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Spotlight on…the transition to secondary with The Langton

The transition for pupils as they move from primary to secondary education can be tough. Especially when it comes to music education, the difference in the environment can be stark and at worst can impact on students’ progression and desire to continue engaging with music. However, that doesn’t have to be the case!

We were delighted to speak with Emily Renshaw-Kidd, Director of Music at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, about the school and how she approaches the transition period and supports a thriving music education environment in and out of school.

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Emily Renshaw-Kidd, and I am Director of Music at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys. We have a thriving music department with healthy numbers of students taking music at GCSE and A Level. Music, along with all Arts subjects, is seen as the soul of the school.

We encourage all students and staff to see the value of music in their own lives and the lives of the people around them. Not only do we see our role as preparing students for university studies and careers in music but to encourage our students to see how music can be used for the greater good, especially in a caring way. We run a wide range of extra-curricular ensembles for all instruments, voices and abilities.

We also provide outreach and support to primary schools, in addition to arranging large-scale events for primary school age students, encouraging them to sing and take up orchestral instruments. We are also dedicated to practical research into the benefits of music on health and well-being. The students and I lead a fortnightly singing group for people with Parkinson’s, focussing on singing, movement, laughter and caring as way of relieving the symptoms

What is your approach to music in your school?

Music is a fun, practical and engaging subject, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy! We like to challenge our students in their curriculum learning, ensuring that they understand music theory, are aware of and appreciate our diverse, ever changing and rich history of world music, whilst ensuring that students of all abilities feel able to contribute.

Currently, our Year 7s are learning about polyrhythms and African drumming, whilst Year 8 have been learning about compound time by playing, composing and dancing to jigs and reels. Year 9 are learning to play the Steel Drums! Our most recent performance was in Canterbury Cathedral, as part of the school commemoration service, in which our school orchestra and SATB choirs performed a wealth of music including an A Level music student’s composition composed especially for the occasion.

This week, we are off to London to watch Disney’s Newsies and next week, we are looking forward to 100 recorder players joining us from surrounding primary schools to play in a Coronation celebration concert with our school orchestra and band.

What is your vision for music in your school?

There is no end goal – the sky’s the limit. Schools are fertile grounds and need constant work to ensure the sowing of the seeds leads to a healthy harvest. This needs to happen way before secondary school too, which is why we are keen to help support primary schools to encourage more student engagement with musical instruments at a young age.

Our vision for the school community is to engender an appreciation and love of all things musical, whilst encouraging our staff and students to understand the benefits of musical on all aspects of their own and other peoples’ lives. We also strive to always give our best!!

What has been your proudest achievement so far?

I think my proudest achievement as a music teacher has been to see the difference we have made to the lives of our neuro-diverse students. The music department has become a sanctuary for those students who find some aspects of everyday life a challenge. Music gives them an alternative and comfortable way to express their feelings in addition to building long-lasting, trusting and meaningful relationships with staff and students. The act of music lends itself to empathy and this understanding helps these students enormously.

What are your top three tips for being a music lead?

Embrace the strengths of your team members and provide them with the opportunity and freedom to pursue their own exciting initiatives and projects. This results in even more student engagement and incredible experiences, whilst making your music department an amazing place to be!

Just keep swimming! We all know what it is like to be a music teacher and have all had the feeling of ‘why did I think this was a good idea’ at some point in our career, but we know why we do it; it is because we are passionate about passing on our love of and the importance of music to the next generation and beyond. Throughout my 20 years in teaching, I have begun to be kinder to myself and convince myself that it is OK not to be perfect; we all drop the occasional ball, and the world does not end. You are not infallible as a head of music and should not be ashamed to ask for support when you need it.

Love your job – yes, there are things that we all hate about our job (namely the paperwork and bureaucracy) but don’t ever forget why you became a teacher. When I am struggling with fatigue and stress, I just think about the things I am looking forward to in the day ahead – there is always something to be found.

How do you keep students engaged in music as they transition into secondary in your school?

Don’t patronise them. Setting the right level of challenge is essential for keeping musicians engaged at secondary school. We try to identify the strengths and capabilities of our current students and select repertoire accordingly. If you have a flautist learning the Chaminade Flute Concertino for their diploma, learn it with the school orchestra and schedule it in a school concert. It may sound crazy, but if you believe in your students, they come up with the goods!

We love to perform fantastic and substantial works so that when the students go off to university, they already have a wealth of experience.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced keeping students enthusiastic going into year 7 and beyond? What about the biggest triumphs?

Singing can be a tricky one, but we seemed to have conquered this hurdle. Being an all-boys school up to KS4 has its pros and cons with regards to singing. Our message to the Year 6 students on induction day is, at the Langton we sing! Singing is part of their induction day, all music lessons, and they join as a whole year group choir for our Freshly Squeezed Concert at the end of their first term.

I have found that in mixed groups, boys are reluctant to sing, but being in a class full of boys means that they lose their inhibitions and are willing to try all sorts! We have different ability choirs for students to aspire to; this means that everyone can enjoy singing at any level, but the school community admire and respect the skill and talent of our auditioned Chamber Choir, who are an important part of whole school events, such as Remembrance and Commemoration.

What advice could you give to a music lead looking to improve the transition to secondary?

Say yes! Teaching is such a busy and tiring job, and it is sometimes easy to decline additional opportunities for fear of the extra workload, but these additional opportunities provided by organisations such as Kent Music and the Langton Music Centre are the ones that primary school students will remember for ever.

Playing the recorder with over 100 other musicians, learning the violin with your class, or singing Christmas songs in the Colyer Fergusson Hall could be the catalyst to a lifelong love of, or even a career in music. These extra-curricular opportunities also provide us with the chance to get to know our students in a different way – it is on music tours, or trips to see concerts that I have found out so much about my students that I would have never discovered at school.

I am convinced that, like myself, music-making is the reason you became a music teacher – so enjoy these additional opportunities!