Proud to Pluck

It’s 5.30pm on Monday at a school in north Melbourne.The penultimate session of the term for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Pizzicato Effect strings programme has just finished. The children, aged between seven and 14, have packed away their instruments, polished off the fruit and sandwich snacks, returned their name lanyards and gone home.

As the late winter sky darkens, with the sense of a small hurricane having passed, the Pizzicato Effect team – a coordinator, a break supervisor and eight strings and musicianship teachers – sit down together around a foldable school canteen table. Analysis of the session – both musical and social – happens with organic ease: ‘did that piece work for the players?’; ‘how about next week we find a way to reward Tony* when he tries hard’; ‘it was interesting how Steve learnt the transition between those notes’; ‘how was Trisha’s behaviour? She was tricky last week’; ‘I think Mary-Anne is struggling because she wants to spend more time with her friend’; ‘I loved how rhythmically together they were at the end – why do you think that worked better this week?’…

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Some of the Pizzicato Effect staff team (and me!)

A pure ‘El Sistema approach’ favours intensive holistic music education: students attend classes daily, from a young age and, as well as instrumental tuition, these classes include ensemble, choral and musicianship sessions. The Pizzicato Effect has condensed this approach into two weekly two-hour term time sessions, with a core of around 40 children attending.

The programme is nearing the end of a year of transition. It has moved from a well-established six year-old curriculum time programme for children from one school, to an after-school programme open to children from across the community.

I shadowed the programme for four sessions over two weeks, focussing in particular on a group of younger children. More than any other children I met during my time in Australia, they reminded me of children from the school where I teach in London: boisterous, chatty, a bit naughty, excitable, funny and keen to have a go. The challenges of the sessions resonated in particular with my experiences of trying to establish an after-school orchestra and choir: achieving an atmosphere of calm focus isn’t completely straightforward when they participants feel that they have completed their day at school, and they are attending an additional activity.

However, the team’s efforts were rewarded: at the end of term concert, it was inspiring to see every child playing their instrument with solid technique and, most importantly, having a jolly good time. As well as using their instruments, they performed using their voices and a brilliant samba-style piece on upturned plastic buckets (an idea I’m certainly stealing!). These weren’t mutually exclusive activities: being able to pitch notes vocally and play a rhythm in time with others are vital musicianship skills.

One of the best things about ‘Pizzi’, as it’s affectionately known,  is the supportive, collegial atmosphere cultivated by the staff. As a result they were honest, self-critical and – vitally – solution-focussed in discussing the successes and challenges of their sessions. It also underlined the depth of commitment and care they have for the children’s musical and holistic development.

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Some of the Pizzi staff performing at the end of term concert

Here are some brilliant things about this programme:

  • The whole team is deeply committed to providing the young people in this community with high quality music education – something which, due to the lack of UK-style music hubs – is in short supply
  • They are motivated by a belief in the transformational power of music
  • They are commited to creating opportunities for the children to be creative, as well as working on techniques. They were great at giving the children space to demonstrate or suggest ideas
  • They have thought carefully and self-critically about the content of their programme
  • Their strong, resourceful and equal team. Every music programme like this should, as they do, build 30 minutes into the beginning and end of each session, for planning and discussion
  • The children had s strong sense of ownership, identity and pride in the programme – they regularly talked about things they’d done with the programme, the friends they’d made and their enjoyment of the sessions and working with the teachers
  • Break time snacks (I was always going to have to mention the food somewhere!) were procured for free from an organisation which redistributes surplus fresh food. I loved that this organisation exists, and that MSO have utilised them for snack provision!

The whole team, and Lucy and Louise in particular, were ridiculously welcoming and kind to me. Seeing the programme at work was a total pleasure!

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*All children’s names have been changed

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