ABC TV’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ documentary last year is to be credited for having planted school music education right into the public eye. Through the example of Challis Community Primary School in Perth, it showed just what can be done in bringing musical opportunities to kids if a school has the requisite will, teachers have the passion, and there are enough resources to make it happen.
There are other schools whose stories need telling too, particularly in regional areas.
Just 15 kilometres from the Victorian border in South Australia’s timber and dairy heartland lies the little town of Yahl, population 220. The primary school there has just 130 students, but despite its modest size it has introduced a music program over the last five years that makes it one of the country’s most progressive and innovative state-run primary schools.
All the children at Yahl learn music using various age appropriate programs, and one of the school’s innovations is to make music a regular part of very day. One dedicated class gets 20 minutes after lunch every day for unstructured musical play.
“It is a chance of playing for pure enjoyment,” says Yahl Primary School’s Principal, Chris Morrison. “The kids in Years 4, 5 and 6 can all find a quiet spot outside, such as in the Indigenous Garden, and make up songs. The idea is that they can just enjoy that time together and not have to do practice at home.”
The school has created many opportunities for the children to perform to parents and the local community, as Morrison believes that performing is fundamental to musical growth and development.
“I believe performance gives the spark to get better,” she says. “A child may hit the wrong notes, but as long as they are playing it gives them the confidence and incentive to improve,” she says.
The bi-annual School Spring Fair, end of year graduation, music evenings, and performances for media are some of the many ways in which the school students have become musically involved. A recent Yahl’s Got Talent night allowed students, parents and staff to showcase their abilities and raise much needed money for the maintenance of the music program.
Instrument availability is one of the chief hurdles in giving children access to music education, but some forward thinking by Yahl Primary School’s Principal, Chris Morrison, was able to solve that. Previously deputy principal at a nearby Mount Gambier school, she says that when she started her job at Yahl five years ago there were only six students doing music.
“When I asked around, the parents said they couldn’t afford it. In my view every child deserves music in their lives, and I resolved to help them out with their hire fee,” she says.
Morrison was able to purchase a large collection of instruments from another school – why it decided to offload its entire collection is another story. “I was able to purchase a generous number of instruments for three thousand dollars. I said we’ll buy them all, and so we were able to charge $40 per year rather than the same amount per term for instrument hire. Access to these instruments has been the catalyst behind the burgeoning music program we now have.”
Now, all students at Yahl Primary School are doing music. From Foundation Year through up to Year 2 they learn via the Charanga Music School program developed in the UK. Morrison says this is an inexpensive classroom-based teaching resource for kids aged 5 upwards that meets the requirements of that country’s national curriculum. In Years 3 and 4 they all learn recorder and soon will be able to opt for ukulele if they want, since the school has just bought 15 ukuleles. Singing will also be introduced from next year.
Year 5, 6 and 7 students can choose from a range of instruments. “We now teach woodwind, brass, percussion and recorder, and we’ve managed to get three teachers who teach drums and guitar,” says Morrison. The school is fortunate to have Sonja Gooding, an SA Education Department teacher, each Thursday to teach recorder, brass and woodwind. Yahl also has several School Service Officers and volunteers with music skills to further support the program.
The effect of music on students’ wellbeing and learning has been transformative, Morrison says. “We’ve noticed a big difference, particularly in the respect that children show towards each other and their increased sense of teamwork in being able to relate on the same playing field.”
The school has noticed improvements in general scholastic achievement too. “The progress through Years 4, 5 and 6 has been remarkable, just huge,” she says.
A case in point is a little girl in Year 5 who has a learning disability. “One would teach her one day and the next day she wouldn’t remember. We got her onto the trumpet and she started learning with a passion. All the teachers are absolutely certain that it improved her maths and literacy because of this success.”
The whole school community is committed to and supportive of the music culture that is continually evolving. Whilst playing out at the back of the oval is an exciting part of the music program, the weather is not always encouraging for musicians wanting to practise their art. Morrison is now working towards securing resources and funds to construct a Performing Arts Centre at Yahl Primary School.
Yahl Primary School is an example of how it is possible to introduce a full music program in a small, state-run school in regional Australia. All it depends on is staff with energy and positive ideas who are committed to doing the best for their children.
“If a small school like us can do it, anyone can do it,” says Morrison. “You just have to be passionate.”