The article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 23.8.20.
The harmonious interplay between the woodwind and brass sections of a school orchestra has long brought delight to the ears of proud parents listening intently from the audience.
But junior ensembles will soon strike a different note, as they adapt to new Covid-19 rules by integrating a greater variety of string instruments into musical sessions because they are deemed more hygienic.
Schools should consider the “additional risk of infection” potentially posed by wind and brass instruments when played, Department for Education (DfE) guidance suggests.
So, in order to resume in-person “music-making” in line with the rules, some directors have resorted to buying ukuleles for their junior musicians to play in limited, socially distanced groups.
Consisting of four strings with a small guitar-like body, it is considered safer than more commonly used orchestral devices such as trumpets and flutes, or class instruments like recorders.
Music stores have reported a surge in demand for ukuleles since the lockdown began, with many children picking it up as a hobby while stuck indoors and away from school friends.
Now, conductors are wanting to introduce the instrument more widely as part of their music sessions, as they cast doubt on the near future of the school symphony in its traditional form.
“I have already started tuning the 37 ukuleles I ordered, now that we can’t have any wind instruments in school ensembles,” Dr Joanna Allsop, director of music at Cargilfield School, in Edinburgh, told The Telegraph.
“They are something we can play and can be cleaned when used in ensembles across the different years. I think the children who haven’t played it before will be excited.
“They have missed out on group playing for the whole of the last term, so we already have ground to make up,” she continued.
Dr Allsop conducts a full orchestra, composed of 35 students, and a separate 24 member junior string ensemble and wind band, at Scotland's oldest preparatory school, founded in 1873.
Where possible, she envisages outdoor classes in set year groups from next term, after spending the last few months organising virtual music sessions with the children from home.
Elsewhere, other music directors have expressed doubts about the evidence informing the Government's guidelines, citing a study by the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra carried out in May.
It concluded that there was no enhanced risk for musicians playing together in an orchestra as long as they were distanced at least a metre apart from one another.
Russell Crann, the English Schools' Orchestra course director, who is joining an academy in Cheltenham as head of music next month, said: “We are hoping that having seen studies like these, the government advice will allow students- initially within the same year group bubbles- to be able to play wind instruments together from September.”
“We hope that by the end of October we will be able to hold our course and concert to a limited audience. It will allow the students an opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of music making together.”
Positioning pupils “back-to-back”, avoiding the sharing of instruments and limiting group sizes to 15 or under are among the safety suggestions included in the DfE guidelines for the full reopening of schools.
The department will publish further safety advice about school music provision, including orchestras, “shortly”, a source said.
Bridget Whyte, CEO of The UK Association for Music Education, Music Mark, added: “The DfE says they will provide additional guidance on music making, which everyone is waiting for. It will hopefully help with working out how music will happen in schools again.
“We have questioned the fifteen figure because that number in a small classroom is perhaps too many but in a large school hall this number might be too over cautious.”
Welcome to Cargilfield! We hope this short film gives you a glimpse of what life is like for the girls and boys at our school. We would love to welcome you in person to tour Cargilfield and explain more fully exactly what makes a Cargilfield education so special and so different. Please get in touch with Fiona Craig, our Registrar if you would like to find out more; her email address is [email protected] or you can telephone her on 0131 336 2207.