cello suits on her viola. The students asked questions about what the bow was made of, how she knew where to put her fingers and whether she played any other instruments. The also asked if she could play with her eyes closed – so, Josie played the piece again, this time with eyes shut, to the astonishment of the rest of the room.
The final performance was given by Jenny who played Madeline Dring’s Italian Dance on the oboe. In answer to searching questions, Jenny told the children that she practiced a little every day and reassured them that the occasional wrong note was all part of the musical journey.
With a big round of applause for all the St John’s students, the afternoon’s excitements drew to a close.
Following the outreach trip, I asked Rachel some questions about her teaching background, what encouraged her to invite the Johnian musicians and why music outreach is so important.
What encouraged you to go in to teaching?
I came from a family of teachers and throughout my teenage years had been adamant that I wanted to go into accountancy, mostly in order to do something different from everyone else around me! However, as my time at St John’s went by, it became increasingly obvious to me that I was meant to be a teacher. It took me a while to decide whether Primary or Secondary education was the right route, but I really like the creativity and variety that comes with teaching younger children. Teaching is very rewarding and certainly never boring!
You were part of the College orchestra whilst at St John’s. What was that like?
One of the best things about college life at St John’s was that there were amazing extra-curricular opportunities at college level, making it possible to take part in so many interesting things right on your doorstep. I got involved in lots of things, and if I’m honest was probably not the most dedicated or talented member of the College orchestra, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to keep playing my violin and it’s always fun to play with other people.
What do you enjoy most about teaching music?
So many things! Music is essentially about joy. I make it my business to make sure that coming to my music lessons gives children a chance to relax, to enjoy themselves and to get a sense of satisfaction from what they achieve. If I had to pick one thing, I don’t think you can beat helping children to sing well and together.
Why is seeing instruments played live so important for young people?
Fortunately, in the time I’ve been teaching, technology has made videos of professional orchestras and musicians so much more accessible to everyone. However, this is simply no replacement for hearing and seeing the instrument played live. Children do not get a sense of the beauty and variety of sound found in different instruments from a recording, and they find it hard to grasp the size of the instruments and the skill and energy it takes to play one. I also think it is harder for a pupil to imagine themselves as the musician from a recording, whereas when a musician is actually present, they can imagine themselves in that situation.
How do outreach activities such as this one benefit the school children?
Already we have seen a positive response from the children in terms of their interest in the instruments and their understanding of them. Rather fortuitously, this term we are having a particular focus on instruments of the orchestra in KS2 and I’ve never had children know what a viola is before starting the unit of work!
Realistically the outreach trip isn’t likely to lead to lots more of our pupils having private instrumental lessons because that isn’t possible with the resources available. However, in a wider sense it opens up possibilities for them, makes their world a bit bigger and allows them to encounter something positive and intriguing from outside of their norm.
Following the success of this trip, there is already a provisional plan for representatives from St John’s can go back to King’s Hedges to do a session for younger children, aged between 5 and 7, next term.