In evaluating the work of South West Music School, it became evident that family values are an essential component of the educational model.
This practice write-up comes from an external evaluation of South West Music School (SWMS), which looked at what SWMS achieves with its students, and how it does so. It is part of a resource collection: How South West Music School supports musical ability.
Three strong messages about SWMS come through from discussions with the case study students’ families.
First, the families themselves – especially the parents – feel as much part of SWMS as they see their children do. This comes from the clear communications, being consulted about students’ needs and overall, an approach that places value on their own important support and contribution to the development process.
Second, families are highly appreciative of just how personalised the provision is and how much the focus is on their child’s individual learning journey. This is often most welcome after poor experiences within mainstream education, where talent has been ignored or pushed towards a pre-determined path.
Third, families appreciate that as well as supporting students’ particular passions and talents, they know that SWMS is committed to providing that wider musical and industry context, so there is an ongoing realism about preparing them for the professional world, ‘more fit for purpose’.
From the case studies it was possible to see how important family values are in nurturing the development of SWMS students...
Ben’s parents, Maggie and Steve, have nothing but praise for SWMS in providing the environment Ben needs, nurturing his individual journey. They talk about how Ben was a high achiever at primary school, identified as gifted and talented when first at secondary school and then experienced a period of unhappiness there. Ben returned to school after a year of home schooling, to be back with his friends, but didn’t flourish. In this context, SWMS has had a major positive impact, giving Ben a personalised progression route in music not otherwise possible.
Maggie and Steve know that getting back to the ‘real world’ after SWMS residentials is quite difficult for Ben, as he appreciates the musical and social environment there so much. Ben tells them, ‘It’s where I can be myself. I’m so at home’. They can see that being one of a crowd, not the odd one out, makes all the difference to him.
Watching Ben perform in the percussion group at the HOME festival, Maggie and Steve saw how much delight he has in playing with the other students, with everyone respecting everyone else. SWMS fulfils his need to mix with like minded people.
They’ve seen him develop greater self-confidence and self-esteem. ‘Ben’s found his feet. He’s not so worried, not so inhibited and not so scared of the unknown. He didn’t fit in anywhere else before. Ben likes to be different. At SWMS, particularly at the residential open mic sessions, he can be himself and make the impact he wants to make, showing his creativity.’
They note Ben is enjoying his music theory lessons much more than they anticipated, as his tutor is able to bring out the best in him. In fact, he seems very enthusiastic and positive about theory ‘for the first time ever’. They can see he is enjoying experimenting with ideas on the piano and that the theory is ‘definitely helping’: it’s given him more confidence in what he’s writing and in understanding what he’s writing. They overheard a friend of his saying, ‘But it’s boring!’ Ben’s reply was, ‘But it’s important and I need to do it.’
This is just one example of the focus and direction they see in Ben. They know he will now listen to the advice of others, such as when Ian Matthews told him about not practising when on tour and going back to the basics when not on tour. Drummer Pat Petrillo’s advice was ‘to leave your ego at the door’, that ‘the man with the beat is not always at the front’. Hearing direct from drummers helps Ben make informed choices about how he progresses.
Maggie and Steve characterise the SWMS approach as asking ‘are we fulfilling your needs?’ rather than stating ‘this is what we are doing for you’. There are no stars, no grades necessary, no competition. Everyone is treated as an individual. It’s a place where a Grade 8 standard classical violinist and a Grade 4 standard drummer can work together and make great music.
As Maggie says, ‘It’s opened his horizons. He’s not just a drummer now: he’s a musician.’
Ben & Alfie's parents:
As parents, Penny and Chris really value how SWMS has provided the direction for Ben and Alfie to find their own direction for their creativity. They see SWMS as supporting the individual student to travel the path that they want to go along, helping them make informed choices, not assuming that everyone has the same end point, and not making the pattern of GCSEs, A Levels and college a ‘one size fits all’ as the norm. ‘It’s a flexible, creative, improvisatory model,’ says Chris – and Penny adds, ‘The real world needs this!’ They also note how efficient the model is – cost effective because funds support specific individual needs and time effective, because students are only engaged in what is relevant and appropriate for them.
Having been very disappointed at the way the mainstream (including mainstream specialist) education system had not been able to meet their sons’ needs as individual musicians, Chris and Penny feel they would have been ‘floundering’ about what to do to support their sons’ talents without SWMS. They recognise the significance of this flexibility including the opportunity for Ben and Alfie to do Music A Level without having to negotiate the structural problems and inappropriate expectations they were experiencing at a local college.
Penny and Chris value the way SWMS provides the benefits of working creatively with others of similar abilities. They’ve watched Ben and Alfie develop not just in their playing and composing but also in their ability to be more discerning, self critical and reflective, in part because being with the other students ‘shakes them up’ in comparison, without it being competitive. The residentials in particular are in many ways ‘a lifeline’, as living in a rural area, there are very few other young people with the same enthusiasm and talent as Ben and Alfie with whom they can relate. Penny says SWMS provides an ‘extended family of support’, with Ben and Alfie often contacting fellow students to share experiences and understandings. The opportunities for networking and performing are also very important –part of what they find SWMS gives ‘beyond us and formal education’, as Chris says.
Penny and Chris’s experiences as SWMS parents have always been positive and they appreciate the ‘dialogue’ in which they are involved.
There’s also useful sharing and support across the parent group: just talking with others who also have talented children can be ‘such a relief’. Penny and Chris are also very pleased to be allowed to help, for instance in talking to the parents of new students at induction.
Josie’s parents, Larry and Lynne, are self confessed ‘Josie groupies’. They’re ‘forever grateful’ that Lisa recognised her potential. They’ve seen Josie grow and develop as a result of all the SWMS provision and have always taken great enjoyment from attending her performances. They’re quite up front in explaining that they would not have been able to afford the specialist tuition Josie needed and that they’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable Josie was a fully financially supported SWMS student. Overall, they’ve been made to feel ‘most welcome’ as SWMS parents. They’ve appreciated the clarity of communications and the ‘grown up way with the youngsters’ that SWMS displays.
They feel SWMS has nurtured Josie in her confidence to become a ‘true musician’. Josie’s sister Rachel notes how SWMS has challenged her within a context of support for the development of her ‘raw talent’. The three of them recognise what a difference it’s made to Josie to be able to make long lasting friends who share her passion for music. At times when Josie has thought ‘I can’t do this’, seeing the other SWMS students doing things has helped her ‘come out of her shell’, with her developing a stage presence and confidence in talking to the audience between songs particular achievements. As Larry says, ‘She’s been able to perform in places with people not otherwise possible’.
Larry and Lynne are clear that, given such a poor and difficult experience of music at school, Josie would ‘have walked away’ from performing, if it hadn’t been for SWMS. As Larry says, ‘When she had self-doubt, they helped her believe’. Rachel observes, ‘SWMS kept Josie’s love of music alive when it seemed there was nowhere to go’. SWMS helped her realise how much she enjoyed it, providing an environment from which she could pursue her passion professionally, not just as a hobby.
While Josie was ‘heartbroken’ when she left SWMS, her parents note the support that’s still been available afterwards, along with invitations to perform at events such as the Home festival. They know that being a much more confident person and performer because of SWMS has directly helped Josie in her role as an apprentice at Plymouth Music Zone, running workshops with young people.
Theo explains that Greg, his dad, has never been ‘pushy’ but always says he can’t wait to hear Theo play. Greg’s enthusiasm, encouragement (saying things like: ‘I think you could do this’) and wide collection of music spurs him on.
Greg reflects that at residentials, Theo is respected and understood, a positive difference from some of the attitudes shown to him at primary school. He sees the residentials as providing a ‘fantastic affirmation’ of Theo’s talent and is impressed there’s a real ‘communal spirit’, where ‘the older enfold the younger’ and on the intake day, everyone is invited to get to know each other. Greg explains that SWMS accommodates everyone. There is no hierarchy; SWMS is a ‘great leveller’, promoting and supporting mutual respect between students with such gifts and from such diverse genres.
Theo’s granny notes that Theo is always very excited looking forward to residentials. She sees that being part of SWMS has made a great deal of difference to him, helping him focus and find friends with the same interest. It’s got him to practice and ‘makes him ambitious in a good way’.
Saskia, one of Theo’s younger twin sisters, points out that SWMS provides a ‘much happier environment’ for him, where there is ‘more feel of a team’ and he ‘fits in and gets on well’ because of the respect he receives. His other sister Hermione puts it very simply: ‘Theo’s happier now and in a better mood’.
Greg and Theo’s granny debate the importance of Theo’s time and attention on other subjects, so he hasn’t ‘got all his eggs in one basket’ in wanting a life as a musician. They explain to him that the more you know, the richer you can be in every area of learning and more able to make connections between things. Theo is highly appreciative of the support he has from his family, expressing thanks to Greg and his granny for ‘everything’ they do for him and to his sisters for ‘putting up’ with him. There’s a special thanks to his dad in terms of the violins he’s bought for him and repaired, as Theo introduces his different instruments and explains how he uses them to ‘shape the music slightly differently... using their different tones’.