• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Take a bow: how parents are getting an island back in tune

When it comes to music education, there is a lost generation on Mull.

Playing violin is, far left, Robyn Fergusson, five. Top, a youngster listens intently to her teacher and, left, Caroline Wilkie gives a lessonPhotographs: Colin Templeton
Playing violin is, far left, Robyn Fergusson, five. Top, a youngster listens intently to her teacher and, left, Caroline Wilkie gives a lessonPhotographs: Colin Templeton

They are the young people who, unlike the peer groups before them, didn't learn to play the violin, or any musical instrument. At the annual Mendelssohn on Mull Festival, where they run workshops for children, they have noticed this decline over the past five or six years.

As Marilyn Jeffcoat, chairman of the Mendelssohn on Mull Trust says: "Few could actually play anything, and, more than that, it seemed very recently the children had been getting very little exposure to music at all." She says 25 years ago 30 children could have played the violin.

The change has been attributed to a decline in local traditional culture and a shortage of music teachers.

But there are hopes to turn around this trend, thanks to a scheme created and powered by parents on the island and funded by Creative Scotland's Youth Music Initiative. It is hoped the project can be a prototype for how to deliver music teaching - through regular monthly intensive workshops, backed by YouTube and Skype tutorials - to remote areas.

Laura Mandelberg is one of the project's prime drivers. When her son Finn, who "loved the idea of fiddle playing", attended the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival workshops last year, he was exhilarated and wanted more.

"They did a little concert at the end and we were so proud of him. It also just gave him a little confidence boost. But the problem was, where do you go now? What do you do if there aren't the lessons?"

Flute-player Mandelberg soon heard there had been decline on the island in number of children playing instruments and wanted to change this. Teachers, she found, were in short supply, and she went on an intensive course in Edinburgh in the Kodaly music-teaching philosophy.

She now gives classes to her local nursery and plans to teach pre-school youngsters in Tobermory. The younger the children, she says, the better. "There's a window they talk about of between three and seven, when it's best to get the children learning music. But actually children's introduction to music starts at day zero, or even before they are born."

The children at the workshop are mostly aged three to seven. In one room, Marian Lloyd is teaching the very basics of violin: the stance and hold, deconstructed as a menagerie of animal poses, from crocodile fingers to penguin feet to rabbit-hole hold.

ONE child, Dominic, seems to remember almost everything from his last workshop, including that he must not touch the bow hair. "We mustn't touch it because that means the violin won't play," he asserts. Then, as Lloyd anatomises the instrument, he jumps to tell her the "frog" is at the end of the bow.

"Can we play?" asks Leanne, desperate to skim bow along strings. She came over from Iona today with her mother Jana Mclellan. They hired a violin after the festival last year, but, without regular lessons, Leanne's enthusiasm waned.

"The problem is at the moment there is no teacher," sayd Mclellan. "She was highly ­motivated when we were able to take it home that day, but her motivation went down when she didn't get any more teaching."

These monthly workshops have been booked out. Forty-six children attended the May workshop and 60 in April, out of an island primary school population of just 200 or so.

Study after study has shown early music lessons improve listening ­ability, social skills and IQ. Research at Harvard found children who had music training for over three years outperformed those who did not in fine motor skills, listening skills, vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning.

Learning a musical instrument has even been linked to better maths scores. The availability of affordable or free music teaching is therefore an issue for all of the country - but it is particularly acute in remote areas where access to teachers is a barrier.

Among those teaching the sessions is Caroline Wilkie, a freelance music educator. While Lloyd teaches the children the basics of violin, she teaches a music-maker class of dancing, singing and rhythm. The idea, after all, is not just to train a new generation of fiddle players, but to ignite the love of music. She uses many approaches, all of which she says are about working holistically with music.

"We work with principal musical skills: pulse, singing and pitch. We create musical experiences, through movement through singing, through game. And then when they go on and play the violin and they're learning a more technical skill, it's a natural thing that all these things filter in."

What they are playing with as they dance around the room, singing and clapping, are what Wilkie descibes as "our primary instruments, our voice and our percussive body". It is, she believes, an education every child should have - wherever they live.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

232603