Transforming Education through Music, with Jimmy Rotheram

Today we’re talking with Jimmy Rotheram, the man behind an incredible success story in the UK school system. Last year Feversham Primary Academy made headlines after transforming from one of the worst-performing schools in the country to well above average, in just a few short years. After being singled out for its unacceptably poor student attendance and academic results in 2010, Feversham now has 98% student attendance and is in the top 1% of schools nationwide for student progress in reading, writing and mathematics.

So why are we talking about this on the Musicality Podcast? Well, it turns out that a large part of their success is attributable to a greatly increased and improved music education programme for all students.

We were so impressed with Jimmy’s story and the results that he and his colleagues at Feversham have managed, so we were excited to have the chance to speak with him. And as you’ll learn in this interview it wasn’t just “adding music” that made the difference. It was a particular kind of music education which focuses on developing the inner musicality of each child – and which can be equally powerful for adults too.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The specific kind of music education Jimmy adopted for use at Feversham
  • Why this kind of music education was initially a real struggle for Jimmy personally, given his own musical background, and why it’s the exact opposite, a fun and easy experience, for his students
  • Whether it was the kind of music education or the increased amount that produced such amazing results

A couple of things we mention which we should probably explain in case you’re not familiar with the UK system: the “PGCE” qualification is the main teaching degree for UK primary and secondary schools, and “Ofsted” is the official body which evaluates schools in the UK.

This is a really interesting and inspiring story even if you don’t have a particular interest in childhood music education yourself, so whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or just a musician yourself, we know you’ll get a lot out of this one.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show Jimmy, thank you for joining us today.

Jimmy: Thanks for having me, you’re very welcome.

Christopher: So you have a phenomenal story of success with Feversham and I’m keen to hear all about that, but before we dive in, I would love to know about your own musical story, and what your own music education was like.

Jimmy: Well yeah, my upbringing was we had a piano in our house, which was just brilliant. My parents weren’t musical but as soon as I could reach the keys I started playing on it, and started picking out little tunes on it. Luckily I had parents who could support me, you know, we weren’t a particularly well off family but my parents kind of prioritized me learning music. So my mum used to walk me three or four miles every week to my piano lessons. I was lucky to have piano lessons all my life growing up, and it was quite interesting. So when I came to go to university my reading skills were very poor. I was very learning classical music and very bad at reading, so it was quite hard work a lot of the time. And then I discovered Jazz, and I’ve always been able play by ear, so that kind of opened up a new world for me. It was a little bit late for my university choices.

I went to study English at Lancaster University, I finished my degree and I didn’t really want to work in journalism or sales, so I had a kind of epiphany when I was sat in the middle of a field meditating, and sort of suddenly realized that I had to devote the rest of my to music. So I went to Leeds Music College, learnt Jazz and music production there, and never looked back from there really, it’s the best decision I ever made.

I managed to find a lot of professional work, despite not being able to read music well because I had the skills in being able to listen to pieces and play them straight away, and then transpose them into whatever key, so that’s sort of where my skills lay. I have managed to get sort of quite a lot of work doing that, and then I got into teaching and was teaching secondary. I was thrown straight into a tough school, with a lot of behavior problems, it was probably one of the hardest places where you could go to work as a teacher. So that was eye opening, quite interesting work.
Then I had a job teaching music A’ Level for a couple of years which was great, but then when the cuts started to come in, I started to get more and more demands, can you do this Btec course, can you do that Btec course, can you do this maternity cover but we can’t offer you any more hours to do it, sort of thing. And I ended up doing 70 hour weeks, every week, and was getting paid for three days, so I thought, “Right I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to quit.” They were offering some voluntary redundancies so I kind of bit their hand off and thought, “Right I’m never going to teach again.”

Went to try and be a professional musician and if it was the weekend all the time I would have done okay, but it’s quite hard earning a living and not knowing where your next bit of money is coming from. So I started doing a bit of supply teaching, just to get a regular steady income. Started working in primary schools and absolutely loved it. The children were so enthusiastic and an absolute joy to teach, but obviously I didn’t really know what I was doing with teaching kids that age, because I had come from teaching 18 year olds who’d been learning music most of their life, to teaching 5 and 6 years who were brand new to it.

That’s a really common problem, because music teachers are generally trained to teach secondary school, and primary school teachers are not trained to teach music. So we’ve got this situation where nobody is actually trained to teach primary music or specialist courses and things. But on the PGCE system, which is the main route into teaching for most teachers in the UK, there’s not really any qualifications which enable people to work in primary schools as a music specialist. So that’s something we’re very much looking to promote.

I landed at Feversham, and as I say didn’t know an awful lot but was able to get some professional training in the Kodály approach, which is what we use. You start to see results very quickly. When I started at Feversham they hadn’t had any music at all, so it was quite exciting to have a blank canvas to work with, but it was also quite a challenge because you had two or three kids in each class who were able to sing in tune, and keep a steady rhythm and pulse.
I think in a lot of schools they would be told, “You’re the kids who are good at music, you can do these after school clubs, you can do all the things.” And I’ve always been very against that, I’ve always believed that everybody’s musical and if you nurture it in the right way, everyone can have musical literacy. It’s a system where you start with so and mi, so you start with the really easy, “Duh, Duh, Du, Du, Duh, Du, Du, Du, Du, Du, Du, Duh.” Songs. And that’s an interval which imitates natural speech patterns, so when your mums calling you she will say, “Jimmy, dinners ready.” And you hear it a lot in natural speech. So that’s an interval that everybody can sing in tune.

What you do is build up from there, so you go from those to notes, “So and Mi.” And you add, “La.” So you get, “Duh, du, du, duh, duh, du, du, du, du, duh.” It becomes playground chant, and they you add mi, do, re to that. So you go, “So, mi, so, so, mi, so, la, so, mi. Mi, re, do.” And you build that up over years. And you build the rhythms up slowly over years as well. So that the very secure children can do everything with those, although they’re only sort of doing two intervals in the first year, they can do everything with those two intervals, and when you add the next one they can do everything with that.

So by the time you’ve been teaching them for five, six years, everyone is musically literate, everyone can read well, they can sing well, they can listen to melodies and transpose them. They can actually listen to melodies and write them down better than my A’ Level students could. It’s really striking and really effective methodology for primary schools, but sadly it’s virtually unheard of, even among music teachers, it’s not very well known. So we’re hoping the more people hear about it because of our success.

Christopher: Well there was a ton there that’d like to unpack and dig into to. It’s a fantastic journey and obviously we know the results have really shown the value of that teaching approach. You said that you were someone who could always play by ear. Was that something that featured in your piano learning as you grew up, or did you learn to do it, or was it just something that you did instinctively?

Jimmy: As I remember it, it was something that I did fairly instinctively. So I was quite lucky in that respect, and I think because I nurtured it from an early age, it was something I’ve always been able to do. But I found interesting when I moved into teaching was that quite often the things that you can do well as a musician, you don’t necessarily understand how you can do them, and how you can teach other people. What I found actually in my teaching was that I was better at teaching the things I wasn’t very good at, like the sight reading and things. Because I had to think more carefully about what those first steps were. Whereas with playing by ear it was something I’ve always just done, and it’s hard to teach because I don’t understand how I did it necessarily.

The Kodály approach by naming every note using, do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, it’s really effective in developing that ear for music. So it’s a really good system where I can teach people to do what I can do, but I think before I learned that methodology I wouldn’t of been necessarily brilliant at teaching it.

Christopher: That’s really interesting, and you didn’t find it clashed in your head when you were first learning the Kodály approach?

Jimmy: Completely yeah. No it was yeah, it was really difficult for me because just really silly things like if you’re singing in a major key you’ll go, do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. If you’re singing in a minor key you will start on la, so you will go, la, ti, do, re, mi, fa, so. What you actually find is we’re so kind of programmed to thinking of do as one, that as soon as I move into a minor key I think … so instead of la, I’d be calling it do, and it’s actually quite difficult I think if you’ve already learned another way to then kind of transpose this new way of thinking onto your understanding. It’s … I’ve completely forgotten what I’m talking about now.

Christopher: That’s alright. So apart from those names clashing, did you find the kind of system of recognizing the notes, and their role in the scale, was a good match for how you were instinctively doing things?

Jimmy: Definitely yeah. It was kind of putting names to what I was doing in my head. And I like I say enabling me to actually teach it, and have a system for teaching what I could kind of instinctively do.

Christopher: Gotcha. So you said something that really resonated with me, which was teaching music to young kids is strikingly different to teaching say teenagers. How much is that purely a function of age, and the fact that a 3 year old doesn’t have the same attention span as a 13 year old, and how much is about the music education itself and what they’re ready for, would you say?

Jimmy: If you look at babies, babies have an incredible sense of pitch, it’s a bit like the swimming analogy. If you throw a baby into a swimming pool … don’t. I hope listeners won’t do that after listening to me, and definitely don’t do it with someone else’s baby. But if you throw a baby into water they will swim. And if you keep them swimming they don’t really need to learn how to swim, they just do it instinctively. And it’s very much the same with music.

Children are born with incredible pitch perceptions, they need to have it to survive, so they need to be able to recognize their mothers voice over predators. And they need to have really good tone and pitch distinctions to recognize that mothers voice, above everything else. They have an incredible ear, some people think that babies have perfect pitch and that they lose it as they get older. But what you do find is, if you do start nurturing at that really early age, and I noticed this when I started teaching the three year olds in nursery. Apparently there is a golden window of opportunity for singing in tune is age three to six. And it’s also before the age of seven that you see the biggest neuro scientific benefits. So in terms of brain development, the magic number is before the age of seven, so you see a huge difference if you start before the age of seven. For example, my year sixes now can’t sing in tune, anything like as well as my year fives, even though they’ve had exactly the same program. And I think it’s just because they started a year later. They started after the age of seven, so I think that really is a magic number.

Sadly though even in primary school that do music, they often don’t do music in early years, which is to anyone who’s in early years is mind boggling. Who wouldn’t sing to children, they get so much out of it. I think that is where music is needed the most and where it’s has the biggest effect.

Christopher: And so you adopted the Kodály approach even though you weren’t someone had been raised in Hungary, and you weren’t someone who felt like they needed to be taught how to play by ear, or transpose, or transcribe. What was it that drew you to it, and what was the learning experience like for you, adopting Kodály?

Jimmy: It was very much the issue of children not being able to sing in tune, so I looked into methodologies. I’ve always been attracted by methodologies which are inclusive of everybody, and believe that everybody is a musician. So that really appealed to me but also it gave me some practical steps to teach singing in tune in a way I could build in. Once I started doing that I started really seeing the results. So yes, everyone can sing, “Duh, Duh, Du, Du, Duh.” In tune. And I could build it up from there.

So you start doing it and it works absolutely brilliantly. And then I think the tendency is to just go really quick with it, so you end up doing really, really complicated things with children too early, and you realize the kids aren’t very secure with it, so you have to go back. So my teaching has definitely slowed down over the past few years, and I’m much more slow and steady, than trying to rush through to the next thing. I’m more about making sure everything is really secure.

It’s … the games are great fun. The games are things you can just start. The Kodály approach is all about music always being a joy and never a torture, in Kodály’s words. There’s a lot of games, and a lot of fun, and children actually learn things quite often unconsciously without actually realizing that they’re learning, they’re just playing a game from their point of view. And that’s really appealing and that’s also something you can do straight away. Even you don’t really understand the methodology fully. You can start pulling the games into your own teaching. So that’s a really easy kind of route in. Then you realize how well the children are learning, the skills in the games. And then that’s when you start to think more about the sequence and how you’re going to prepare children for the next step of the journey, and how you’re going to reinforce those elements they’ve already done.

So it’s definitely got more scientific as I’ve learnt but it’s still very much a process of learning for me. I’ve only been doing it for four years, I’m learning from people who’ve been doing it for 40 years, real experts in it. I think that whilst the experts will probably have more children capable of doing the things they teach them, you notice a huge result just by doing the Kodály approach in terms of miles more children being musical and having that level of musical literacy.

Christopher: Terrific, and you mentioned games there, could you give an example, or maybe describe what one of these classes looks like if it’s not the traditional every kid has a glockenspiel, play these notes that are written on the page kind of class.

Jimmy: Yeah, what I can do, which might be really good for you, is send you some videos.

Christopher: Perfect, we can put those in the show notes for people to watch.

Jimmy: So just to explain it. You will learn musical principles through the game that you’re playing. So an early song that children do is, “See-saw, up and down.” And they’ll move their arms up and down in pairs to the music like a see-saw. It’s just a really simple thing, but very early on it gives them a sense of high note and a low note, and sort of build it up from there. A more advanced version of similar game is a game called High Low Chicka Low. I’ll send you a video of it, because it’s probably quite difficult to explain but you kind of … how would I explain it? So you … the song goes, “High low chicka low, chicka low, chicka low. High low chicka low, chicha low, high.” When you sing a high note you high five your partner high up in the air. You high five below your hand for the low note, and then you hit your hands together for the chicka.

Christopher: We’ll put a link to the video in the show notes. But I think that gives people a sense, and I guess obviously there you’re starting to prepare them for the idea of hand signs and that physical sense of where notes in live in the scale.

Jimmy: Yeah absolutely, yeah. And the hand signs are really effective in giving kinesthetic information to the pitch information that they’re doing. So sometimes a child won’t get a pitch, but as soon as you start doing the hand signs they will get that interval, so they are really effective with children.

Christopher: That’s really interesting. So over the last several years at Feversham you’ve introduced this quite different way of teaching music, and you said they didn’t really have any music before. You’ve also really ramped up the amount of music teaching each child receives, is that right?

Jimmy: Yeah. So as a basic entitlement they get … it’s difficult to put an exact number because some teachers do more music in class away from the music lessons than others, but I would say on average each student is getting a minimum of two and a half hours a week. And then they opt in for the all the after school clubs, and the choirs at lunch times, and things like that then some children are actually doing seven hours of every week, with me. And they’re just absolutely flying as you can imagine, they’re doing brilliantly.

Christopher: Fantastic, and the results you’ve been getting in terms of academic achievement, and attendance, and pupil satisfaction and enjoyment, and parenting engagement, would you say that is primarily down to just increasing the amount of the music, or do you think it’s also related to the methodology, and the more kind of game like joy focused approach to music learning?

Jimmy: I think it’s both. The games provide a lot of fun but they also develop … they’re designed to develop self esteem and confidence in children as well, which is a really big factor, and I think that has a knock on effect in all subjects.

If you look at neuroscientists such as Dr. Anita Collins in Australia, she does a fantastic Ted Talk where she talks about all the neuro scientific benefits for children. I think once you learn about those it’s almost cruel not to give that children really in schools. There’s a huge body of evidence, with study, after study, after study, showing that music provides … how can I put it? It provides the neurological basis for you to study all other subjects, it gets the parts of your brain communicating with each other which should in theory make problem solving in maths, and english, and things like that a much easier process.

There’s also quite a lot of evidence that learning language through singing is really effective. Most of the children in our school don’t speak English at home, 98% of children speak English as a second language, so I think for them you really see the language developing through learning to sing. And then parents see how much the children are blossoming and are just really supportive of it.

Christopher: Fantastic. So you touched on something there which I think is another really interesting aspect of the Feversham story and it’s something that maybe our international listeners who don’t know the UK school system that well would be surprised by, which is the cultural and racial make up of Feversham. And that naturally has a huge impact on how you teach music, I suppose, and particular with one of the tenets of the Kodály philosophy being to use the kind of folk music of the country as the basis of teaching. How have you tackled that?

Jimmy: So our makeup at Feversham is 98% muslim, Pakistani children. So there’s a lot of myths about that community that they’re somehow against music, and that music is Haram and forbidden in their culture, which isn’t true at all. There is a very, very tiny minority of muslims who are saying that with very loud voices, but actually the vast majority of muslims are quite happy with music program in schools, obviously providing that it’s not … I think where it gets difficult is if you’re doing songs about Jesus, and how wonderful Jesus is, or certain pop songs that have sexual content. But I suppose they’re kind of worries for a lot parents who aren’t muslims and I think that once they realize that you’re … what a good program of music you’re giving them they’re broadly supportive or it.

Also we … I think there wasn’t the culture of going to concerts and things like that, so when we first starting doing concerts we’d have two parents and they’d be on the phone the entire concert. They wouldn’t even clap when the children finished a performance because there just wasn’t the culture of knowing of what to do. We sort of tackled that by getting some very well renowned muslim musicians to come into to school to show the children that you can be a muslim and you can be a musician. You can be a very devoted muslim and music can be part of that, so we had Ahmad Hussain come in and he’s had millions, and millions of YouTube hit with his nasheeds which are sort of muslim worship songs, but there’s kind of a pop nasheed industry now. He’s doing very well in that field. He came in, we had an absolute sell out concert and ever since then parents have come to concerts and been really enthusiastic about what the children are doing.

So in terms of the Kodály I think times are very different now to when Kodály was putting his program together, and I think one huge difference is the multiculturalism. So for Kodály it was about exploring native folk songs and so in Hungary lots of Hungarian folk songs, and reestablishing that sense of Hungarian identify, because I think Hungary had obviously under Nazi occupation and then later it became a Soviet state. So I think the idea of Hungarian nationalism was very important, whereas if you start shouting too loudly about British nationalism people will sort of really get the wrong idea.

But we see it as … the majority of the songs we use are British folk songs because that’s the language that the children are learning so the vast majority are, but we do include quite a lot of Muslim nasheeds and things in the program as well, so there’s some variety. We also have a lot of African children and Eastern European children, so we do try and find a balanced program of music that we do, which reflects the community as a whole.

Christopher: Very cool. And over the last several years, apart from these big headline results in terms of academic achievement, are there any stand out examples, or maybe children who you’ve seen really benefit from this, where the traditional lack of music education in the UK school might have left them stranded?

Jimmy: I’m horrified to think what would happen to some of these children if they’d never had the music that they’ve been given here. So there is a little boy, Adyan, in year one, he has some fairly complex learning difficulties which actually result in him not speaking to anybody. Or when he first started he wouldn’t speak to anyone, wouldn’t communicate. You could give him instructions and you weren’t even sure if he’d actually heard them or not and he wouldn’t really speak to anybody.

But then what we found was he loved singing, and would just sing, sing, sing. We very quickly started teaching him through language and vocabulary through song, and once you’ve got him singing you can’t stop him. He will sing verse, after verse, after verse, of songs. We realized that all the time he was kind of running around and didn’t seem to be listening he was taking in all these songs and learning them. And mum had very enthusiastically jumped on this as a way of developing his language, but also showing him off to relatives in Pakistan on Twitter, showing what he can do. He will communicate … he will respond to musical signals, so if you go, “Do, doo.” He will stand up, he you go, “Do, doo.” he will sit down. He will … if you start singing the tidying up song he will start tidying up, he will tidy up and while he’s still singing the song he will go and queue up at the door, ready for the next lesson. Just seeing that profound effect that music’s had on him.

And this isn’t using complicated Hungarian pedagogy, this is simply just singing to a boy, it’s not rocket science. And there’s at least one person in every school who can do that. But I’ve worked in autistic schools and the children have had no music whatsoever, and I think it’s … when you see the huge difference it’s making to his life it’s a no brainer, every child should be having that kind of opportunity to learn and develop.

Christopher: Absolutely. So what’s holding us back as a country in terms of music education? I’m sure the same question applies in a lot of countries.

Jimmy: One thing is not taking it seriously, music is seen like the cherry on the cake, if you get everything else sorted out maybe you will have a bit of time to a bit of music, and because they’re only kids it doesn’t really matter if it’s not high quality, you know. That’s very much the mentality, you know, that it’s something they can learn at secondary school. What we’d like to see is a huge shift towards realizing the vital importance of music in a primary school setting. So we’re very much pushing for primary music PGCE specialisms so that teachers are trained to teach music to children this age, which very few people are.

We’re also looking … the thing is lots of headteachers will say we don’t really have the time or the resources but it’s a matter of prioritizing it. And as long as Ofsted are only recognizing english and maths results in schools, there’s very little incentive for teachers to do much of anything … for headteachers too much of anything else. And you can give them all the neuroscience arguments and almost convince them that it will improve the results but it’s still a big step for them. I think what would really help is if Ofsted actually recognized music in primary schools to the point where you cannot get an outstanding in a school unless your music and creative arts provision is also outstanding.

So we’re trying to come up with a system that isn’t too intimidating for schools, that’s fairly simple for schools to use, but which recognizes music and creativity as core subjects basically, as vitally important core subjects. Because I think they are, I mean I think you can get the results through drilling maths and english, but you end with children who aren’t particularly enjoying their education. Whereas we’re very much about developing the whole child, so developing their confidence, and not just their abilities but their abilities as a human being, that’s going to be going into a brave new world that’s very different to what we went into when we left primary school.

Christopher: So Jimmy, you managed to cram all this extra music time into the curriculum, as it were, at Feversham. How did your head teacher feel about that, how were you able to make such a big change?

Jimmy: It’s impossible really to bring about the sort of changes we did without the support of your head teacher, and I was very lucky. One of the things that attracted me to stay at Feversham when I came on supply was that Naveed, the head teacher, he wanted a music specialist in the school, he wanted somebody who could teach music across the age range and he’s very much coming at it from a – his Masters was in Comparative Religions, so he’s very interested in the sort of spiritual side of life and he believes that music is one of the few things left that actually give you that transcendental experience of taking you away from your everyday life, and the meditative mental health qualities that music brings.

He was very keen for that to be going on in the school. And when I started talking to him about the potential brain development elements of studying music as well he was very keen, and the more I presented him with information and studies, the more excited he was to do more and more music in the school. And I’m very lucky that he’s said yes to everything I’ve asked for.

But what’s been very eye-opening is that people think because we’re an “academy” we have this magic money tree and we’ve got all this funding. We do get quite a lot of funding because we’re in one of the fourth poorest districts in the country, so we do get a lot of “Pupil Premium” money, which is what schools get to support children in poverty, but what’s interesting is that if you start looking into it, usually schools with more Pupil Premium money for the poorest students are the ones doing the least music. And we have exactly the same funding model as all the other local schools, and quite a lot of the other local schools are saying we can’t afford to do music, we can’t afford to have a music specialist, we can only do 20 minutes a week, we don’t have time for anything else. We’ve got exactly the same funding model as them so like I was saying before, it’s a matter of “Is it a priority for your school?”, which again leads us back to Ofsted and if Ofsted don’t take it seriously we can’t expect anyone else to unfortunately.

Christopher: Well it’s fantastic that you had such support from your head teacher, and it’s clear that the results have really paid off the more music you’ve been doing.

Jimmy: Yeah, just hope other schools will follow suit. Because as you mentioned, it’s not just about the academic results and the academic improvement, but about developing the whole child and developing self-esteem and their confidence and their ability to share and work with other children. There are so many benefits to it, which a skilled music teacher at this age can bring out, even if they’ve only got half an hour a week with the kids, you can really start to bring those things out. And it’s just tragic really that more schools aren’t doing what we’re doing.

Christopher: Well I think definitely one of the things that’s most inspiring about the Feversham case is … I think anyone listening to this podcast believes in music education for the sake of music education, and music in education because music is so wonderful. But I think you’ve really demonstrated that it’s not the cherry on the cake, it is something that doesn’t distract from the core subjects, in fact in contributes-

Jimmy: It is the cake-

Christopher: It is the cake.

Jimmy: It is the cake tin. It’s the cake tin, I think. You can look a little bit funny and misshapen without it I think.

Christopher: I think that’s a wonderful visual to leave people with. Jimmy it’s been so wonderful talking to you and hearing this very inspiring and I think just impactful story you’ve created at Feversham. We’ll put some links in the show notes for people who want to learn more about the work you’ve been doing, we’ll definitely have links to those videos you mentioned. Maybe some next steps people can take if they want to see more of this kind of music education in their own schools.

Jimmy: Sure. There is the British Kodály Academy who have done all my training and that’s been absolute gold dust. You can go away on a course for three or four days and come back with loads of stuff you can do in the classroom if you’re a teacher. If you’re … quite a lot of musicians on the courses who aren’t necessarily teachers as well and they quite often really benefit from the musician ship, courses that the BKA offer. Yeah there are quite a lot of opportunities out there to learn more about it. People can follow me on Twitter and Facebook, and I’m kind of always banging on about it all on there.

Christopher: Perfect, well we will have links to all of those in the show notes. Thank you very much again Jimmy for joining us today.

Jimmy: You’re very welcome Chris thanks for having me, cheers, thank you.

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