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Oxford student scoops major organ prize

5 September 2012

Ben Bloor, a 20-year-old organ scholar at New College, University of Oxford, has won the senior category of the second Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC), held in Armagh on 20-22 August. Born in Derby, Bloor was a chorister at Derby Cathedral, where he studied with Peter Gould, and organ scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. He wins £1,000, a professionally recorded CD and online promotional package, and broadcast and recital opportunities under the auspices of the competition.

Runner-up and winner of the NIIOC Bach Prize of £200 was London-based Martyn Noble, 21, who has just taken up the post of organ scholar at Southwark Cathedral. Tom Etheridge, 18, of Eton College, organ scholar-elect of King’s College, Cambridge, was third, and Michael Papadopoulos, 21, of Trinity College, Oxford, was highly commended by the judging panel, which was chaired by Professor Kimberly Marshall, professor of organ at Arizona State University, assisted by David Hill, chief conductor of the BBC Singers, and Mark Duley, organist of the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, Galway.

The NIIOC is unique in offering an important performance platform and competition experience specifically to organists under the age of 21. Established last year, it has successfully attracted entries from a substantial number of cathedral and collegiate organ scholars and assistant organists from the UK and Ireland. The competition also features two categories for young players. First prize of £300 in the intermediate category 2012 went to Martina Smyth, a student of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin, with Catherine Olver highly commended, and first prize of £200 in the junior category was jointly awarded to Ellen Mawhinney and Richard Carey, both from Belfast.

GCSE and A level music entries fall again this year

31 August 2012

The number of students taking A level and GCSE music has fallen again this year. Figures released by the WJEC, the Welsh examining board, show that 46,368 students took GCSE music in 2012 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, down from 48,099 in 2011, while A level numbers dropped from 10,064 in 2011 to 9,495 this year. The statistics cover students entered for AQA, OCR, Edexcel and the Northern Irish board, CCEA.

David Ashworth, a music education consultant and manager of, says he believes the fall in numbers was because 'the content of these exams is of little relevance to many of our aspiring musicians', adding that it may also be because 'teachers are losing confidence in the exam boards’ ability to mark exam submissions accurately.' ('What I thought was a rock-solid A was marked a D,' complains one bewildered music teacher in a forum post). Ashworth continues: 'It is because the exam boards, with a few exceptions, consistently shy away from engaging in constructive dialogue with teachers.'

Steven Berryman, who teaches music at North London Collegiate and at the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music, says that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) - a new performance measure which ranks students on their grades at five 'core' GCSEs not including music - may be having an impact on the number of entries for GCSE and consequently A level music. But Rebecca Birkett-Smith, a spokeperson for the OCR exam board, points out that 'according to joint figures compiled by the Joint Council for Qualifications, Religious Studies, also not in the EBacc, continues to grow in popularity, rising by 7.7% following a 17.6% rise last year'. She adds that OCR 'can't speculate as to why entries are down, but it's worth noting that the national cohort of 16-years-olds is down by 0.5% this year'.

Berryman's concerns are not limited to the EBacc. He also thinks that teachers need to be looking at music teaching in earlier years. 'The quality of music lessons in Years 7 to 9 and the ultimate enjoyment by pupils will dictate whether they opt for it at GCSE. I wonder too whether the idea that only 'musicians' take GCSE deters some prospective students, and if many schools have only one music teacher, there could well be limits on the numbers for music. And the specifications do little to attract the more able musicians, who perhaps may forgo GCSE if it is of no challenge to them.'

The issue of teaching and content at Key Stage 3 came up earlier this year, when the 2012 Ofsted music report commented that just 7% of pupils opt for GCSE music – the lowest of all the national curriculum foundation subjects. There is also anecdotal evidence that schools are reducing music staff because of fewer students taking GCSE, an area currently being researched by NAME, the National Association of Musical Educators.

Ashworth believes that the new GCSE and A level music figures come as no surprise. 'This surely reflects a growing trend: teachers and students becoming more disillusioned by these exams and looking elsewhere for sources of accreditation.  Most exam boards have tinkered with their exam syllabuses in recent years to try to make them more accessible and relevant. But they will need to go way beyond this and look at a fundamental overhaul if they are to reverse this trend.'

Musicians' Union launches Hub Resource Pack

30 August 2012

The Musicians’ Union has issued a Hub Resource Pack, which will shortly be available to download free of charge, to help organisations cope with issues such as child protection and employment law within the newly launched 122 music education hubs. The pack is intended for directors of lead hub organisations, but is also being sent to arts organisations, instrumental teachers and politicians.

Diane Widdison, the MU’s teaching organiser, says, 'Of the MU’s 30,000 plus members, approximately two-thirds work in music education as part of their portfolio careers, with many of those working for music services.

'We are aiming to work closely with the hubs to ensure that music instrumental teachers and music education in general does not suffer during this transition period.

'This is particularly important given that many local authorities are reducing their contributions to the new Hubs, and this, combined with a significant reduction in central government funding, is inevitably leading to cuts in specialist music education alongside a diminution of the employment rights of instrumental teachers.'

The MU also says it will be fighting against any erosion of terms and conditions for music teachers.

Classic FM Music Teacher of the Year nomination deadlines approaches

29 August 2012

Nominations are now open for this year’s Classic FM’s Music Teacher of the Year Awards. As well as recognizing primary and secondary school music teachers, the awards also pay tribute to peripatetic and private music teachers and those who work with children with special needs. There is also a special award for Lifetime Achievement for people who have made music teaching their life’s work.

The competition is run by Classic FM, with support from Yamaha, Avid and the Musicians’ Union. The six winning teachers will each receive thousands of pounds worth of musical instruments and equipment from Yamaha and Avid software for themselves and their schools or music services.

Entries close on Friday 12 October and all the awards will be presented at the Music for Youth Schools Proms over three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 12-14 November.
Teachers must be nominated by colleagues, pupils or employers. To make a nomination, visit

Tuning pianos improves memory and navigation skills

29 August 2012

Researchers have long known than learning a musical instrument can cause long-term beneficial changes to the brain, but now experts at the Universities of London and Newcastle have found that tuning pianos can also cause changes to the brain structure - in particular to the structure of the memory and navigation areas of the brain.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the scientists showed that the structural changes correlate to each piano tuner's number of years in the job.

Piano tuners need to listen to the sound of two notes played simultaneously and navigate between sequences of chords in which one note is already tuned and the other still needs to be adjusted. Interaction between the sounds produced by the two notes produces a wobbling sound - a beat - and tuners need to detect this frequency of fluctuations - or beat rate - and adjust it so that the two notes are in tune.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to examine how the brain structures of 19 professional piano tuners differed from those of the nineteen ordinary people. The tuners, from across the UK, all tune pianos by ear, without the use of any electronic instruments.

Sundeep Teki, from University College London, said: 'We already know that musical training can correlate with structural changes, but our group of professionals offered a rare opportunity to examine the ability of brain to adapt over time to a very specialised form of listening.'

The researchers found highly specific changes in both the grey matter - the nerve cells where information processing takes place - and the white matter - the nerve connections - within the hippocampus. The changes significantly correlated with the number of years that tuners had been performing the task and were not related to age or to musical expertise.

'Perhaps surprisingly, the changes relating to tuning experience were not in the auditory part of the brain. In fact, they actually occurred in the hippocampus, a part of the brain traditionally associated with memory and navigation,' said Dr Sukhbinder Kumar from Newcastle University.

Professor Tim Griffiths, also at Newcastle University, led the study, and said: 'There has been little work on the role of the hippocampus in auditory analysis. Our study is consistent with a form of navigation in pitch space as opposed to the more accepted role in spatial navigation.'

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