Why performing arts at schools matter
Dauntsey's School in Devizes powers the confidence of its pupils through a vibrant performing arts and music programme. Read on for the secret of their success.
There is an increasing body of evidence that points to the significant benefits performance plays in a child’s development. Through studying drama, music and dance, children learn to communicate and connect with others both emotionally and intellectually; they learn to express themselves and explore their emotions. Performing also builds self-confidence, develops leadership skills as well as the ability to work in a team and trains the brain to work in different ways, co-ordinating movement and thought simultaneously. Some studies also link the study of performing arts to improved academic attainment. But perhaps the most important aspect of getting involved in the performing arts at school is that it’s a lot of fun and brings pupils together from different year groups, all focused on a common goal.
A good school should provide opportunities across the performing arts for all pupils, from early years through to the sixth form. At Dauntsey’s, everyone gets involved in music, drama and dance. First formers mingle with sixth formers, and future professionals work alongside people who simply want to get up and ‘have a go’. With concerts or recitals most weeks, six or seven drama productions every year and a major dance showcase, there is plenty of opportunity. Performance is so much a part of the fabric of life at the School that pupils arrive for rehearsals straight off the astro turf or out of the classroom, ready to change mental gear and take up an entirely different challenge, be it music, drama, dance or providing technical support behind the scenes.
Dauntsey’s has an enviable reputation for its Drama programme. Chris Walker, Director of Drama at the School, explains how most pupils get involved in drama at some point, either on stage or behind the scenes.
With six or seven productions each year, ranging from small studio pieces to full stage shows and musicals; we provide a variety of styles and plenty of choice. Recent showcases include; In The Heights, Les Misérables, Billy Elliot, One Man Two Guvnors, Mathew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies, Mamma Mia! and Jesus Christ Superstar. We have taken several of these productions to the West End for one-off performances which has been an incredible opportunity for the pupils.
Drama is part of the curriculum when pupils join Dauntsey’s. Many go on to take it at GCSE or A level and some opt for the LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) exams programme as an extra-curricular option. It’s a lot of fun but that’s not to say it’s a soft option – it has its own important role in the education we offer. Drama helps develop self-confidence, imagination, empathy, self-discipline, memory, social awareness and much more, as well as increasing pupils’ aesthetic appreciation and providing an emotional outlet.
As well as acting, pupils have the opportunity to direct, design sets and work on sound, make-up, stage management and lighting. We are fortunate to have a choice of performance spaces here. The Memorial Hall, the county’s largest performance space, has a sound and lighting system worthy of the West End and can seat up to 730 people. Meanwhile, Annabel’s Studio is an entirely flexible space which is used for teaching, for exam presentation work, workshops and for smaller-scale productions. It is essentially a black box that can be configured in any number of ways. Finally, Venue 2 is the newest drama building which serves as a teaching space, rehearsal room and a comfortable performance venue seating for approximately 60 people depending on the seating layout.
Inevitably Covid 19 limited the scope of the Drama programme but we have an exciting schedule of productions this year. We can’t wait to have everyone back on stage once more.
The study of music has sadly declined across schools in the UK, in spite of its many benefits. Gareth Harris, Director of Music at Dauntsey’s highlights its benefits and the School’s music programme.
Research suggests that both listening to music and playing an instrument stimulates the brain, improves concentration and social skills. Enhanced mathematical skills have also been observed in many advanced musicians and those children with a good musical ear can often pick up languages more quickly as they recognise and learn the different tones in a foreign language more quickly than children without musical training.
There have also been studies carried out on groups of children of Primary School age to see if learning an instrument can improve academic progress. Results indicate that, over time, those who learn an instrument demonstrate enhanced development across a range of subjects.
But music has a role to play beyond the classroom. It crosses all borders, languages and cultures. People of all ages and backgrounds can come together under the umbrella of music and communicate, empathise and develop long-lasting friendships. Music builds a sense of community and provides a feeling of belonging in an organisation. It nurtures the soul and can provide an avenue to spiritual experiences.
Music is also one of the few activities where ensembles made up of students from across all year groups work alongside each other as equals, rather than being defined by their age or gender. It is very common at Dauntsey’s to see a Lower School student performing alongside one of our Sixth Formers in a choir or instrumental group.
Music is thriving at Dauntsey’s, with some 40% of students learning an instrument and participation in ensembles from choirs to rock bands seems to increase almost every week. In recent years, singing lessons have grown enormously in popularity while piano and violin are also seeing a resurgence, along with guitar and saxophone.
A number of pupils go on to study music at GCSE and A-Level. These qualifications have a challenging curriculum to master and universities value them as part of an academic set of GCSEs or A-Levels. It is possible to study Medicine with an A-Level in Music alongside sciences and senior consultant surgeons have remarked that they find a doctor who is a musician is easier to train in surgical skills than a person without instrumental skills, as the ability to learn patterns quickly and also to understand instruction through gestures is already embedded into a musicians’ scheme of learning.
At GCSE Level, the study of music from the Western Classical tradition, composing and preparation of performances, helps students develop a determination to strive for excellence, as well as resilience, strong powers of concentration, self-confidence and emotional intelligence.
Dauntsey’s students regularly go into the profession to study music or music technology, but there have also been outstanding music students who have pursued degrees in the sciences, humanities and languages. The School is updated regularly by old Dauntseians involved in choirs, orchestras and bands who are enjoying a lifetime of music-making.
Performing music has been hit hard by the pandemic but we can’t wait to hear the sound of music filling the halls and corridors at Dauntsey’s once again.
Dance has many physical and mental health benefits. Here, Dauntsey’s Head of Dance, Emily Wilkins, discusses these benefits and describes Dauntsey’s pioneering approach, proving that it’s for everyone from the hesitant to the elite.
Dance is not only a great form of exercise, developing a love of dance from an early age can encourage children to stay active as they grow into adults. Dance can help increase flexibility, physical strength and stamina which contributes to improved performance in other sports. It also builds children’s self-esteem and confidence as they discover a world where they can channel their emotions and find a way to express themselves.
It’s also a very social form of exercise. Children learn how to work as part of a team and to build on each other’s ideas. As children grow older, dance helps them to learn self-discipline and understand that, by investing time and practice into something, they can achieve a great result. These are all valuable life skills which children can take with them into adult life.
There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that dance has significant mental health benefits too. Time spent at a dance class can help improve mood and reduce anxiety. All exercise is thought to be a mood booster due to the affect it has on certain chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. But dance is particularly beneficial as it requires brain power to master a sequence of steps which takes the mind away from daily worries and concerns to focus entirely “in the moment”. This can be hugely beneficial for young adults as they go through the tricky adolescent years.
Dance also boosts academic studies by increasing children’s confidence and making them open to new ideas.
We take Dance seriously at Dauntsey’s. It is compulsory for all pupils in their first two years, so it becomes a normal part of life at School, and the Lower School dance show each year is a highlight of the calendar. The opportunity to dance continues in the Middle and Upper School where there is at least one dance performance each term, which allows pupils to show off their skills.
Two dance clubs run every day and cover every style imaginable, from contemporary to Irish dancing, street dance, hip hop, tumbling, ballet and more. There’s a club just for boys in the First to Fourth years called Girls Not Invited (GNI). Dance shows on television, such as Strictly Come Dancing have had a huge impact, particularly on boys whose role models are the supremely fit men they see on screen.
Our December Drama production often features a lot of dance. Last year, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Latin American musical In The Heights involved salsa, as well as ballroom, and the performances from our lead dancers were simply mesmerising. Taking a lead role in the annual musical is the pinnacle of our performers’ school career. Younger pupils see the older ones deliver amazing performances and this really inspires them to work at their dance so that they can audition for these roles when their time comes.
We have a really strong cohort of Upper School dance mentors. These include pupils with dance scholarships, which pupils can apply for in their Second and Fifth Forms. They have to put together a dance CV, choreograph two pieces and be interviewed. The successful dancers are offered a Performing Arts’ Award and as dance scholars they are then given more rigorous training and opportunities to perform. In return, they need to be dedicated and inspiring. One, for example, runs a Lower School dance troupe.
Dance has become so popular that that we introduced a GCSE three years ago – 15 pupils are taking it this year – and an A level in Dance two years ago. Part of the work towards these exams takes place during our daily Long Break, as well as after lessons in the later afternoon and early evening, so pupils have to be in love with the art form to cope with the additional workload.
The GCSE is 60 per cent practical and 40 per cent academic, covering dance movements, biology in order to prevent injury and maths for choreography. The A level is more about the history of dance and analysis of how it developed. So far, three pupils who have taken the A level have been accepted at top dance schools, including the London Contemporary Dance School.
Dance has come a long way in just a few years – and there is no doubt that it’s going to go a lot further.