How simplified versions of traditional instruments are helping European children learn music.
Australia is missing out on a musical revolution that has been building in several countries for the past fifteen years.
Traditionally, oboe and bassoon are introduced at High School. However, in Europe, smaller, simpler instruments have been transforming the landscape of double reed teaching and increasing musical and educational outcomes for many.
Following successful Festivals in 2007 and 2009 and the continuous inspiration of innovative manufacturer Guntram Wolf, the 2013 Symposium in Kronach, Germany ‘Big Harmony for Small People’ showcased successful pedagogical approaches from Norway, Germany, the UK and Switzerland. Around 100 young people aged between 6 and 10 performed in woodwind ensembles with a focus on group teaching. Bayreuth oboe teacher and Artistic Director Antje Lotz, explains: “At the time I met Guntram I only had a few oboe students aged around 15. The rest of my students were learning the recorder but I hoped that some of them would move onto the oboe later. My 5 oboe students became 30 and now more than half of them are aged under 10. I have no recorder students now but lots of young and happy oboe students… My work as an instrumental educationalist has been transformed, and my students and I are most grateful.”
“The main benefit to the tenoroon/mini bassoon is that people who want to play the bassoon can start younger,” says Catherine Millar, Head of Woodwind for Berkshire Maestros, UK: “This means we don’t lose players to the other instruments quite so readily. If an eight-year-old sees an instrument and then gets told he has to wait three years to start it, he is likely to go elsewhere.”
Catherine’s original 2004 group of bassoon students all achieved their Grade 8 Distinction, (finishing all graded exams and receiving top marks) by the ages of 13/14, with two moving on to do Diplomas. This at the same age as most Australian players are just starting to get to grips with the basics of bassoon or oboe while their peers have already forged ahead on other instruments.
Dr. Adam Schwalje, professional bassoonist formerly based in Macau, investigated tenoroons in a study grant-funded by the University of Colorado, publishing this conclusion: “I used these instruments (tenoroons)…and found that the switch to full-sized bassoon is virtually painless! If these smaller instruments were introduced into the U.S. educational system, as I hope… bassoon students would be better, sooner…”
Making learning more sociable and affordable, using size-appropriate instruments has given many a vital head start, leading to increased confidence and success. Many exceptional musical outcomes are being achieved for those who are given the opportunity to learn at this more impressionable age, when enthusiasm is at its peak: “Market research by Cooke and Morris (1996)… found that English children aged 5 and 6 were the most enthusiastic for expressing a desire to learn (an instrument). Almost half of their sample of 5 and 6 year olds (48%) said that they were likely to start learning in the near future… By the age of 14 only 4% of the children that they were likely to start learning an instrument.” Playing an Instrument, Gary E McPherson and Jane W Davidson, The Child as Musician.
In New Zealand, oboe teacher Catherine Gibson, describes her experience with tenoroon (Todd) and junior oboe (Adelina): “…they developed an advanced level of sound concept very early and an understanding of how to blow …connected sound and melodic phrasing. The memory of finger patterns was established early and this has given them a technical advantage over the later starters. The special connectedness that musicians have with their instrument began very early for both Todd and Adelina. This can have social and developmental benefits, giving added confidence and identity. Also I think success builds upon success, so the earlier the student feels like they have some mastery over the instrument, the confidence to take on further challenges grows…”
Many concerned Australian professionals replied to a series of questions I sent out in 2012, trying to formulate suggestions for a national strategy that the Australasian Double Reed Society, of which I was President at the time, could implement to help. The concern behind the replies was obvious. Immediate responses included: “In the public schools, there wouldn’t be a quarter of the number of these instruments being taught compared with when I left the public system in 1995…We’re behind you all the way!” Rosemary Stimson, Oboe teacher, South Australia
“I also have found that my oboe students have dropped off dramatically in the past 8 years or so…” Dr. Eleanor McPhee, Sydney Grammar School, NSW
“This is an excellent and much needed initiative. We have a small number of double reed teachers ‘holding up the fort’ so to speak and doing a really fantastic job. However I agree that we need to have a big drive to encourage young musicians to take up these endangered species..” Associate Professor Elizabeth Koch, OAM, South Australia
“Schools often have active string programs starting very young with wind programs starting later. The result is low numbers available to consider double reeds and low numbers of physically and musically suitable students. It would be good to be able to do something about this”. Anne Gilby, Scotch College, Melbourne
The new instruments have been designed to address a perceived need which has been identified for many years. Acclaimed American oboist John de Lancie, former Principal of Cleveland Orchestra, Director of the Curtis Institute, commented in 1979 that the earlier a musician gets going the better… “…but if the kid can bull his way on little by little he manages to cope with the instrument, with breath and lip control, at quite an early age. It’s my experience, at least in teaching, that the later one gets into it, the harder it is to develop really outstanding dexterity, on any instrument…” (‘Orchestra’ ed. Andre Previn, 1979)
In 1979, full size oboes and bassoons were the only option although in reality too big, complicated and expensive for younger children to handle. Junior instruments now reassess the needs of the younger pupil and ‘open the gateway,’ says William Ring, Education Manager at Howarth of London, designer of the Junior Oboe: “This is not just about occasional sparks of exceptional children, but a whole new way of developing young instrumentalists…consistent, repeatable results of good teaching with good and appropriate kit…”
English charity Music for Youth has been promoting music and double reeds for many years with a series of initiatives ‘Endangered and Protected Species’, and ‘Wider Opportunities’ , which allows entire classes to learn musical instruments for free, embracing new pedagogical approaches. Suzie Shrubb of West Sussex Music Service is teaching an entire class of 8 and 9 year olds oboe: “…they are full of questions, like what is the highest note you can play …the children kept on playing after the concert was over and did not want to put their instruments away…We are using junior oboes and they are conscientious about looking after their instruments… Incidentally, I have noticed that these Wider Opps children are much more inquisitive than those who learn through more traditional routes.”
Wider Opportunities Scheme reports the following significant outcomes: “Children who learn an instrument at primary school are more confident and have higher self-esteem, according to research into the Wider Opportunities (WO) initiative, where 8 and 9 year-olds learn to play an instrument together as a class for free. They look forward to music lessons and want to do well. 97% of schools surveyed said the classes were overwhelmingly popular, 92% said the classes had had a positive effect on children’s confidence and self esteem. Learning an instrument with all your friends in class has been shown to be as effective as small group tuition.”
The benefits to the UK musical community are becoming obvious. Ten years ago, the National Children’s Orchestra (all under 11 years), struggled to to find one or two bassoonists – now they have a waiting list and several are beyond Grade 8, reports Cath Millar, “and bassoons add texture to an ensemble- which improves things for everyone…”
Paul Harris, Senior Manager Havering Music School has been teaching oboe and bassoon in groups highly successfully for the past 15 years: “Children “get” size appropriate instruments. Why don’t adults understand this concept? It has happened in the string world forever… Easy sound production on first lesson… instant gratification in today’s climate… The end gain is starting years ahead and developing excellent foundations for the future…”
There are currently one or two important advocates for Junior instruments in Australia, including Sydney Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Noriko Shimada and bassoon teacher Clare Payne at Sydney Grammar School but the momentum is gathering pace. Junior instruments are available from Richard Craig, Sax and Woodwind, and Magic Flutes International.
Photo courtesy of http://www.guntramwolf.de/