Your Voice, Your Class

Pupils at an evt workshop in London, experiment with their voices, 1985
Pupils at an evt workshop in London, experiment with their voices and live sound processing, 1985


 Your Voice, Your Class

                    Tailoring Voice Work to the clients needs

A long time ago, probably 30 years now, the LEA (London Education Authority) asked me, after some badgering from me, to go into some “difficult” inner city secondary schools in a number of London Boroughs to work on extended voice and composition with 1st and 2nd Year students. There were about six of these schools, but the one I remember most was in Islington. Why do I remember it so clearly?

Because we failed there, not once, but twice.

Pupils from Brockworth School in Gloucester rehearsing their pieice for inclusion in an evt performance of Judith Weirs' "Missa del Cid" 1991

Not surprising really, we were new to schools and knew almost nothing about delivering workshops. What we did was to deliver our own idea of what we thought was interesting about our work.  The teacher, in this case, also felt that our idea was a good one.  So much so, that she set up a second visit when the first one failed. She clearly felt that she, and her class had failed us.

So we went back.

Again we failed. And again, the teacher felt that we had something great to offer but that she and her class had failed us.She was wrong about that. It was, without question, we who had failed her, and her class of completely competent students, who were full of ability and creative spirit. But we couldn’t reach it.

At that point in time, I couldn’t undertand why. After all, we had succeeded in differing measures in the other schools, with the same material, even when discipline had been absent, which was certainly not the case here, where the teacher was definately in complete control. She was, I now understand, a truly inspirational teacher. What  we failed to do was to put her and her students first.

I’m not sure how long it took me, but eventually it dawned on me that an artist in school is not there to teach, to take over from the teacher. No, we are there to offer ourselves, our work and resources for the teacher and students to use for themselves. Without dialogue with teachers, heads and students, everything we had to offer was valueless, because in this case, we did not offer that part of ourselves which they needed at that moment.

evt school teachers workshop, City University, 1980's
evt workshop for primary school teachers, City University, 1980's

I learned this gradually, from the many teachers I have met throughout the country  – primary teachers, peripatetic music teachers, secondary music and performing arts teachers,  and finally from the wonderul animateur, Josephine McNally, who joined our team for long enough to show us what it was we should be doing!

Sometimes, what schools want is clearly there in the project you offer, and sometimes they need you to alter what you are delivering to suit where they are, and what they need. So different schools working on the same project may have one school focusing on composition, another on improvisation while a third focuses on training its teachers to deliver National Curriculm vocal requirements, and so on.

This is the most direct route to getting from any project in schools what both parties need. The teachers and students are engaged when you allow them room to change and contribute according to their individual talents and interests. The value of the project lies not only in its planning and structure – but to a greater extent in its flexibility.

So – how long is a piece of string?

These days, all our workshops are tightly structured and timetabled, demanding and intense, but they are not proscribed. Rather they are made up of structures which are interchangeable, with modules that compliment and contrast.  First and foremost, we have learnt to talk to teachers and listen to them as a matter of primary importance. The piece of string is endless…….our job is to make sure it’s the right length, size shape and colour for those using it.

You can find information about our current cross curricular  projects as follows:

The Baytree Opera Kit

Harmony Squared @ School

Andover 2011
Parents and children gather to get their Harmony Squared. Andover Estate, June 2011

3 thoughts on “Your Voice, Your Class

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog. It is so refreshing to read an article, from the point of view of the artist / workshop leader, that acknowledges and addresses the problems encountered when trying to teach music – indeed any arts subject – to children in ‘difficult’ inner city schools. I think it is great that you persevered and are able to offer children workshops that are truly beneficial today. What would you say you have found most rewarding during this process or rather what is it that you find most rewarding today when putting-on these workshops?

    1. The rewards of this process over decades are immeasurable. They include many insights into performance, humanity, communication and most importantly children. I have learnt more from them than they from me, and have met so many inspiring teachers and pupils – many of whom I still draw from now as I work with new groups. Now, the most rewarding thing is the smiling face that replies to the daftest instructions you can think of, and the children who can turn your ideas on their head and come up with something much better, and the teachers who show by their patience and hard work, what it really means to give.

  2. I agree with Amanda; it’s great to see how you dealt with problems you initially faced to improve yours, and the childrens’, experiences at later workshops. As someone who has been involved/organised many of these kind of workshops, what would you say are the most important elements to consider for someone wanting to create their own performing arts workshop within similar situations (i.e. young children, inner city schools, etc.)? Cheers!

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