Captivate Strings – Reflecting on our Beginnings and Where to from here?

Image Bethany Primary School – very 1st class lesson.

Well…… the title caught your eye again this week, didn’t it? I am reminded of when I was a young teacher and we had a brilliant Jazz drummer teaching percussion at our school. He related a recent conversation with a parent at a nearby boys’ school. A father enrolled his son for drum lessons and asked the teacher: “How long – how many lessons – will it take for my son to become a professional jazz drummer like you?” the teacher wisely held his hands out to about shoulder width and said: “about this long”.  Perhaps the drum teacher should have simply posed the question: “Why? Why does your son want to become a professional jazz drummer?” In other words: “What motivates us to learn?”

 This story serves to remind us what all experienced teachers and ‘professional’ musicians already know; becoming an expert involves having a life-long learning mindset. The answer, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book: Outliers: The Story of Success’, is 10,000 hours of practising a specific task to become an expert.

 A few weeks ago now, we had some professional learning workshops with a visiting “Expert”, Michael Griffin. Michael shared with us a few ideas about The ‘Growth Mindset’ and the ‘Power of Flow’. Take the time to watch the 5 minute video above on the “Expert Mindset” and the “Power of Flow”.

 In the last few weeks since Michael’s visit, I have been reflecting on the relevance of these ideas on the class strings program and also on ensembles such as The Captivate String Orchestra (This video clip is of the St Anthony Chorale from last year’s strings showcase – they are much more confident performers now). Since the very exciting and successful 25th Jubilee Concert at Riverside last Tuesday, my thoughts have been on: “Where to now?” and “What is our performance target for the Captivate String Orchestra – indeed for the entire String Things Program?”

 It would take far more than a short blog post to really address these 2 questions, and in any case, the answers take the form of more ongoing questions such as: “what is our measurement of success for an ensemble such as the Captivate String Orchestra?” or a classroom program such as The String Things Program?

 I intend to unpack and explore future directions of the ‘String Things Program’ in our Catholic Schools and also the Captivate String Orchestra in subsequent blog posts. For now, I would just like to redefine the original purpose of the ‘String Things Program’ and the formation of the Captivate String Orchestra.

 In order to understand why and how the Captivate String Orchestra was formed, we should revisit the origin of the String Things Class Music program in Catholic Schools in Western Sydney.

  • At the beginning of 2008, prior to working in Catholic Schools I authored and published my own strings method which was taken up as a classroom music and ensemble method by several independent schools in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. I had previously consulted to and conducted masterclasses in QLD, regional NSW and Victoria
  • In 2009, I commenced work as a “Teacher Educator” specializing in music for Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta (78 secondary & Primary schools in Western Sydney) and my previously published strings method was re-labelled and published as String Things and implemented as a classroom program in 2 schools – St Michael’s Primary, South Blacktown and St Andrew’s Primary School, Marayong.
  • Now, 3 years later, the String Things Program operates across 10 Catholic Primary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta and many students have taken up the co-curricular group lessons in these schools with our team of specialist teachers.
  • Also we have formed ensembles and orchestras in these schools from both students in the co-curricular classes with their own instruments BUT also in some schools, we offer places in ensembles to students that only have access to the learning in the class program and use of a school instrument.
  • We have 6 classroom music teachers that have been mentored into teaching the classroom “String Things” Program across these 10 primary schools – achieving Board of Studies outcomes BUT more importantly motivating students to Listen to and Understand Music and Arts, to Organize Sounds and Compose/Create their own Music and of course to Perform Music both individually and in groups.
  • We have 10 specialist strings teachers across these 10 primary schools teaching the co-curricular group lessons – in upper strings (violin/viola) and also lower strings (cello/bass) These ten teachers teach the ongoing String Things program, thereby connecting the learning beyond the classroom to the learning in the classroom and ALSO – the extended learning in the ensemble/orchestra
  • During the Easter Holidays in 2011, we held a holiday workshop at St Andrew’s Primary School, Marayong with 30 mostly primary students but also some of our secondary students and the Captivate String Orchestra was formed – schools ranged geographically from St Finbar’s in Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains to Blessed John XXIII at Stanhope Gardens in the Eastern end of the Diocese of Parramatta.
  • In 2012, the Captivate String Orchestra has been divided into the Penrith/Mountains Orchestra which rehearses every 2nd Tuesday at Mary MacKillop Primary School in Penrith South and also the Blacktown Orchestra which rehearses every 2nd Wednesday at St Andrew’s Primary School at Marayong – each of these orchestras has about 25 members (primary & some secondary students) and we combine the 2 orchestras to form about a 50 piece full string orchestra.
  • Also – I have recently finished authoring String Things Level 2 which is published by our School Services Dept at the Catholic Education Office and is now available to Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. This series of books features detailed tutorials on scales and technical work as well as both melody and ensemble versions of each piece to allow solo performance, small ensemble or full orchestral arrangements. This series also has a backing CD with full orchestral backing tracks and also a DVD of picture in picture detailed instruction by specialist teachers.

Our Beginnings – where have we come from??

As mentioned at the start of this blog post, my purpose of summarizing the beginnings of the String Things Program to the current vibrant program which involves approximately 1500 of our primary school students across ten of our Catholic Primary Schools, is to review the original purpose of the program with the intent of reflecting on whether we can count this program as successful. Also, to contemplate future directions in this program is very exciting but pointless if we don’t reflect on where we have come from and indeed, what defines success in a school music program.

I remember that when I first started teaching the strings program in the classroom at those 2 Catholic Primary Schools in the Blacktown area, that NONE of those children had prior learning on a stringed instrument and there was really no music performance culture in those schools. I think it important that we keep those raw beginnings in mind as we continue to recruit teachers, provide opportunities for professional learning for our staff and workshop opportunities for our students through visiting artists etc and keep this program in alignment with the stated aims and strategic intent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta:

  • Inclusiveness: By implementing the classroom program across a whole year level, or even a whole stage, ALL students experience learning an orchestral stringed instrument
  • Differentiation: Whilst we do not presume prior learning, some students may have had private lessons on violin or cello etc whilst other students may have special learning needs. Our teaching program caters to all levels of learning BUT around common repertoire and learning experiences. We need to design learning experiences that are relevant to all students whilst keeping in mind our most important stated aim that No child should feel they have failed in music making.
  • Extended learning and performance experiences: whilst all students should have an opportunity to perform musically – and they do, as many of our class orchestras perform at Grandparents’ Days and school assemblies, through our team of specialist teachers in schools, we offer extended music learning during the school day. I am very confident that our specialist string teachers are among the best in Sydney and fully understand our philosophy of offering musical opportunities to ALL our students.

Where to from here?

Leading the String Things Program across ten Catholic Primary Schools has become a very big task in itself and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the excellent leadership teams in schools as well as CEO – Parramatta Leadership for encouraging the growth of the program in schools, opening doors of musical opportunity for students.

We now have class music programs based on class orchestras and motivational learning through stringed instruments across TEN Catholic Primary Schools in Western Sydney – we have extended learning opportunities for students in those ten primary schools as well as performance opportunities through the establishment of school orchestras and ensembles – all this in just 3 years from nothing. We have evidence of positive change in school culture, improvement in attitudes to learning – increasing a ‘love of learning’ in many students and providing pathways to extended learning.

It is impossible to completely and accurately predict the future but I know that in conversations, a few school principals have shared with me that they never would have predicted the enthusiasm for learning, positive impact on school culture and music performance in their schools from our raw beginnings.  I would like to make some predictions based on previous experience:

  • The classroom strings program will continue to grow in existing primary schools and expand to even more primary schools in the Diocese – based on previous growth, I believe that in 3 years time, we might see as many as 20 primary schools in the Diocese participating
  • The current cohort of students in the co-curricular program will want to learn at a higher level and continue to perform both individually and in ensembles as they move into secondary schools – this prediction is based on direct parent feedback and our secondary schools need to be mindful of these future enrollments.
  • The Captivate Orchestra will continue to grow in both size and standard of performance – I suggest that in 12 months time, we could keep the Penrith and Blacktown centres but divide into beginner and higher level orchestras in the Penrith/Mountains region and also the Blacktown Region

Here are some recommendations I would like to make based on these predictions

  • That we need to sustain the classroom programs in these schools and continue to resource teachers
  • We should continue to link to other learning areas such as numeracy and literacy by including class teachers and leadership teams as learning partners in the music classroom
  • We need to increase collaboration and communication between schools and teachers through ongoing professional learning, reflecting on our successes and challenges and affirming each other in those successes and challenges
  • Stay mindful of our beginnings and continue to reflect on what we aim to achieve through a successful school music program.

I apologize for the length of this blog post, but stepping back and looking at our beginnings to where we are headed is such a big topic when we look at the huge growth. In the next Blog post, I would like to look at What defines a Successful Music Program? and how the String Things program measures up as a successful school music program.

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About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
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