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Learning in harmony: The symphonic challenge

Posted on: 14 Nov 2018
Posted by: Paul Jones

Paul Jones, deputy head academic at Shiplake College, discusses the school's music challenge which sees teachers learning a musical instrument from scratch, alongside pupils.

Imagine this: you’ve been given a musical instrument to learn from scratch; you’ve only had a few months’ tuition and know only a few notes; you find yourself sitting on stage in a symphony orchestra about to perform to an audience of hundreds. A terrifying prospect for most readers, I’m sure.


This is exactly the challenge faced each year by the pupils in Years 7 and 8 at Shiplake College.


Receiving free tuition on an orchestral instrument is a key part of life in the lower school at Shiplake College and embodies our ‘music for all’ ethos. This has led to many memorable performances over the years and has inspired many of our pupils to continue with their instruments or take advantage of the other musical opportunities available.


Another key part of life at Shiplake College is the 'Shiplake Seven', the seven learning characteristics and qualities we encourage our pupils to display and develop. The 'Shiplake Seven' underpins life at Shiplake College and forms part of the language, as pupils display the seven characteristics in the classroom, on the concert platform and on the sports pitches.


Two years ago, as we were reminding teachers to encourage the pupils to be curious, open-minded, motivated, reflective, determined, creative and independent, I wondered about the staff themselves. How might colleagues display these characteristics for their pupils to see? What better way to do this than by learning a musical instrument from scratch, alongside the pupils?!


Hence, the 'symphonic challenge' was born and every year staff are invited to learn an orchestral instrument from the beginning alongside the lower school pupils with one of our dedicated peripatetic team. Staff from across the college community have taken advantage of this offer with colleagues from marketing, admissions and reception joining housemasters, heads of department and deputy heads. As well as a public performance at the end of the year, some colleagues have taken a grade one exam as testament to their hard work and practice. Many colleagues have also been reminded of how difficult learning a new skill can be and of the experiences faced by our pupils every day.


However, the most important part of this experience is the opportunity for our staff to be viewed by the pupils as fellow learners and to model the learning process and the struggle this involves.


Mastering a musical instrument requires learners to be motivated to commit to independent practise, to be determined to learn a tricky phrase or reach a high note and to be reflective when responding to feedback. I would argue that this approach is required in the mastery of any new skill or concept in any subject or activity.


We are delighted that so many colleagues have risen to the symphonic challenge. The pupils have gained so much from seeing their teachers alongside them in music lessons as fellow learners. There is no better way for our teachers to embody the Shiplake Seven and, as our headmaster, Gregg Davies always says, ‘challenge creates character’.

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About Paul Jones

Paul Jones is deputy head academic at Shiplake College.