Thursday, 12 June 2014

Hitting the right notes: Flexible provision for gifted musicians

Photo Credit - Richard Lewisohn_students of The Yehudi Menuhin School in concert at The Menuhin Hall.jpg
Above: students of The Yehudi Menuhin School in concert at The Menuhin Hall
Photo Credit: Richard Lewisohn

In a neo-Gothic house with purpose built boarding and classroom facilities in Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey, 75 primary and secondary-age pupils spend half of each day practising, rehearsing, improvising and composing music. Brought together from 20 countries at the renowned Yehudi Menuhin School, they are all exceptionally gifted musicians who play stringed instruments or the piano. Pupils give 250 concerts a year, including the end-of-year festival concerts every July in the 300-seat Menuhin Hall in the school grounds.

Founded just over 50 years ago by the American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin and alma mater to world-famous violinists Nigel Kennedy and Nicola Benedetti, the school aims to create a family environment in which pupils can develop their musical, intellectual, artistic and social skills. Since 1973, financial support for the school has come from the Department for Education’s Music and Dance Scheme, which provides help to pay fees for children aged eight to 18 with the potential to train for a career in music or dance. When pupils leave the school, around 95 per cent of them go on to music colleges in the UK, Europe and further afield, the prelude to careers as professional musicians.

Alongside musical excellence the school has an enviable record of academic achievement: most years, 100 per cent of pupils are awarded grades A* to C at GCSE and A level. With so much of the timetable dedicated to music, how does the school offer the breadth of subject choice that fosters academic excellence at the same time as nurturing the spirit of enquiry which is so critical to intelligent musical interpretation?

‘Of course we can’t offer all the subjects pupils may be interested in studying – no school can – but the National Extension College has enabled us to expand what we offer older pupils’, explains the school’s Director of Studies Richard Tanner. He came across the NEC by chance four years ago when a small group of pupils expressed an interest in studying philosophy A level.

The school’s open-minded approach to academic provision means it can be flexible in what it offers pupils, some of whom have been at the school since primary level, some who join at any stage up to the sixth form and those who stay on for an extra year before going to music college. Pupils studying German, for example, take the certificate courses and examinations offered by the Goethe-Institut as the syllabus is better suited to the use they make of the language as musicians.

The school has five full-time teaching staff who cover English, maths, history, sciences and modern foreign languages and another 60 or so teaching music and languages, including English as an Additional Language. It’s difficult for any school to justify the teaching time when just one or two pupils want to study a subject outside the main curriculum. Richard says: ‘NEC’s approach, with 1:1 tuition for every student provided as part of the course, means we don’t have to worry about timetabling, teaching time, marking pupils’ work or preparing them for exams.’

Daniel Barenboim, musician, conductor and President of The Yehudi Menuhin School, talks in the 2006 Reith Lectures of how in music ‘different notes and voices meet, link to each other, either in joint expression or in counterpoint – and yet the two fit together.’ Practising an instrument, often alone, for several hours a day, is demanding. Richard concludes: ‘Pupils choosing NEC courses have to be self-disciplined. Independent study fits very well with the school’s ethos of individual endeavour for collaborative creation.’

To learn more about NEC, visit our website to read about our work and browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses. You can keep up to date with all our latest news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog, and we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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