Hitting all the right notes
An exciting new programme at the Royal College of Music is enabling groups of talented children to access the outstanding tuition offered by its Junior Department. Katherine Smith finds out more about the project and the young people involved. What do cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, clarinettist Julian Bliss, pianist John Lill and classical guitar master Julian Bream have in common? They all spent part of their youth studying at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music (RCM), and arguably owe much of their success to the exceptional teaching and guidance they received there. They are also just four of many thousands of students to have passed through the school since it opened in 1926. Up until two years ago, the opportunity to attend this Saturday school was decided by competitive audition and an ability to pay termly fees. However, a remarkable new scheme known as Sparks Juniors, part of the RCM learning and participation programme and supported by EMI and the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, is now giving groups of children from four local state primary schools the chance to experience the RCM Junior Department for free. Sparks Juniors currently involves 20 children, aged eight years and upwards, chosen from schools with a higher than average number of pupils eligible for free school meals, and where there is a high proportion of children for whom English is a foreign language. The children are selected to participate on the scheme through a series of classroom workshops, rather than by audition. They are picked not only for their musical potential – demonstrated through their musical recall, creative input and enthusiasm – but also for their ability to commit to the project. Hayley Clements, RCM Learning and Participation Manager, has been working on Sparks Juniors from the beginning. She explains the idea behind the project: ‘We wanted to offer to a group of children, who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to come to a place like the College, the chance to benefit from some intensive musical training. It seemed appropriate to tie it in to the Junior Department as it is already such a fantastic programme for young musicians.’ Peter Hewitt, Director of the Junior Department, agrees: ‘It’s wonderful to expose different groups of people to the marvellous things that go on here, at the same time as challenging established practice and developing relations with the local community.’ Every Saturday the RCM buzzes with excitement as more than 300 students arrive for their day at the Junior Department. Among them, the 20 Sparks Juniors attend classes for three hours in the morning, which include a musicianship lesson and singing in a training choir (with other members of the Junior Department). They are also each assigned an instrument to learn – percussion, guitar or the Kinderhorn (a small version of the French horn) – and are taught in groups by RCM professors. Each group is accompanied by a student mentor, an undergraduate from the RCM, who acts as an important role model. The mentors share the same instrument as the group they are attached to and are there to provide constant support. Ruiari Glasheen is a third year undergraduate percussion student who has been mentoring one of the groups. ‘I really believe that playing percussion is one of the most fun and rewarding activities anyone of any age can become involved in,’ Ruairi told Libretto. ‘The opportunities for creativity are limitless and to give these youngsters a step on to the ladder is something I believe to be so important. Without education and opportunity, the musical possibilities of students are limited, and I feel the Sparks Juniors programme covers these vital areas of becoming a musician.’ So, what do the students think of the project? Nine-year old Oliver, who is in his second year of the programme and is learning percussion, particularly enjoys playing the snare drum and xylophone because of ‘all the different sounds you can make.’ Ellie, also nine years old, loves her French horn lessons although she finds it quite hard to muster ‘enough puff’ to play for long periods of time. She performed in front of her friends at a school assembly last term, which she describes as ‘a little freaky’, but was pleased her friends were so impressed with her playing. For the programme to succeed, it was imperative to gain the trust and commitment of the parents. ‘When recruiting for the scheme it was really important to involve the families as it does impact on their time,’ explains Hayley. ‘We also invite the parents to come into the College and sit in on lessons so they feel involved in their child’s progress.’ Iman, mother of second year Sparks Junior Aya, told Libretto how much her daughter enjoys coming to the Junior Department. Originally from Sudan, they come from an artistic family (Iman’s father was the Dean of the College of Fine Arts in Khartoum) but Aya had never received formal music lessons before. She is now learning the guitar, and is even teaching the instrument to her younger sister too. Tammy, mother of French horn player Ellie, believes her daughter had always shown signs of being musical: ‘Ever since she was a baby, even before she could walk, she used to rock to the music from side to side. She gets so much out of her day here and it’s really great that they allow me and her grandmother to sit in on the lessons.’ So what does the future hold for Sparks Juniors? Well, the programme runs for three years, at which point the children can audition for the Junior Department if they have achieved the appropriate level of accomplishment. If successful, a bursary will enable them to continue their studies. But if the Junior Department isn’t the right path for them, there are other opportunities available. RCM Sparks, the College’s learning and participation programme, for example, organises a variety of projects in the local borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which they are encouraged to join. Overall, everyone involved in the project is incredibly enthusiastic about the children’s progress. Peter Hewitt hopes ‘the experience of working with our wonderful teachers and alongside our excellent young musicians will inspire them to achieve great things for themselves.’
This article was originally featured in the May 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.