“IT’S connecting with young people, sharing a love of music, passing on a skill, allowing them to grow in their own musical development,” says Janet Hodgson, who chairs Swindon Music Co-operative.
“It’s making connections in your brain, so there’s intellectual stuff going on; there’s emotional stuff, there’s social stuff going on because if you’re working in an ensemble group or even with a teacher, you’re interacting.
“It’s a learning journey. Rather than the teacher knowing everything and telling the pupil how to do it, it’s more of a discovery with the teacher.”
All eyes in the music teaching world are on Swindon at the moment.
With local authorities’ musical education budgets being squeezed mercilessly, teaching is in jeopardy across the country and solutions are needed in a hurry.
Fortunately there’s a beacon to guide them all, and it’s been shining right here in Swindon for the best part of two decades.
The 50 or so men and women who make up the co-operative teach guitar, keyboards, brass, woodwind, strings, drums, singing – in fact, just about every instrument in the orchestral, rock and brass worlds.
They teach about 1,500 children in around 70 schools throughout Swindon borough, North Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. They can take pupils through every stage of the learning process, from scarcely knowing one end of an instrument from the other to being ready for a music scholarship exam.
Each of the teachers wants music-making to be available to all. Nikki Dancey, 35, is typical.
“I think being able to teach one-on-one is a massive privilege,” she said, “and so is being able to work with freedom outside a national curriculum without a boss and with one child at a time – and normally with children who want to be there!
“I feel very lucky to be able to get the rewards you get from being able to work in that way, and simply to be able to play music all day. To make music is a wonderful way to earn enough money to keep a roof over your head.”
Fellow keyboard specialist Janet, 50, who has also worked as a class teacher, delivers a brief history lesson: “It was in 1997 that Swindon became a unitary authority. There was a big reshuffle of how things were organised within the council.
“At the time the instrumental teaching was done through Swindon Music Service, and it was felt that it was too expensive to administer that service, so those teachers were made redundant.
“Some of them got together to form a co-operative rather than just set up on their own. They wanted to work collectively, with all the benefits that brings, rather than just do individual stuff.
“Nationally, there’s a lot of this going on right at the moment. There’s a massive squeeze on funding at the moment for music education.
“What is happening in a lot of places is that music services are making their teachers redundant.
“We’ve been through that already – we were one of the first ones, and there’s a lot of debate at the moment as to what the future is for teachers who are being thrown out.”
The Swindon teachers saw pupil numbers drop off at the height of the recession but they’re now bouncing back. The co-operative wants to dispel any notion that lessons are expensive. In fact, they’re available for as little as £3.50 per session, and there are various schemes and grants making lessons and instruments available to all.
Nikki said: “Instruments such as the keyboard you can pick up incredibly cheaply, and it will take you through a number of years’ worth of tuition. They can be bought for as little as £150 brand new and much cheaper second hand.
“Lessons can also be done for half an hour fortnightly for people who want to progress but don’t want to pay for an hour or do lessons weekly.”
The co-operative doesn’t just teach children. Janet said: “We’d definitely encourage adults to try, although it’s not always easy for adults to learn because they tend to get frustrated very easily and they have very high expectations of themselves.”
Nikki agreed but added: “I’ve had some fantastic students who were of pensionable age, so it’s certainly not impossible to learn to play well if you’re realistic and patient.”
The co-operative’s website is www.swindonmusiccoop.co.uk.