Anna Rusbatch on creating performance opportunities at Downs Junior School in Brighton
As a music educator, one of my greatest joys is facilitating composition and song-writing with children.
Our Year 6 children have written songs about the refugee crisis, and I have co-written stage musicals based on life in a Rwandese refugee camp and the black market slave trade in Zanzibar which a cast of 100 children from Brighton and Kenya, together with an international orchestra, performed at the International Youth Arts Festival.
These experiences provide the children with some understanding as to how music and performance can help to raise money, raise awareness, educate listeners, engender support and empathy and hopefully, inspire change.
But I also wanted to educate the children about the music industry and the wide-ranging journeys they could pursue. To that end, I created the Battle of the Bands competition, providing an opportunity for the children to perform whatever they wanted, in front of industry professionals.
I wanted the panel of judges to represent the versatility of the industry, so we’ve had radio presenters, West End stars, singers, songwriters, instrumentalists, producers, record label owners, voiceover artist, sound engineers, video game sound designers, talent-scouts from children’s television companies, composers, musical directors, vocal coaches and music critics.
Some judges have offered prizes and support for the winning band, such as a recording session at Metway Studios (courtesy of The Levellers), a news feature on the radio (107.2 Juice FM) and goodie bags (from Nickelodeon).
The first thing I did was establish a list of competition entry criteria, deadlines and rules:
In addition to lunchtime rehearsal slots, many bands would arrange additional rehearsal opportunities outside school time, at each other’s houses, with support from their families.
The auditions take place over one week, every day, throughout lunchtime in five-minute slots. This year, 59 bands entered and auditioned. I audition every band; write down constructive feedback and a score out of 10. I then have the arduous and agonising task of choosing the top 12 bands based on their score and strengths and musical potential.
The following week, I reveal the top 12 and provide lunchtime feedback sessions for all of the bands that auditioned. The subsequent few weeks involve lunchtime rehearsal slots for the finalists, during which I provide assistance and final touches.
On the night of the final, I set up the stage and hall, with assistance from our school’s premises manager. Other members of staff volunteer to assist with tickets, filming the event and keeping an eye on the finalists in the ‘green room’ backstage (one of the classrooms).
Before the final begins, I explain to the judges that they need to provide a score out of 10 for each band, plus feedback regarding the children’s musicianship, performance confidence, engagement with the audience, band cohesion, consistent tempo, strong lyrics with emotive/narrative content, strong instrumental performances, vocal harmonies and good song-writing abilities regarding structure and progression
During the final, the atmosphere and excitement is undeniably palpable, with great support from the audience. Each of the twelve bands enters the hall, sets up on stage with assistance from myself (setting the mics and positioning) and performs their song. Once all 12 bands have performed, I bring them all into the hall. The judges each give the children some feedback, and the winning band from the previous year come back to perform for this year’s finalists. The judges’ scores are collated and I then announce the top 3 in reverse order.
It is always wonderful and encouraging to witness children and bands enter year upon year, hoping to be able to improve upon their performance from the previous year. It’s also lovely to witness previous winning bands reform and return to the school to perform at the end of the final. I often receive visits from ex-pupils excitedly informing me of what they’re working on creatively. Many of the junior school bands still rehearse regularly and write their own songs. Long may this continue!
Anna Rusbatch is a music teacher at Downs Junior School, Brighton. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaRusbatch.