Music in Schools: Brecknock School David Bowie Project (Camden 2023)

Young Artists helps Year 5s channel their inner Bowie Young Artists Nathan Isaac and Jonathan Phillips have been helping Year 5s channel their inner Bowie as part of our Music in Schools partnerships. Funded by The Musicians’ Company Future of Music Fund, The Musicians’ Company, and private donors, the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) themed project at Breknock School, Camden aimed to introduce pupils to music composition and performance in a fun and exploratory way. Nathan tells us more about this ‘otherworldly’ project!

Tell us a bit about the Brecknock School project

The project was working with the Year 5 class at Brecknock Primary School, where we worked towards an end of term performance. The theme for the term was space travel.

Jonathan and I worked with the school’s music teacher, Tom Cambata, over the course of the term. The class was around 25 pupils of varied music abilities – some already played instruments, some had never picked up a musical instrument. The pupils were split into various groups including brass, percussion, keys and voice (which included singers and rappers). Jonathan worked with the percussionists, Tom worked with keys and voice, while I looked after the brass players – a new experience for me!

Why did you choose Bowie’s Space Oddity as your theme?

The theme for the STEAM project at Brecknock was space travel, so that was how Space Oddity was chosen – couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate song for the theme.

We started the whole project with a brief presentation on who David Bowie was – I felt very old when we asked who had heard of him. Unsurprisingly none of the pupils had heard of David Bowie at the start of the project.

Did the project lead, Tom Cambata, become known as Major Tom?

He wasn’t unfortunately, if only we’d thought of that at the time! Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

How did you help the children arrange their own unique rendition?

Before we involved any instruments, we taught all the pupils the song. It’s important to know how a piece goes before learning your own part and this was no exception.

With regards to keys and percussion, Tom wrote out some parts and then we tweaked them to tailor pupils’ abilities. For the brass pupils, Rod (brass teacher at Brecknock) had written out some brass parts, with the pupils’ ability in mind. We adapted the arrangement as the project progressed and by the end had something that involved everyone and was suitable for all abilities within the group.

The rappers were left to their own devices to an extent – they were told how many bars worth of music they had of rapping, then they went off and wrote their own verses. The following

week they presented what they had written. There were some minor tweaks to make sure the words fitted in with the music, but other than that it was very much pupil led. Having been inspired by the theme and the project, one of the pupils composed their own song, which with Tom’s help, a group of them recorded. The piece was played during the final performance.

What were the biggest challenges of this project?

For me personally, given I’m a clarinettist by trade, the biggest challenge was learning to teach brass players. I went in knowing nothing about playing a trumpet or a trombone other than the fact that, on a very basic level, making a sound requires blowing air through a tube (which I suppose is the same for clarinet!). Thankfully, Rod had written in the trumpet parts which valves to press for each note and slide positions for the trombones, which made my life easier. After watching some YouTube videos on beginner brass and asking colleagues for advice, I got to a point by the end of the project where I felt a lot more confident and was getting positive results from the pupils. I certainly know more now than I did at the start of the project!

The pupils were great, they also loved to chat, so the biggest overall challenge was diverting them from chatting to working!

What did the pupils learn by the end of the project?

Working as a team was the main thing that came out of the project and a sense of togetherness amongst the pupils. They were all a part of something bigger and they all bought into that by the end of the project.

Listening skills as well, whether that be when we were giving instructions or musically listening. I was encouraging my brass group to really listen to what was going on around them and to use it as a tool to help them when counting bars of rest.

Any standout moments?

For me, it was when I took a brass sectional just after they’d come back after half term. They were all very honest in saying that they hadn’t really practised over the holiday (I admired the honesty) so I adjusted my expectations. Then when I got them to play, the improvement from before half term was remarkable and it really felt like everything we’d talked about had been taken on board.


Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company