Unleashing the power of music in schools - RSA

Blog: Unleashing the power of music in schools


  • Picture of Toni Grehan
    Toni Grehan
  • Creativity
  • Curriculum

As Head of Music at Holyhead School I am very proud of the rising popularity of music over the years. I believe this has been due to the huge success of extracurricular ensembles that are delivered by the most enthusiastic and talented music team I could ever wish to work with. This, along with understanding the students’ strengths and interests, has resulted in a happy music department where students feel inspired by each other and proud of their musical achievements.

One of the main reasons for the success is from the development of our after school big band project that takes place for one hour a week after school. The band have enjoyed many successes including performances at the new Birmingham Library, the Birmingham MAC centre, Edgbaston Cricket Ground and have even performed in Vienna with the students from the J.S Bach music school. I was delighted when the RSA asked the Holyhead School music team to deliver a similar extracurricular ensemble to the RSA Family of Academies, just like we do here at Holyhead.

Myself and the rest of my team were determined to show each school, just how powerful music is as a subject, and can be not only for the students involved, but for the rest of the school and their local community.

Myself, Mr Brown and Mr Grey  took responsibility for the different RSA academies, and committed ourselves to leading a one hour after school ensemble session once a week for any students wishing to be involved, regardless of their musical ability. In fact, we couldn’t stress enough to the schools that music ability was not a pre requisite; all students were welcome, they just needed passion and enthusiasm.

I started my first week at Arrow Vale RSA Academy, where I was faced with nervous and uncertain teenagers. ‘What is this?’ ‘Do I really want to be involved with this?’ ‘hhhmmmm what else could I be doing right now???’. I knew that I had to make an impact in this first week, I had to make sure that there were quick results.  So I found out that some students had some experience on the guitar and piano. I made sure that they got straight on to the instruments and asked Joiada our trainee to jump on the drum kit. We had two trainee’s involved for this project. Joaida Thomas and Kayla Rowe are two talented musicians in the sixth form of Holyhead School who are looking to pursue a career in music. We felt that this project also needed to offer career opportunities for young musicians. During the project they gained experience and skills in leading ensembles and working with young people.

Back at Arrow Vale I quickly got a catchy groove going using very straight forward chords that students of any ability could have grasped. There, a pop song started to develop. All I needed to do now was give some of the singers some images, key words and lots of positive encouragement to get them writing some lyrics.

It was this kind of quick paced, instant result style of learning that we had to repeat across all of the schools to ensure they would return the following weeks. And we were so pleased that the attendance did not fall during the whole six weeks from any of the schools. The students were enjoying the rehearsals and actually sharing their creative ideas as the weeks went on.

I was particularly over whelmed with the progress of musicianship and the rise in confidence from the students at Whitley Academy. During my first visit, the students and I were rummaging in the music cupboard that had not been touched for over 5 years as the subject no longer runs there. We spent the first part dusting off cobwebs and finding anything that was still playable. We managed to get a few keyboards set up, a drum kit and an acoustic guitar. Despite this, the group were passionate and excited at the prospect of performing some of their favourite pop songs. I knew that performing songs of their choice was essential to keep them on board for the duration of the project. I was blown away by the progress that this school made, particularly one boy who had never picked up a guitar before and managed to learn a whole pop song in one lesson on the bass guitar.

Rehearsal Day

Rehearsal Day

After six weeks of myself and the Holyhead Music team delivering after school sessions, it was now time to bring all the schools together. We were also joined by Dr Sid Peacock, a specialist in music composition and big band arrangement in Birmingham. The day started with all schools performing their rehearsed songs. Some schools were very nervous as it was the first time they had ever performed to other people. I was so touched by how supportive each school was when watching the performances. This was really going to boost students’ confidence ready for the final performance in the evening!

We decided that it was important that all schools performed a big band piece together. With no notation or real idea of what we were going to do, Dr Sid Peacock starting asking the brass players to play any note they wanted. Naturally the students began playing notes that sounded right together. Then with the help of me and the rest of my team we supported keys, guitarists and percussion in adding a funky groove to the song. Students from Holyhead School also helped and supported all the vocalists from all the schools. The result was amazing.

Final Concert

The final concert could not have gone better. I was blown away at the rise in confidence and sense of achievement that was spilling out of the student as the concert went on. The grand finale with all the schools performing received a standing ovation!

Parents, teachers and students were rushing to speak to myself and the team to tell us what a success they felt the project had been. Parents were thanking us for giving their children such a wonderful opportunity. The power of music and its impact on young people and the community could not have been more evident that evening. This is how music education should be and how it should exist. It should inspire them, motivate them, bring out their creativity and confidence and not only this, be an important and essential part of our curriculum!

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the feedback from teachers, students, trainees and school leaders with regards to the project.

Ben Brzezuchowski, Arrow Vale’s head of music commented ‘I think that the value of music has improved, not only for the students that took part in the performance, but also through the initial advertising and word of mouth that happened throughout and since the project. Students have now seen the opportunities that are available to them.’

I was equally pleased to hear that Whitley Academy is now continuing to develop their students in their passion of music. Rebecca Hilditch, events coordinator commented ‘We have now started up a music group, the students who took part had an amazing experience that gave them confidence to want to stretch their talents further’.

Kayla, our music trainee also shared her experience in leading ensembles ‘I have really enjoyed the experience of helping to lead an ensemble. Over the weeks, I noticed the musical development of the pupils and their improvement in confidence over the sessions. At Whitley most of the pupils from the school were completely new to music, but they were optimistic about the experience of playing instruments, and it was clear that they enjoyed themselves. It was lovely to hear the good quality of the music that was created by the pupils.

And finally and most importantly I was overwhelmed by student feedback.

‘It felt like our music was being enjoyed by other people’ (Ali)

‘I felt proud that our music was being enjoyed by a lot of people’ (Ali)

‘I enjoyed being able to create a song with new people and standing in front of a big crowd’ (Bradley)

‘I would like this project to continue as it would help younger pupils build confidence and live dreams’ (Bradley)

And finally…….

‘I would love this project to continue in the future because there are not many places that I can escape the troubles of life and be just me’ (Courtney)

All students, parents, teachers and leaders said that they would love this project to continue in the future. I am now looking forward to seeing what new RSA young stars we discover in 2016!

I would like to thank Mr Brown, Mr Grey, Dr Sid Peacock, Joiada Thomas and Kayla Rowe for delivering such exciting and inspiring after school sessions. I would like to thank all the positive staff members at all of the RSA schools that helped get the ensembles together and for being so positive and motivated about the project.  I would also like to thank the RSA for seeing the power and potential of music and giving us the opportunity to deliver this project.

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