The orchestra fine-tuning the performance of school students
- 22 April 2015
- From the section Business
Tenever is a high-rise housing estate with a reputation for poverty and crime, located at the end of a tram line in the northern German city of Bremen.
Eight years ago, one of Europe's best-known orchestras moved their rehearsal rooms to a secondary school on this housing estate and pupils from Tenever found themselves sharing their corridors and lunch tables with professional musicians.
Since then the school's results have improved, its drop-out rates have fallen to less than 1% and the atmosphere in the wider neighbourhood has been "transformed", according to Joachim Barloschky, a local official who oversaw a programme of renovation and regeneration in the area.
Next month, the pupils who started at the school at the same time as the orchestra will sit their final exams. There is optimism because the number of pupils leaving school with the lowest qualifications has plummeted and the number staying on to take the Abitur exam at the end of secondary school has risen sharply.
This might sound like the plot of a feelgood film. But for the pupils of Bremen East comprehensive school (known in German as GSO), the musicians of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen have become part of their daily lives.
The unusual arrangement happened by accident. The orchestra was looking for a new rehearsal space at the same time that the school was being renovated.
The city authorities made the connection, the builders made sure the rooms had excellent acoustics, and the orchestra moved in shortly afterwards.
At first, the arrangement was not popular on either side.
"We had thought we would move to an iconic building in the centre of the city," says Stephan Schrader, a cellist in the orchestra.
"The teachers thought the kids already did not have enough time for learning without having to skip another maths or English lesson to talk to musicians," says Annette Rueggeberg, co-head teacher.
The school and the orchestra devised a series of projects to bring musicians and students together. Musicians would visit classes to talk to pupils and once a year the musicians would help pupils and residents of Tenever to write and perform an opera.
But what makes the partnership unique is the sheer volume of interactions between musicians and pupils. Whenever they are not playing, the musicians are based in the school.
They sit with pupils over lunch and talk to them about their lives. Pupils are allowed to watch the orchestra rehearse, sitting between the musicians rather than in front of them as an audience.
Ms Rueggeberg says: "Normally you only see an orchestra dressed up for a concert, but the kids mostly see them running around in jeans and find them very approachable. It has broken down the barriers."
The improving results and the presence of the orchestra have changed people's opinions.
"For a very poor area where so many students come to us with German as a second language, this is really quite something," says Ms Rueggeberg.
"The whole atmosphere of the school has improved and we no longer have such problems with fighting or aggression or graffiti."
Students from all over Bremen now want to join the school.
"In the past you could not imagine pupils travelling from well-off parts of Bremen to a very poor area but now we have to turn them away because we do not have enough space. We have become the most popular school in the city."
The orchestra has helped to remove the stigma attached to the neighbourhood surrounding the school, says the former district manager Joachim Barloschky.
"People used to say about Tenever, 'Don't go there, they are poor, they are from different countries, many of them are criminals,'" says Mr Barloschky.
"Now we are known as the district that has the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and everyone has more self-confidence."
"After one community opera, a child ran up to me and asked: 'Did you see the people coming all the way from Hamburg to see us in a very big Maserati?' They are no longer ashamed of where they come from but proud of their school and their district."
Is there something special about music that has led to these improvements?
Research has suggested links between music education and improved reading comprehension, language development, IQ scores and creative skills.
"While other activities can be beneficial, music seems to have a wider range of benefits," says Professor Susan Hallam at UCL Institute of Education.
'Why we play music'
The pupils also benefit from encountering people from the unfamiliar background of classical music.
Max Haimendorf, head of secondary at King Solomon Academy in central London, says his school has improved since it became compulsory for every pupil to play in an orchestra.
"By performing at places like the Barbican and working with people from a classical instrument background, the knock-on conversations, opportunities and experiences our pupils get has really broadened their perspectives," he says.
But the orchestra in Bremen plays down the role of music.
There are many music education schemes that teach pupils for a week or invite them to a special concert, says Lea Fink, who runs the education programme for the orchestra.
"But the value of our project lies in the long and persistent groundwork and the feeling of trust that has developed between the children and the musicians."
"We do not try to be music teachers, but we let them see that we are normal people," says Mr Schrader. "I ask students about their families and tell them about mine.
"When they have a problem, I know about it. I am not the one who will find the solution, but I am one more adult person they have contact with."
So should other top orchestras, cultural organisations or even sports teams consider moving into a school?
Mr Schrader thinks so. "The experience has actually improved us as an orchestra," he says.
"When the children sit between us at rehearsals, our concentration is better. We can actually see their eyes grow wide with excitement when we play certain chords or play quickly.
"It reminds us of the reason we make music, which is sometimes easy to forget."