You may think teaching a whole class of KS2 children to play the oboe is verging on madness, but that’s exactly what Suzie Shrubb from West Sussex Music Service is doing.
Suzie Shrubb has the largest Key Stage 2 oboe group in the UK. Some people would think the idea of teaching a whole class of children to play the oboe at the same time was verging on madness, but that’s exactly what Suzie is doing at Bosham Primary School in West Sussex. She tells us how she does it. What did the children think when you introduced them to the oboe? For the Wider Opportunities class we could only offer the instrument to 15 children and we had no problem signing up recruits!
In my experience, children are always interested in the oboe, even if they don’t know much about it and love the sound and all the paraphernalia – reeds, cleaning rods – that goes with it. Why don’t more children learn the oboe then? There seems to be some degree of ignorance as to what an oboe is – we have all heard the “is that a clarinet?” question – and then there is the cost. It is more expensive than other instruments, which makes it prohibitive for a beginner.
Although music services do their best to address this there is still the issue of buying reeds, which is a constant expensive drain on funds. It also carries the incorrect perception of being a hard instrument to play. What has been the reaction from the teachers at Bosham Primary? The teachers love it and the school is really enthusiastic. The teachers always say how lucky children are these days and lament that they did not have the opportunity to learn an instrument in this way.
The school has an excellent music co-ordinator, Sue Creber, who learns alongside us. And from the children? Most of the children enjoy playing their instruments although some find it harder than others. They are full of questions, like what is the highest note you can play, and they love making multiphonics, which some of them first did by accident (as most beginners do).
When we did our last concert the children who came to watch seemed to really enjoy it, but the best thing about the concert was that the children kept on playing after the concert was over and did not want to put their instruments away. Is it a bit of a liability giving children valuable instruments and delicate reeds?
We are using junior oboes and they are conscientious about looking after their instruments and so far we have not had a breakage or any bent keys. They’re good with their reeds and know how to look after them. One child still has her original reed from September and it still works! They were also enthusiastic about learning to clean the oboes out and make sure they do this every time at the end of a lesson without me having to pester them.
What’s tricky about group teaching? Lots of things. I am really intent on making sure my oboists have a good embouchure and posture and know all the fingerings really well – so I can be a bit obsessive over these things and have to remember this may not be so exciting for the children. There is also the challenge by this time of the year that there is a marked difference in standard amongst some children. For me, this is the trickiest thing. We know some people have had more success with Wider Opps than others – how do you make it work?
I think that good planning and preparation is key and a good knowledge of the children and their musical abilities. I also think that the children have to want to do it, so as a teacher you have to help create that desire and then maintain it. In my experience the fact that they are given an instrument in the first place creates the desire, as they immediately want to investigate and problem solve, which after all are necessary ingredients for instrument learning.
Incidentally, I have noticed that these Wider Opps children are much more inquisitive than those who learn through more traditional routes. There seems to be something about Wider Opps that allows more explorative freedom. How are the students coming along?
Some of the children have really taken to the oboe, they have discovered new fingerings and taught themselves to play tunes they like. There is a group of girls who are constantly sharing pieces together and with the rest of us. Generally those who are doing well are the ones who practise and those who struggle are the ones who do not take the instrument out of the case week on week. They are all playing with a good loud sound and excellent tuning.
Their musicianship is also good and they are completely unafraid to try out new things. We have sung the songs that we learn and played some musical games and we also do free improvisation on the oboe. What would you say to people who are still reticent about teaching orchestral instruments in whole class settings? The Wider Opps system of teaching has shown nationally that people can and do teach orchestral instruments to classes, with all the challenges that entails, and really relish it.”
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