Director of Music Angela Chillingworth describes her ‘Weekend of Christmases’

As professional adults, we are rarely given the opportunity to develop a new set of skills or discover previously hidden talents unless a kindly relative buys us a make your own pottery vase class or a parachuting course. Just before half term, I felt all my Christmases had come at once as I attended the Music Teachers Association’s (MTA) annual conference. This is an opportunity for Directors of Music in Secondary Schools to meet, exchange ideas, listen to key speakers and learn new skills, which can be brought back to the classroom.

The programme was sent out several weeks before the conference allowing delegates to make their choice of classes according to what they felt would be most beneficial and for some weeks I looked forward to learning new skills.

First Impressions of the Conference

Registration took place in the lovely setting of Bromsgrove School on Friday lunchtime and this was an opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues as well as exploring the trade fair. As I wandered around the stalls I was offered free samples of all sorts of goodies, being assured that I would soon see the benefits of product X or Y in my department. The most exciting of these was an ocarina, which is so simple to grasp that anyone can play tunes in just a few lessons. I hope we shall see these in the Prep School soon as we find more ways to help children engage with music, thereby enhancing their development in all other areas of the curriculum.

Focusing my Efforts

As singing is a real strength at Ipswich High School I focused on attending sessions which would help me support our many singers. My first class involved studying the way our hand gestures help a choir to produce a sound. There is far more to conducting a choir than simply beating time and the expert teacher showed how quickly a choir can become used to understanding the appropriate hand gestures and adapting their sound to what they see, thereby saving precious rehearsal time.

My second session, led by the wonderful Ex Cathedra, was an exploration of choir repertoire and started with music for Prep School children, before moving onto newly discovered South American Christmas music for older singers. Naturally, those attending the classes had to participate and the sound of 150 Directors of Music singing together is quite unforgettable, although exploring the Prep School music which involved swinging your partner round before skipping off to find another was unforgettable in a quite different way.

A Truly Inspiring Programme

Further inspirational sessions occurred throughout the weekend with amazing speakers such as the inimitable Paul Harris who spent the last year recovering from cancer and writing about music education from his hospital bed. Roderick Williams, another inspirational musician, addressed the problem of how to make Schubert as accessible as Ed Sheeran and showed us videos of the amazing work he has been doing in schools in Hull to bring that about.

A globe-trotting drummer showed us how to teach African Drums, Gamelan and Steel Pans in the classroom and an A level composition examiner explained how to maximise our students’ chances of gaining a decent grade in composition, always a cause for concern amongst music teachers.

Appreciative of Music’s Culture of Collaboration

Throughout the weekend the mood was of collaboration and of joy in being able to teach a subject which brings so many positive benefits to students. There was also concern at the way Music is being squeezed out of the curriculum and that its academic worth is being belittled. The MTA lobbies the government and other bodies to increase the provision of music in schools and to recognise its worth and immediately after the conference we heard the excellent news that Russell Group Universities will now recognise music as a facilitating subject.

Everyone I met was generous with their time, ideas and resources; I wondered how many other subject leaders would collaborate in the same way. I spoke to one of the organisers of the conference and she told me that the MTA has a larger percentage of members attending its conference, roughly 20%, than any other similar organisation.  The benefits of the weekend seem enormous. Many of those there work in a department of one, so an opportunity to exchange ideas is extremely appealing. Being able to develop new skills with other like-minded people is an opportunity not to be missed and being offered information on products which could all potentially enhance one’s running of a department, thereby freeing up more time for teaching and directing ensembles can bring enormous benefits.

Final Thoughts

Was there a downside? Only that I have so many exciting ideas about developing the curriculum that I shall have to spend my summer holiday planning new schemes of work but I don’t really mind because, like everyone else at the conference, I think teaching music is the best job in the world.

By Angela Chillingworth, Head of Music, Seniors
26 June 2019