Opening music lessons up to children from all backgrounds
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016
Against a backdrop of cuts to the arts, a group of music teachers and enthusiasts are giving underprivileged children the chance to learn an instrument.
Music education, along with the arts in general, seem to have drawn the short straw in recent local authority and governmental budget cuts.
However, a group of music lovers in Thetford is attempting to turn the situation around for the town's children.
The Thetford Music Project (TMP) has been running as a charitable organisation for 14 years, providing the chance for young people to get involved in music individually and in groups.
In September 2015, the project took up residence at Thetford Academy, in Croxton Road, giving weekly instrumental and vocal lessons to children and running musical groups from choirs to a string orchestra.
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It now gives lessons to more than 70 pupils, coming from as far away as Diss and King's Lynn.
The project's director Ann Smith is a passionate believer in the importance of music in a child's education.
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A former employee of Norfolk Music Service, she was invited to lead TMP several years ago. Her enthusiasm for the project is plain to see.
'Music is wonderful. It helps children in so many ways, with coordination and emotional expression. This aspect of it is coming across more and more,' she said.
'TMP is an after school club which is giving children in the Thetford area the opportunity to have music lessons, because these are not always available in schools.
'Sometimes children have lessons on their own, sometimes they have shared lessons.'
Breaking down the financial barriers to music education is an important aim of TMP. The project offers discounts to families on working tax credits or income support, with a half-hour lesson costing just £3.50.
'We try very hard to make it a charitable organisation and to make it affordable,' said Ms Smith. 'We very much support families on low incomes and allow them to access music lessons.
'We want to get rid of the thought that music is just for the rich. We want to open it up to people as much as we can.'
During the TMP sessions, which run on Thursday evenings, children can have multiple lessons and take part in music groups such as different choirs and TMP's 18-strong string orchestra.
One of TMP's latest ventures is a rock band, started by a Thetford Academy pupil who is working towards a nationally credited Arts Award.
Ms Smith said: 'We're encouraging him to do that as it's a development for him and the students.
'We listen to what the demand is and try to fit around that.'
Hidden in the school's music block is the TMP cupboard, donated by the school. From floor to ceiling are shelves are filled with clarinets, violins, keyboards, trumpets and percussion instruments.
'The next step at the moment is to sort the instruments out,' said Ms Smith. 'Some of them really need repairing, but things like this are where financial constraints come in. But we have to keep plugging away.'
In numerous rooms through the block, ten teachers are giving lessons to pupils and groups, who all exhibit a level of concentration which many private music tutors would envy.
'The tutors work for quite a low wage, but really they do it for love,' Ms Smith added.
Ms Smith said her 'ambitious vision' for TMP is to expand it into local primary schools.
'We're trying to branch out because some primary school pupils find it difficult to get to the sessions at Thetford Academy,' said Ms Smith.
'It also helps in the long-term. If you can get them doing music lessons in primary school, they will carry it on when they move up to the academy.'
Ms Smith and a fellow TMP director recently visited Diamond Academy in Thetford to introduce the project to pupils, with great success.
'We took a load of instruments and all the pupils in the school had a go on at least one,' she said.
'The children had a wonderful time. Some of them had never touched an instrument before in their life.
'I personally feel it is so important for them to have a go.'
'Financial constraints' is a phrase Ms Smith uses often in relation to TMP. A bulk of its funding comes from the county council-managed Norfolk Music Hub, which has Norfolk Music Service as its lead partner.
But with greater budget pressures, TMP could lose its council funding from April this year.
Although it has some financial help from grants, Ms Smith said these pots of money are becoming fewer and further between, and the money it is taking in from tuition fees is lower than the sum of staff costs and other outgoings.
'To do this you really have to feel passionately about music, which I have done for a long time,' Ms Smith said.
'After April, it will be a case of seeking support from local organisations to keep it going, because it is such an important service.
'It has such an affect. What we can offer here is really wonderful.'
TMP runs on Thursday evenings from 4pm to 6.30pm at Thetford Academy. For more information, call Ann Smith on 01493 750465.