Something Exciting in Music Making has been happening in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta since 2009. Almost 1500 students in Catholic Schools in Blacktown, Kingswood, Mt Druitt, Kellyville, Granville etc, are playing orchestral stringed instruments in the classroom, school ensembles and also in a 45 member combined orchestra, led by 13 (as at November, 2013) classroom and specialist teachers.
The key element of success of this program (Click here to read my previous post “Defining Success in a Motivational Music Education Program) is in the inclusiveness of the program and the motivation of the students in the program in a collaborative learning community. The benefits of playing a musical instrument to cognitive development in children is well understood and documented but we are also seeing anecdotal evidence and hearing learning stories of increased motivational learning across the curriculum. Music performance and creation makes for more focused learners.
What is the String Things Program?
The String Things Program is an inclusive classroom, co-curricular and extra-curricular music program that is currently implemented across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta – Western Sydney. There are 78 schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, covering a wide geographic area of Western Sydney. (Click here to view a list and map of our schools) The program was implemented in just 2 Catholic Primary Schools in the Blacktown area in 2009.
What happens in the Classroom?
In schools where the program is implemented, every student across a whole year level learns an orchestral stringed instrument in the classroom music program. For example, if the program is implemented across year 3 in a 3 stream school, the school purchases a class set of instruments which might be just a set of violins or a combination of violins, violas, cellos and double basses to form a class orchestra. All three year 3 classes then learn a stringed instrument as a class orchestra in the classroom music program.
The program is taught by either the classroom music teacher with mentoring and support or one of our specialist/classroom teachers can teach the program with the classroom teachers working in the classroom with us as ‘learning partners’. The program is based on our own authored and published strings method; Strings Things Level 1.
The emphasis in the classroom program is for students to achieve a good sound and to have a positive ensemble playing experience with their classmates as soon as possible. The String Things program has easily attainable pieces, including Classical and Baroque pieces such as Eine Kleine NachtMusic by Mozart and Autumn from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi as well as Music of Other Cultures such as La Bamba. As well as easy open string parts, many of these arrangements also have the melody part to provide attainable performance goals whilst providing a challenge for students that feel they are ready. The backing tracks (Recorded with real instruments) help students to feel they are playing with a real orchestra; supporting our central aim that ‘No child should feel they have failed in music making’. This video clip shows the classroom program in action.
Click on this preview video to see how the String Things program underpins the learning in the classroom. Please listen with good speakers or earphones to hear the quality of the media.
What happens after the Classroom Program? What pathways for extended musical learning do we provide?
When all students have learned an instrument in the classroom for about 6 – 12 months, we advise parents of the opportunity to learn in small groups of 5 – 6 on violin, viola & cello – double bass is offered in some schools at a later age from about year 6. These lessons are taught by our very dedicated and talented team of specialist teachers. (Click here to ‘Meet the Captivate Strings Team’)
The difference with this co-curricular strings program is that our specialist strings teachers continue to teach the String Things Level 1 program that is used in the classroom so that the extended learning connects with what is being taught in the classroom. I use the term co-curricular rather than ‘private’ lessons to indicate that these lessons continue concurrently and in a connected way to the classroom program rather than as something separate. Our classroom teachers and specialist teachers are on the same team and work together towards improved outcomes and extended learning for our students.
Once students have worked towards the end of the String Things Level 1 books (for violin, viola, cello & double bass) then students in the small group co-curricular lessons graduate to the String Things Level 2 books. These books are unique in the provision of quality media and also the format of every piece having a melody and ensemble part. The backing CD has full orchestral tracks, both with and without melody. Students can listen to a REAL orchestra performing the piece and then another track has the orchestra minus the melody so that they can even use it as a performance backing track. There is also a DVD with quality instructional video for scales and technical work. This is not intended to replace quality face to face teaching but rather to extend the learning into the home environment.
The Level 2 books are also unique in that almost every piece (but 2) have both melody and ensemble parts. These books and media can be used for individualized learning. Students work with their teacher in group or individual lessons and extend that technical learning with the instructional video at home and then they can play any piece they wish in the book with the quality backing track at home or in public performance. However, by using a combination of melody and ensemble parts, an ensemble of any combination can be made; string quartet, trio, duet or even a full orchestra. Group lessons are advantageous at this stage because the learning is cooperative and students can experience performing in an ensemble in the lesson. Some of our students actually meet up after school or on weekends at each others homes to form their own ensembles!
I believe it is important that students listen to and experience a wide range of music. The level 1 & 2 books have Classical, Baroque, Romantic, Jazz and Blues as well as Music of other Cultures. As well as ensemble and solo performance, the classroom program also includes music listening & understanding and elements of improvisation and ‘organising sounds’ or composition.
Click here to see the overview of String Things Level 2 with preview scores
What opportunities do we have for ensemble performance?
Ensemble performance begins in the classroom with this program. As soon as students start to learn some simple open string patterns with such classics as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic” with the motivational backing tracks, then the class is ready to perform. The children love to show their class teachers and parents what they have achieved as early on as possible.
Once the co-curricular lessons have been introduced to a school and students have their own instruments, they learn in a small group with one of our specialist teachers. Once a number of students are learning in small groups with their own instruments, then schools are able to form their own ensembles and orchestras.
A number of these students are invited to join our Captivate String Orchestra which actually rehearses in 2 halves in 2 different venues. There are over 40 students in the Captivate String Orchestra performing more challenging repertoire. The Blacktown area String Orchestra rehearses at St Andrew’s Primary School, Marayong every 2nd Wednesday during the school term and the Penrith/Mountains area String Orchestra rehearses at St Mary MacKillop Primary School, South Penrith.
Membership of the Captivate String Orchestra is open to all students in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. Whilst nearly all of the members of the orchestra have come through our classroom program and learn in small groups with our dedicated team of teachers, membership is also open to students learning from outside private teachers. Students are recommended by teachers and must agree to a contract whereby they attend rehearsals, workshops and performance and must practise their part at home.
The learning is further supported with innovative media. Mostly, our repertoire is Classical, Baroque and Romantic music by the great European composers and these pieces are custom arranged for us. Students are able to access online instructional video for their part as well as being able to download MP3 listening and backing tracks.
Where to from here?
We have much to celebrate in our school communities and in student achievement through the String Things Program in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. There are many remarkable learning stories – students that have discovered a passion for music making and many untold stories of children in the classroom discovering a ‘love of learning’ through music even if they don’t pick up an instrument; though they may well find their own style of music making in other ways at a later time.
Many of our students are moving into our Catholic Secondary Schools and they will be able to form ensembles and continue to perform there. These students are able to continue in the Captivate String Orchestra if they are enrolled in a Catholic Secondary School in the Diocese of Parramatta. Eventually, we will have 2 orchestras in Penrith – advanced and training and 2 orchestras in Blacktown – also advanced and training. In just a few years, we will be able to offer our continuing students an orchestral experience of a very high standard.
We have come a long way in just 5 years, from just 2 schools in Blacktown with an inclusive classroom program to an inclusive program across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools with pathways to extended learning. With our dedicated team of classroom and specialist teachers, we are discovering new and collaborative ways of music learning and many of our students are discovering a passion for music and learning. I believe the best is yet to come.
Music Making is an Adventure Best Shared: “Learning music should be an adventure; a discovery of history and culture, as well as learning new and exciting skills and feeling a great sense of achievement. Learning to play a musical instrument is also about learning self-discipline and enjoying music-making together in ensembles; whether it is with a friend as a duet, with some friends on guitar, piano & drums playing Jazz or Folk music or with a whole string orchestra at your school, it is an exciting adventure that is always best when it is a shared experience.” Excerpt from the Introduction for The String Things Method Level 2 – Author; Phil Rooke