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Music education in rural areas

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine you are responsible for music education in a school on the Isles of Scilly. On the island, you may have an excellent woodwind teacher. But when it comes to brass and strings, tutors are limited, if not non-existent.

Ensuring a well-rounded music education offer for local children would mean bringing in teachers from the mainland. It sounds easy enough...until you look at the time and costs involved. Teachers can either travel by ferry from Falmouth, which takes eight hours and costs £65 for a return trip, or drive to the airport and fly which would take almost four hours and cost £138. This might sound extreme but it is the challenge faced by Cornwall Music Education Hub. And it is a problem shared by countless other Hubs across the UK which serve rural areas.

That picture of course is altogether different from a school located in a bustling town or city where schools have a wide choice of tutors at their disposal. Urban pupils also have access to venues, concerts and performances enriching their music education further.

I work for NYMAZ – a youth music development charity – and today we are launching a report which spells out how digital technology can revolutionise the way schools provide music tuition and help children in rural areas to make more music.

Being based in North Yorkshire means we are intensely aware of the cost, transport and logistical barriers facing rural Music Education Hubs. With this in mind, we have joined forces with researchers at University of Hull and technologists at UCan Play to devise an action research project looking at how technology could enable better and broader access to music education.

We successfully piloted our ideas in North Yorkshire in 2014/15, under the banner of Connect: Resound. We were then fortunate to receive funding through Arts Council England to enable us to roll out our tried and tested approach to Cornwall, Cumbria, County Durham and the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2015/16.

So, what is Connect: Resound? The focus is on live, online learning. Rather than a face to face experience, the action takes place on screen and in real time, with different camera angles enabling the teacher to demonstrate technique and to fine-tune movements.

Returning to the Isles of Scilly, we worked with the Cornwall Music Hub,Cymaz Music, and the Five Islands School, providing them with the necessary kit to trial virtual music tuition, including a Roland VR-3EX audio-video mixer/streamer, video cameras and microphones.

Their project involved twelve Year 9 students exploring music making, learning how to play a range of instruments and working together as a band - with the twist that the music leader - Giles Woolley, an experienced musician, producer, composer and educator - was based on the mainland.. It was so successful that the school plans to progress online learning further.

Connect: Resound is also opening up new opportunities for music enrichment. Living rurally means that it is far more difficult for schools to experience and enjoy a live music performance by a professional ensemble. So we have been live streaming the likes of The Hallé Orchestra and the Royal Northern Sinfonia direct into classrooms, via the whiteboard. The free events are open to any school and have the potential to hugely enrich a young person's learning.

Yet, whilst this is all very positive, there is still one big sticking point: reliable, superfast broadband access. For this reason NYMAZ is adding its voice to the growing campaign for better broadband in the countryside.

Heidi Johnson, Director of NYMAZ