Polly Ives reflects on a month of Izzy Gizmo workshops with schools

In the last month, I have had the absolute joy of visiting around 1,600 children aged 2-7 at 23 schools and nurseries in Sheffield. They will all be coming to the Crucible Theatre next week for the WORLD premiere performances of Izzy Gizmo, composed by Paul Rissmann, based on the book by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie, with digital animation by Vic Craven, that will be narrated by me alongside the Ensemble 360 musicians and presented by Music in the Round.

It’s been an absolute delight to meet all of the children and their teachers in preparation for the concerts. This year, it has been especially important to make the children feel confident and excited about their trip. Because of Covid, many of the children haven’t even been inside the school hall before, let alone on a school trip to the theatre. Most haven’t had any external visitors in schools and many haven’t engaged in much musical activities over the last 18 months because of rules with singing and sharing space and equipment. And, of course, children have missed out on a lot of learning, particularly around the core subjects and social and emotional development which is so key at this stage. 

In our workshops, we sang songs about pulling different faces and exploring our emotions. We made sounds like machines using vocal and body percussion. We explored the science of the cello and the ukulele and heard different styles of music performed up close. We created our own musical inventions using my toy tool box and percussion. And, tailored to whatever stage each school was at with their pre-concert learning, we learnt, practised and improved the songs that are part of the concert (including focussing on their breathing, letter sounds at the ends of words, and how we use our eyes when we sing).

Some children had invented some funky new actions and vocal exercises for ‘confetti’, ‘popping pistons’ and ‘dropping knobs’. We practised our ‘p’ and ‘d’ sounds at the ends of words. We used a wha-wha bar to practise stopping the sound and we had different leaders (conductors) demonstrating note lengths.  

After telling them all of the instruments that will be in the concert, a Year 1 boy excitedly said ‘Oo Oo Ooo – [the word] Bassoon is like ‘Zoom to the Moon’ [the phonic sound they’re currently learning about]. Just joined-up learning for you!

Two schools sent in films of the Makaton signs for the songs which we will incorporate into the concert, especially engaging children who are visually impaired or special educational needs.  

We discussed and asked questions; how would they fix a broken wing, what do they want to be when they’re older, what do they need to persevere with, what does the world looks like from the sky, what is an engineer? Where did I buy my sparkly shoes?! They pointed out details in the images that I’d not seen before.

These workshops are the most exciting and informative way of road-testing the new piece of music. Composer Paul is an absolute genius at writing for children; he doesn’t dumb down the music and he challenges everyone involved to be highly engaged and communicate through the sounds. We have been working on this project for nearly 4 years and it is only in these final stages that we really get to see how the children respond to the images, words and music… which bits excite them the most… and which bits I’ll be kept on my toes with in the performance!! This year, more than ever, I cannot wait for us to all come together and perform it.

I also was particularly moved that, walking down the corridor at one school, a Year 6 girl said ‘Oh hi Polly, I remember you from The Chimpanzees of Happytown when I was in Year 1’!   Also, one of the girls taking part in this project (2021) is the daughter of a girl who took part in my very first project with Music in the Round (2004). How wonderful!

Two Weeks with Music in the Round


In the background during a concert as part of the South Yorkshire Early Years Music conference.

Emily has been doing work experience with us for a fortnight and here she shares some of her experiences.

I wanted to do work experience with Music in the Round as I’m interested in what goes on behind the scenes to produce a concert/event and what happens to make it run smoothly: as a musician myself I do not often see the management side of things.  Music in the Round organise events and concerts of a range of genres and have a big emphasis on music education, which attracted me to this particular organization.  I also like that they make an effort to involve local artists and musicians, helping to make the Sheffield arts community more connected.

In my two weeks here I have done a range of different tasks: from helping with marketing and social media to preparing for the South Yorkshire Early Years Music (SYEYM) conference to the odd spreadsheet and helping to run the conference itself  at Sheffield City Hall (on the 3rd July).

I have learned how much time and effort goes into organizing even a small event: there are so many tiny details that need to be thought of and taken care of (e.g. when exactly a piano is going to be moved).  These details are often completely taken for granted by performers until something doesn’t go to plan (I would know!), so I will appreciate this more from now on.  Communication is very important so that everyone knows exactly what they are responsible for and has an idea of everyone else’s workload.

My plans for the future are to continue getting as much experience in different areas of the music industry as I can.  I’ve just finished my second year studying Piano at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and have two more years to go.  My current career aspirations are to perform (I have a particular interest in Musical Theatre) and also to work in concert administration.  Having an insight into what it’s like to be both a performer and in management will help me to be better to work with in both areas.

Thank you to everyone at Music in the Round for making me feel so welcome.  I would encourage anyone considering doing a placement of this type to get in touch with them.

– Emily Owen

Almost there!

Artistic director Angus Smith reflects on the build up to our annual May Festival.

As you will imagine, this is one of the most exciting times of the year for
Music in the Round. We are in the final countdown stages to the beginning
of the May Festival, and the starting line is even nearer this time round
than usual with our pre-festival choral workshop on Bank Holiday Monday
with the incomparable John Rutter.

I would like to share with you a snapshot of life in the Music in the Round
office at the moment. As many will know, I divide my time between Sheffield
and London, and each time I arrive at my desk in our office at the top of
the Central Library I am struck by the incredible intensity of what is
going on around me. Of course, the final parts of the festival jigsaw are
being put in place to ensure that all the events – concerts, participatory
events, activities for young and old(er) – run smoothly. Conversation may
touch on the minute details of notes and biographies for the festival
programme that is about to go to press, or how we can squeeze out some more
publicity coverage so that we can ensure that absolutely everyone we think
would like to know about the festival does indeed get to hear about it, or
it can even turn to a discussion on the shade of the this year’s festival
t-shirts! The chances are that you won’t be aware of the full degree of
activity that goes into the festival preparation, and that you won’t notice
it while the festival is going on, but that is precisely because my
colleagues do such a superb job in getting everything ready.

But that isn’t the end of it, because amidst all this final-stage
preparation, planning for concerts and activities later in the year – and,
indeed, well beyond – are already in full swing. Music in the Round is a
year-round operation, marking it out from many organisations that present a
yearly festival and then retire to a quiet place to recover! We pride
ourselves on being forward looking, imaginative and innovative, but it
takes a lot of work and there is rarely, if ever, any ‘down-time’. More
reasons, in fact, for me to say how much I admire and value the
extraordinary dedication and expertise of all my Music in the Round

Soundplay: observing developments

Observing the Soundplay sessions for the University of Sheffield and Music in the Round has been a real privilege. Not only do I get to coordinate and administrate this wonderful project, but also I get to see the changes in the children week by week as they take part in these music sessions.

It is clear from my observations that the children’s experience of music in these sessions is benefiting them in many ways. Quiet children are now happy to speak and even sing on their own. A child that knew no English at the beginning of the project now joins in fully, interacting with other children, singing loudly and engaging with each activity. Children recognise songs from their actions alone and can dictate a song’s speed, dynamic or feel. Phonics are more widely known and DSC01838speech is developed through songs, warm-ups and freeplay activities.Lately, more bands have started to be formed during freeplay with the children organising themselves into groups and taking the time to listen to each other play, rather than just grabbing a drum and hitting it as happened at the start of the project.

City Circle Time 5It is not just the children who have benefited. Practitioners within settings who have embraced the project fully have reported feeling much more confident in delivering music and can be seen adapting songs to fit different purposes (tidy-up time, handwashing etc.), singing confidently and enjoying making music with their children. They also see how music can be used to help transform something ‘dull’ like phonics into a fun game or song.

Whilst it would be naïve to claim that all participating children’s development is solely down to our project, differences in the children’s behaviour with each other and with adults during the sessions illuminates just how much this project has succeeded with its primary aim of using music to develop speech and language. Children are chattier with adults and each other; they have taken on the workshop leaders’ actions and phrases, which they then use to direct their friends in bands or games; many now also adapt songs they have learnt in the sessions and make them their own and recordings made of them are clear evidence of their increased confidence with speech and singing. So many more children want to record a song into a dictaphone now than at the start of the project, and the reaction of hearing themselves sing back is priceless.

Being able to witness and record these developments has been wonderful and, I hope, will serve to advocate the value of using music to support learning in Early Years settings.

Kate Thompson
Soundplay Project Coordinator and Research Assistant

Learning on the job…

For the past nine months, I have been working as the Trainee Workshop Leader with Music in the Round as part of the Soundplay Project. There was no initial training for the position, just straight into the workshops to learn on the go. This practical way of learning is invaluable for workshop leaders as what is discussed in meetings does not always work out as expected. Seeing how different children react and learn the songs is fascinating and you have to think on your feet all the time.

Phillimore freeplay 2Between the ages of 3-5 children can be easily distracted – by the instruments in front of them, by hearing something that reminds of something they just have to tell everyone… So it is vital to keep yourself and the children actively involved in the sessions. Throughout the project I have been shadowing Polly Ives and Vanessa Johnson and one vital skill I have learned from them is how to keep children focused. Whether it be stopping them fiddle with the instruments, by getting them to copy where you put your hands/woodblocks (“hands on your head, hands on your knees”), singing a different song that they know well then going back to the previous song or hiding the instruments under scarves/ribbons, it is essential not to make it seem like discipline. If a child feels they are in trouble then they will lose interest.

Although we have lots of children who get really involved inPhillimore freeplay 7 the sessions, there are always a few that prefer to observe. It is often easy to overlook these youngsters and focus all your attention on the confident individuals. Over the course of the project, we have worked on finding ways to involve all children as far as possible. In doing this we have explored different languages, more instrument use, role-play (this term we are looking at “People Who Help Us”), solo singing and ensuring they are involved when we ask questions (fast or slow, loud or quiet etc). These children seem to thrive more in a one-to-one environment and often come alive during freeplay, when they can feel free to explore the instruments and toys independently.

Usually, the sessions are run by Polly or Vanessa and I lead a few of the songs with the number of songs increasing through the term. However, a few weeks ago I was thrown in the deep end and had to lead two workshops by myself as Vanessa was ill. If this had happened at the beginning of the project then I would have backed out but thanks to their fantastic leadership skills and advice, I felt confident enough to lead both sessions. Luckily, I had Kate by my side to enhance the music-making. Without having to make this leap, I wouldn’t have realised my ability and been able to see the result of all I’ve learnt whilst training on the job. It was a fantastic experience and really helped me gain confidence in what I do.

Thanks to the invaluable guidance and support of Music in the Round, ESCAL, Fraser, Kate, Polly and Vanessa, I feel that I have gained enough knowledge to successfully carry out my own music workshops. There will always be space for improvement, as with any profession, but thanks to Polly and Vanessa’s expert help, I have learned many new skills that I hope to put into practice with other groups of young children.

Martha Hayward
Trainee Workshop Leader

Marmen Quartet Q&A

Marmen Quartet: Bridge Scheme Winners


At the end of January we had the pleasure of welcoming Marmen Quartet to Sheffield. It’s safe to say they had a busy schedule lined up for them with photoshoots, concerts, sessions with Peter Cropper and the MITR team. We thought it was about time we introduced them to you, as you’ll be hearing about them from us quite a bit over the next few years! Anton, cellist, answers some questions on behalf of the quartet and gives us an insight into what being a part of Marmen quartet is like.

When (what age) did each of you start to play your chosen instrument?

We all started learning at the age of six, although Josh changed from violin to viola at the age of thirteen.

When did you four first play as a Quartet?

Our current combination of players has been playing together since early 2013, but we started with a different second violinist late 2012.

 How quickly did you feel that the four of you could work well together?

There was an immediate instinctive feeling that felt right; it is difficult to determine why. I think we all felt it and it was really thrilling. As a collective we are always developing, adapting, discovering new things. It’s a never-ending process and that is what makes it so exciting.

What was the first piece you played together to a public audience, and how did it go?!

Beethoven Opus 74 – ‘The Harp’. It was a fantastic experience but there were undoubtedly some rough moments! I think we were all overwhelmed by the experience of performing together as a string quartet and exploring such amazing music together. The feeling of finally sharing our interpretation of such a great work is very humbling and brings a greater meaning to the rehearsal process. I find often that we learn as much – if not more – during concerts than we do during a whole day of rehearsing.

How much time are you currently able to spend together, practicing and performing as a Quartet?

We are still trying to find a good balance between rehearsing and individual practise and I am starting to believe that there is no ideal. Keeping things regular is important. We aim to rehearse for about twelve hours a week as a minimum but naturally it depends on what is coming up; sometimes we are offered a concert with new repertoire at one week’s notice and we have to schedule in more rehearsals. It is a very unpredictable profession! It is important that we all continue to develop as instrumentalists though, and for this we each need to make the time to practise alone.


Who are the composers/what are the pieces that you are most enjoying playing and exploring at the moment, and why?

We always choose to play pieces that we love so we enjoy everything that we explore together. If we had to be more specific I would say Beethoven, for his everlasting energy and will. Bartok – fantastically uncontrived and gutsy. Janacek is also fantastic and, of course, Haydn – one of the great pioneers of the string quartet. The great variety of the works for string quartet is a constant inspiration for us and to explore them together is wonderful and exciting.

You’re going to be helping members of Ensemble 360 open the May 2015 festival, back in the Studio ‘in the round’ where you had your final audition; how does that feel?

We feel very privileged to have been asked, at such an early point in the scheme, to play alongside such established musicians and we are thoroughly looking forward to it! Playing in the Studio was a very unique and special experience and we spoke together about how much we would love to play there again so we’re very much looking forward to doing so.”

Who are the Quartets and other players who’ve been a particular inspiration to you all/individually, and why?

Between us we could spend far too long answering this question as naturally we all have different people who inspire us! Mutually, however, we all find the Alban Berg quartet very inspiring for their humility and their absolute commitment to the music. Quartets such as the Hagen quartet and Artemis quartet are fantastic too. Johannes finds great inspiration in George Szell’s (conductor) intimate and uncomplicated way of interpreting music. Ricky mentioned David Oistrakh, for his warm and sensitive tone. Josh takes a lot of inspiration from the Pavel Haas quartet, Lawrence Power and his ‘wonderful viola professor, Simon Rowland-Jones’ and I often turn towards the more ‘old-school’ cellists, such as Feuermann – for his very unique and sophisticated sound and Fournier, for his impeccable bow control.

What do you see as the biggest challenges starting out on a professional career?

One aspect that we find particularly challenging at the moment is balancing the administrative side of things with making music; writing emails is definitely not as exciting as rehearsing a Beethoven quartet! As we have devoted our lives thus far to learning music our business minds are not as cultivated as they need to be, so learning how to run our quartet as a business to make enough money to survive is also something that we know we need to learn. How to balance our quartet life with our personal lives is also something which is becoming increasingly important.

What does joining the BRIDGE scheme mean for the Quartet?

We feel very humbled to have been chosen. It is difficult to put words to describe what it means to us – I think everyone (in any field) needs a lucky break, and this is exactly that. We now have a real reason – aside from a love of music – to invest all our energy into pursuing a career that, up until recently, seemed more like a dream.

What would you hope to have learnt and achieved as a result of the 3 years on the BRIDGE scheme, working with Peter Cropper, Music in the Round, Aldeburgh and others?

We believe that after this three year scheme we will be in a much better place musically and will have developed all the necessary tools to become more self sufficient and confidently able to run our quartet as a full time occupation. With Peter Cropper as our mentor, the fantastic support network offered by Music in the Round and the performance experience that we will have, we hope to develop a much deeper understanding of the repertoire and a much clearer idea of how to make a career out of making music together.

Are we ready? Yes we are!

Excited children ready to learn. Eyes wide, smiles on faces, obviously felt anticipation is filling the room. These children are eager for music-making today.

BB freeplay 6From the start I can see how much more involved the teachers and pupils are this term. Confidence is running high, songs have been sung in-between sessions. I am enjoying watching the eye contact between children and teachers during songs; a shared smile and enjoyment in making music together abundant today. I’m noticing the confidence and ease in singing and beating: heads are held up and voices are ringing out, ears are listening, ready to learn. Teachers are brimming with enthusiasm and children are responding to the attention and happiness they receive from workshop leaders and teachers alike.

Sessions have developed over the Soundplay project, to end with this term’s theme of ‘People Who Help Us’. We’re building on previous sessions, including more difficult phonic work, use of different languages, singing in two parts, using traffic signs, dressing up role play, visual props, phonics bags and being more creative during musical freeplay with letter-writing and craft activities to complement stories and music-making.

But what did I see and hear today that made the day so special?

Guitar bandA boy quietly sets out a music stand and with beater in hand starts conducting the freeplay session; his eyes closing, arms waving and face smiling. Three boys formed a guitar band: one boy using a makeshift bow and holding his guitar like a cello, they nod at each other when to start and stop, strum and stamp their feet to the pulse and howl in their own special way. Two children playing panpipes, keeping eye contact and watching each other for when to start and stop (and falling about laughing at the results) whilst in the background two girls play piano, one playing notes from high to low, one from low to high.

Pan PipesChildren are clearly finding their voices today. Confident, happy singing from a boy whose voice suddenly burst out over the others in an explosion of uncontrolled musical delight. Sounding out phonics with precision and volume, words and syllables sung in time with the pulse. Trying out new languages together, singing confidently and understanding the meaning of the words sung. Solo singing from children who have never before sung solo during sessions. Children writing letters and sounding out their phonics musically whilst they write. Hearing snippets of songs sung by children during freeplay that they had heard for the very first time only minutes before. Children singing a round in two parts, excitement on their faces and sounding in their voices, noticing the shared thrill when harmonies ring out and rhythms cross, and watching their shared satisfaction of a job well done. Wonderful tapping and beating skills today, children instinctively knowing when to beat pulse, crotchets, quavers, stop and start. Hearing voices drifting away still singing songs from our sessions as children leave the classroom ready for home time.

Looking forward next week to learning how children have enjoyed sharing their songs with their families at home, hearing stories of singing together at school and experiencing the sessions’ visiting musician, the exciting and wonderful John Ball, tabla & santoor player and musician in residence at the University of Sheffield. I simply can’t wait!

Vanessa Johnson, Soundplay workshop leader

A 4ft homemade postbox, a Scalextric Le Mans 24, an inflatable giraffe, 300 kazoos, a cello and a cup of tea…

As I sit surrounded by a 4ft homemade postbox, a Scalextric Le Mans 24, an inflatable giraffe, 300 kazoos, a cello and a cup of tea, I am getting excited about restarting the Soundplay project with children aged 3 – 5 from nurseries around Sheffield.

The project, led by Music in the Round in partnership with ESCAL (Every Sheffield Child Articulate and Literate) and Sheffield Music Hub and funded by Youth Music, aims to develop the personal, social and emotional development of young children at higher risk of delay through participation in creative musical activity.

I, joined by the creative team (Vanessa Johnson, Martha Hayward, Kate Thompson and Fraser Wilson), have just filmed the fourth video of songs included in this year-long project. The videos that we post to YouTube are a key tool in spreading lots of creative ideas and methods for engagement to early years staff engaged in the project, wider network early years and Key Stage 1 practitioners, and parents and carers to encourage a generally more musical community. Songs are chosen to improve children’s communication, language and literacy development including question and answer songs, solo, pair and group singing, exploring phonic sounds and using our voices differently, and musical story-telling songs. Our choices include Calele, Who’s got the Drum?, We Can Be Marching Mice as well as It’s a Good Day for Building and I’m a Train by our dear friend, Early Years expert Sue Nicholls (who led a wonderful training day for us all at the start of the project).

Children participating in the project might speak English as an additional language or have special educational needs, and they are from some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the city. We have developed wonderful techniques for communicating with the children, primarily through musical instructions but also through hand and face signals, traffic-light signs, and phonics and character picture cards.

The project also aims to develop nursery teachers’ confidence and skills in incorporating more music in their everyday learning. At the start of the project the Early Years practitioners said they all think music is important for children but many would run out of songs and methods for developing activities further – they would often stick to the trusty 5 or 6 nursery rhymes! For non-specialist teachers, having videos has helped them absorb the tunes and remember how to lead them with their children and keep referring back to them.

Parents and carers receive a songsheet after each workshop with the video links to encourage more of them to explore the songs at home. We know that if adults can share their children’s enthusiasm for learning, the all-round benefits are great. So we look forward to the video being ready and the sessions in settings starting up again this week, and to a busy and exciting last term of Soundplay!

Polly Ives
Workshop Leader

You can now watch the video at: http://youtu.be/KpUzwVKqD8U

Artistic Director and Orlando Consort member Angus Smith, reflects on the Mantra concert in Sheffield

An Open Letter

Six years ago I started out on the process of devising a project for my group, the Orlando Consort, that was very different from anything that we had attempted before. This was not to be a standard presentation of a concert of medieval and renaissance music, even though it was from that glorious repertoire that the idea stemmed. It was more than that. This was to be the telling of a story of a remarkable musical encounter that took place some 500 years ago and relating it to the modern world.

Last week the project, ‘Mantra’, was presented at Sheffield Cathedral. In the concert we told (and sang) of how Portuguese missionaries went to India – specifically to Goa – and invited local musicians to make music with them in the newly-built churches. Accounts survive of the joyous sounds that were created by ‘the instruments of the land’ and the voices of all present. From that starting point we transported the music to the present, incorporating elements of Bhangra and Bollywood. For our Sheffield version we were joined by our regular partners, Kuljit Bhamra (tabla), Jonathan Mayer (sitar) and singer Shahid Khan, and by students from Fir Vale School, Tapton School, and an invited choir of local adult singers. It is no exaggeration to say even after having done more than 25 performances of this project all around the world, this was the most inspiring performance that I and my colleagues in the Consort have yet experienced.

Yes, it was an excellent and spirited rendition of the music by all involved, and it was wonderful to introduce people of all ages to our western and eastern musical traditions. But there were so many other moments within the Consort’s visit to Sheffield that, when combined, served to capture so perfectly all the elements of what we had aspired to achieve when we set out six years ago. They are too numerous to mention all of them here but I would like to share a few of them. The pupils of Fir Vale School being so tolerant of my attempt to speak Punjabi texts, the girl from Tapton School who stood up in the concert to dance on stage with Shahid, and the energy and exuberance of our adult volunteer choir – the usual image of formal and restrained British choirs seemed a million miles away at that moment!

But if there was a single episode that encapsulated ‘the whole’, it would be Shahid speaking to the pupils shortly before the concert, having been encouraged by Kuljit to tell them what the project means to him. Shahid is a Muslim who was brought up in Brentford, West London, and he has had a very formal and traditional classical training in Indian music. He spoke movingly of how he has come to value the opportunity to work with and learn from musicians from other traditions, and of how he has been able to observe at first-hand how musical respect carries over into all areas of life. Suffice to say that for these words and, of course, for his singing and dancing, Shahid is now something of a hero for these Fir Vale and Tapton students.

It has been wonderful to have had the support of our adult participants, Sheffield Cathedral, the schools (especially the staff) and, crucially, the parents in presenting this work. And I will also admit to feeling proud that I am part of two organisations, the Orlando Consort and Music in the Round, that share my views of the universality of music and which allow me present work that I feel is not only enjoyable for audiences but which is also hugely important for the message contained within. This is, therefore, my thank you letter to every single person who has made this possible.

Angus Smith