What is Possible for Music in Primary Education when we Collaborate: ‘The Cinderella Project’

January 29, 2024 by ISM
6 minute listen

Blog first published in June 2022

We first met in 1977 through the celebrated choral director Ralph Allwood, who asked us to write a show for his school in Reading. It was a jazz musical and turned into a hit, performed at the Edinburgh Festival and elsewhere. We went on to write many musicals for secondary schools, but Cinderella is the first we have written for primary children.

Cinderella came about because, having taught music at Tiffin School for many years, David was increasingly disheartened to read press reports about declining curriculum time for music in some schools, particularly at primary level. He strongly believes that music is not only an essential part of a person’s education but also of their character development. In wondering what he could do to help, he had the idea of creating a short musical that primary school children could perform.

After writing the show, we decided that we would also give our time, free of charge, to produce the first performance and we offered it to St John’s School in Kingston, where we knew one of the teachers. They jumped at the chance and put it on the timetable for Friday afternoons as part of the curriculum. This meant that the entire class took part in it, which was exactly the spirit of the idea.

One of the problems for the arts in primary schools is that there aren’t many teachers who are specialists. St John’s is a small school with just one class per year, and it has no one who’s a music specialist, although there is an external teacher for dance and some drama workshops. So the children hadn’t done any singing until we got there apart from hymns.

We didn’t necessarily write Cinderella for 10-year-olds, but the school decided to give us Year 5 as the class. It was a fairly strenuous time for them, but they were brilliant. We had a hunch that they could do it; it was just a question of whether they could stand up to the rigors of the way we work. But the children just lapped it up and the teachers stood back and were amazed. The children themselves often don’t realise what they are capable of, but if you get their trust they can really exceed everyone’s expectations.

There were 19 different nationalities in the class of 30. No one was disruptive and they worked very hard. There was one girl who is completely deaf and she was wonderful – she danced and sang with everyone else. She has ear implants and she had to wear a mouse’s head as part of her costume, so we cut holes in the head for her.

The children really supported each other. A good example of this was the two ugly sisters. One of them is a consummate actor, and the other is also very able but turned out to have various difficulties, and the help that they gave each other during the rehearsals was fantastic to watch.

There were one or two children who were shy and diffident at the auditions and didn’t want to embark on something new. We gave them small parts, which they were pleased with as they were still involved, and they really blossomed. There were other children who said to us after two or three weeks that they didn’t want to take part, but because it was a whole class endeavour they carried on, really grew into it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now half of the class want to become actors and the other half want to be stage directors! We’re all great friends now too, which is lovely.

We devised the whole piece so it would be accessible to other people. The music is provided by two keyboards and drums (played by David, another former Tiffin teacher John Pearson, and Jeremy) but it’s going to be recorded so people can have a CD of the music to use if they don’t have anyone who can play those instruments.

The scenery is a set of projections that go on a screen at the back of the stage. These were produced by students on the TV and Media course at Kingston University. The students came into the school and asked the children to draw what they thought the show should look like, and they then put the drawings on to an animated screen, so the children had an input on another creative level as well.

Most of the costumes were made by a local friend and they also go with the package. The mouse heads and a few other items we hired ourselves from the National Youth Music Theatre, but you can also create your own.

The score/backing CD, script, scenery and costumes will be available free of charge for anyone who would like to put on the show. We hope that people will produce Cinderella and then be encouraged to start doing other productions themselves. Retired teachers like David might well be keen to go into schools and lend a hand with a project like this if specialised help is required.

We recently met the children again for a further rehearsal and it is amazing how much more confident, mature and socially aware they are as a result of experiencing the arts and performing. The school seems delighted with the experiment and have given no indication that the classes’ other work in core subjects has fallen behind despite all the time we took. This project shows just how much students can get out of creative learning. We hope that the teamwork and sense of achievement will be valuable for the class – we’re delighted they enjoyed being part of it as much as we did.

St John’s Primary School won the Community Award for Cinderella at the July 2022 Fuse International Creative Youth Festival in Kingston, with their performances described as an ‘exceptional contribution to the festival’. If you are interested in producing Cinderella yourself, please contact the ISM at membership@ism.org or call 020 7221 3499.

Writer and director Jeremy James Taylor founded the National Youth Music Theatre in 1976. Composer David Nield was Director of Music at Tiffin School for 35 years and was Chair of the National Youth Music Theatre for many years. Their joint music theatre works include The Ragged Child and The Tower of Babel.

Photos: courtesy Stephen Simpson