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A day in the life of a peripatetic music teacher in North Yorkshire means one thing – a lot of time on the road. It's the largest county in England, covering over 3000 square miles, and it is also one of the most sparsely populated. It is difficult to reach children in the most rurally isolated parts because of high transport costs, long journey times and complicated logistics. So, how can the local music hub offer a high quality, diverse music education to all children when our geography and budgets are doing all they can to prevent it?

North Yorkshire is not alone in this situation. 17.6% of the population in England lives in areas defined as rural. As a youth music development charity, NYMAZ feels very strongly that just because young people live in the countryside, this shouldn't mean they have to miss out on the enormous opportunities offered by music. Back in 2011, Darren Henley's Review of Music Education in England made the recommendation that future research should '…examine how technology could enable better teaching of music (particularly in rural communities)'. With this in mind, we decided it was time to see if digital technologies really could make a difference.

Enjoying a group lesson at Dacre Braithwaite CE (VA) Primary School

NYMAZ brought together music education practitioners from the North Yorkshire Music Hub, researchers from the University of Hull and technologists from UCan Play to investigate how digital technologies could deliver music education and enrichment activities in rural areas. A successful funding application was made to the Digital R & D Fund for the Arts and seven Primary schools were recruited to take part in the pilot.

Could digital technology be the answer? In short, yes. The Connect: Resound project identified a good practice model for online instrumental learning which could help music hubs reach a large number of pupils in a cost-effective way.

The technical setup we trialled comprised a Roland VR-3EX video and audio mixer and streamer, three cameras and external microphones. The music teachers were based at their offices with one set of equipment and the schools then each had their own setup. The equipment was used in addition to Skype and was sourced with best value as well as quality of sound and image in mind.

This was the first time multiple cameras had been piloted – we were interested in exploring the experience that various viewing angles could offer in terms of switching between close-ups of hands or embouchure or full-size images showing posture and breathing.

71 pupils participated in twice-weekly online instrumental lessons over a period of seven weeks, with 196 hours of tuition delivered in total.

  • We discovered that pupil engagement in and enjoyment of online instrumental tuition were high whilst teachers were willing and able to adapt their approach to suit the digital medium.
  • The music hub and the participating schools reported that the online approach was a welcome addition to music learning.
  • The flexibility of having multiple camera angles increased the depth of experience and was particularly beneficial for group lessons.
  • As the project progressed, both pupils and teachers became more confident in positioning the cameras and switching between views.
  • In terms of access the results were stark: 79.5% of parents/carers would not have sought out instrumental lessons for their children if this opportunity had not been available.

An introduction to the NYMAZ Connect: Resound project

Of course, it wasn't simply a case of plug in and play: we learned plenty of things along the way.

Although beginner technique demonstrated well online, assembling and tuning instruments was not so easy. However, the music teachers quickly developed protocols to overcome these challenges, including online apps and getting children used to tuning their own instruments early on.

Similarly, time lag is an ongoing issue for music teaching and collaboration over the internet. In our group lessons, pupils were asked to count the beat themselves to overcome this 'latency'.

We also discovered that the room in which the lessons are conducted is an essential consideration – a dedicated teaching space is vital and ideally one that doesn't suffer too much from noise spillage, for example, at break time. The size of the space is also important as small rooms create problems in terms of camera positioning (they need to be far enough away to fully see the pupil) whilst larger rooms may need foam tiles to minimise reverberations which lessen the quality of the audio.

As this is a digital solution, it almost goes without saying that a good internet connection is a must. Most of the schools in our trial had access to superfast broadband but, even then, the reliability was tested when other demands were made on the connection at the same time as a lesson.

Removing [teachers'] travelling time in North Yorkshire through offering online tuition would free up the equivalent of 4.2 full-time members of staff to deliver instrumental lessons

What next?

Connect: Resound is a first step on a longer journey exploring the role that technology can play in improving access to high-quality music education for children in rurally isolated areas. We believe that if music hubs across the country were set up with specialist facilities, they would have the potential to reach a greater number of pupils and widen access to music education for all as envisaged in the National Plan for Music Education. NYMAZ is now focussed on spreading the word and promoting trials in other areas.

But what of our road-weary music teachers? Removing their travelling time in North Yorkshire through offering online tuition would free up the equivalent of 4.2 full-time members of staff to deliver instrumental lessons.

This quote from one of the instrumental tutors sums it up perfectly: 'It's so much easier – Yorkshire being massive – so actually having lessons rather than running from school to school, that was great. In the office, I couldn't get stuck in traffic.'

Kirby in Malhamdale, North Yorkshire

Header photo: Multiple camera angles enhance the learning experience. Photos © NYMAZ

Further information

Downloads of the PDF documents below from the NYMAZ website.

  • Connect: Resound summary report: key findings from the Connect: Resound research and development project
  • Connect: Resound research report: in-depth report about the Connect: Resound research and development project
  • Music hubs guide: tips for implementing instrumental tuition
  • Schools guide: guidance for preparing for and delivering online instrumental lessons
  • Technical support guide: Details of how to set up and use the technology trialled by Connect: Resound. A technical support video guide is also available on the NYMAZ website