Music lessons via Teams hits the right note for hundreds of students – and an 80-piece orchestra

A music service is continuing to be the high note of the week for hundreds of youngsters, who are now learning to play their instruments via Microsoft Teams.

Teachers at Sutton Music Service, part of Cognus Ltd in South London, have been using Microsoft’s collaboration tool to provide live video lessons to pupils since social distancing measures were introduced in March.

The organisation is providing one-to-one lessons for around 250 students a week, who range from eight years old to 18, and it is also helping a youth choir and a range of orchestras to practice together despite each musician being in their own home.

Gareth Gay, Head of the Sutton Music Service, said: “Every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument and we do everything we can to give everyone a chance to do that. For most of our pupils, their interaction with us is probably one of their most important social activities they do, and Teams has allowed us to continue to provide that. In a normal week we would engage with more than 700 students,  but under lockdown MS Teams has enabled us to stay in contact with a large proportion of them giving the pupils reassurance that those children knew that the music service was there for them during lockdown.”

Sutton Music Service runs music lessons for children from a range of backgrounds, offering discounted rates for those who receive free school meals or have been fostered. One-to-one and group sessions prepare them for live concerts, one of which is held once year at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls. As well as traditional string, brass and woodwind instruments, its teachers can also offer lessons for more niche instruments such as the double-bass and trombone.

Senior staff use Teams to run the organisation, arrange meetings and share ideas, but it’s the opportunities it creates for children that they are most excited by.

“It’s about keeping that community together and ensuring they can still interact,” Gay added. “Then, when the lockdown finishes and we’re allowed to meet in person again, the students will come back having maintained their friendships and lessons.

Teams has enabled the youngsters to learn together during group calls and use the chat window to talk to each other during breaks.

In order to ensure that all the pupils don’t try to play at once during group music lessons, the children are given pieces of music to practice before the Teams call starts. The “raise hand” feature during the call lets teachers know if a student has a question.

Gay and his colleagues receive invites to all lessons via Teams, so they can listen in to monitor teaching levels. This was critical for Gay, who wanted a digital platform that was safe and secure for its users. All sessions are also recorded, which enables Sutton Music Service to review any lessons, and offers pupils the opportunity to re-watch lessons whenever they want.

“Teams has felt very secure from a safeguarding point of view,” he said. “It’s given us peace of mind that we can use a parent’s account to ensure we’re inviting the right people to the meeting.”

Alison Naylor, Sutton Music Service’s Business Manager, added: “We’ve had some really lovely feedback from parents and the children themselves. They are really grateful for everything that we’ve done to continue the lessons without any sort of major disruption.”

A Sutton Music Group choir prior to lockdown

A Sutton Music Group choir prior to lockdown. Main image shows a Sutton Music Group orchestra before lockdown

Teams has also enabled the dozens of teachers, most of whom are freelance, to keep earning money from the lessons during lockdown. It has also cut expenditure for Sutton Music Service at a critical time.

Prior to lockdown, the organisation would hire out a school and church in the evening, at a significant cost, to run the lessons and orchestras. Another issue was that the space wasn’t available all-year round. Gay believes these in-person gatherings can be partly or fully replaced by Teams, with the money saved being invested into providing more opportunities for the students.

“The Coronavirus pandemic forced us to change how we operate in such a short space of time,” Gay said. “But now we’ve opened that door, I think there’ll be still be online lessons using Teams in the future.

“The technology is creating a lot of opportunities for us to develop as a business. A couple of months ago, we thought it would be great to run a six-week course, but we weren’t able to do that because we don’t have the facilities. Now, we can do it all online via Teams. It’s allowing us to creatively think how we can widen our reach; we can look at teaching adults to play the guitar, for example, at a time that fits around their work and home life. It’s helping us to integrate into the community. We can have the online lessons and the face-to-face events and big concerts. Work this way over the past couple of months has proved that it can work.”