With Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock about to arrive in Auckland, Richard Betts talks to Thomas Hamill, a teacher who took a failing school music department and turned it into Britain's best.
There are days that make you question your life choices. Thomas Hamill recalls the time one of his teenaged pupils flipped over a desk, barricaded himself in a classroom cabinet and started screaming racist insults.
"We had school visitors that day, too," says Hamill, "and they were walking around while this kid's hollering anti-Semitic slurs in a cupboard."
Hamill, director of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's education and outreach programme, has other examples of the extreme behaviour he witnessed as head of music at Merchants' Academy, a secondary school in Bristol's tough southern suburbs.
"There was a big tobacco factory in South Bristol," Hamill says, "The factory shut and it basically put a whole generation of people out of work and it never recovered. It created these estates where there were no jobs, no aspirations, kids were never read to."
Hamill says many of his pupils lacked basic literacy and numeracy, and teachers were required to read for 20 minutes a day to demonstrate positive role-modelling. It was not an atmosphere conducive to music lessons.
"There was actually no music happening," he says. "Music was compulsory for the first three years but all they were doing in class was singing along to pop songs on YouTube."
And yet before he left to come to New Zealand, despite the difficulties of working in an area facing generational unemployment, poverty and violence, Hamill's music department was officially named the best in England.
usic teaching should be easy in Bristol. There are strong reggae and dance scenes and in the 1990s bands like Massive Attack and Portishead took trip-hop into the upper reaches of the charts. Pop music is part of the ecosystem. But instead of giving the kids guitars and samplers, Hamill gave them violins and formed an orchestra. Why?
"I believe in it," he says. "I wanted to expose them to something fresh and show them there was more to life than just listening to pop stars on YouTube. It was unashamedly: 'This is an orchestra, we're not a band.'"
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Hamill's own orchestral background is modest. He played oboe at school but growing up in a small rural town in Somerset, he wasn't exposed to classical music.
"I wanted to give [the Merchants'] kids opportunities I perhaps didn't have," he says. "I didn't have instrument lessons until I was in secondary school but music was so important to me and I wanted it to be important to them."
At university Hamill studied English but, once he decided to become a teacher, he was interested only in music. He worked in prison music programmes and, armed with the belief that music can make a difference in people's lives, he joined Merchants' Academy as a teacher.
When his department head quit, Hamill applied and won the job. He was 24.
"I was quite young, I suppose, but that wasn't uncommon at the school. Behavioural challenges made it exhausting so there was quite high turnover. But I got the job and I was like, 'Right, we're going to make a blanket change.'"
Hamill had seen a version of the model he had in mind when he visited a school in London. "They were giving everyone instrument lessons. Everyone, when they turned up at the school, got a violin and studied for their whole first year and that's all they did, alongside a bit of English and maths."
With the support of the school's senior leadership, Hamill and his team formulated a programme they called the music pathway. Children who elected to enter the programme were given an instrument and free lessons and were required to take music, which included playing in the orchestra and singing in the choir, until they completed their high school education. The students still took core subjects but were excused other lessons in favour of instrumental tuition.
Importantly, although Merchants' Academy is in a poor part of town, it's not a poor school. In a system similar to New Zealand's charter schools, the school is sponsored by The Society of Merchant Venturers, a Bristol-based group of maritime traders with a history stretching back perhaps 700 years. Nowadays it concerns itself mainly with charitable works, particularly in education. The group agreed to support Hamill's plans.
"There's lots of research around music and brain development, and how it can benefit English and maths, so it was an easy case for me to say, 'This is a model that works, we want to adopt it and we want to get these kids on this journey.'"
In the beginning, student behaviour – tumbling desks and all – was a problem.
"There were lots of fights because the kids had no conflict resolution skills. They didn't have enough vocabulary to challenge each other without it descending into swearing and shouting. The only communication they'd learnt from their parents was to shout; you resolve things by hitting each other or chucking stuff."
Playing in an orchestra taught them new ways of dealing with arguments and Hamill saw their behaviour start to change.
"In an ensemble you communicate with people. We noticed with the first cohort that because they were communicating in so many different ways, they were able to de-escalate situations so it never got to violence. They were able to resolve issues more readily, as a direct consequence of being in an ensemble."
Although the kids were becoming more amenable they weren't becoming particularly good musicians. Hamill was comfortable with that.
"We always knew we weren't making musicians; we were making people who were better able to take on life's challenges. So the musical output was questionable but the change in their self-esteem and belief in themselves and the support they gave each other was not."
Hamill saw good results quickly but he estimates it takes three years for real change to take root.
"You need the first kids to reach a level where they become leaders and others aspire to be like them. We had a boy called Jake who was really hard on himself but super-disciplined and that was inspirational to other kids. 'I want to play like Jake.' 'Great, you should, he's really dedicated.'"
Hamill encouraged Jake and others to act as mentors, sitting them at desks with younger students but to suddenly be confronted with people who looked up to them took some getting used to.
"It was a bit confronting for some of the older kids because they weren't used to it. That was ground breaking for them, to suddenly be seen as leaders where before they'd just been ignored."
Not only was Merchants' music programme having an effect on the participants, slowly but surely the goodwill was seeping beyond the school gates, with parents taking pride in their children's achievements.
"That didn't exist before. They were never told well done by their parents. Jake in particular, his dad gave him a really hard time, 'You shouldn't be in the choir and orchestra, that's what girls do.' Then that stopped. Parents were suddenly interested in how their kids were doing musically, they wanted to know what sorts of strings to buy. And the atmosphere at concerts changed, [the parents] weren't bored by what was happening, they were intrigued by it. You build a community where creativity is acceptable and seen as beneficial, rather than a weird thing."
It didn't start out that way. Hamill and his team worked hard to get parents on board, emphasising the positives of music education.
"We were relentless about telling the story that the benefit of music isn't musical. We said, 'This is going to help them get a job because they're going to be better able to read, better able to deal with challenging people.' We held presentation nights to explain all these things, we were constantly reminding the parents of the benefits they were seeing."
You can tell a parent that playing an instrument will improve their child's brain, but no young person picks up a bassoon because it's going to be good for them.
"No - and the kids got bored with that story. But at the same time they were getting better at expressing themselves on their instruments, so that argument – do it because it's good for you – became less important. They could hear themselves producing music and took pride in that. You move on a few steps and you start to believe you can be a good musician."
As anyone who plays an instrument knows, however, it takes more than a couple of years to become proficient. The students' confidence in their own abilities took a blow when they were confronted with people who had been playing far longer.
"[The Merchants' players] were the best musicians in their area but we took them to Bristol Cathedral School and showed them people of their age who had been studying instruments since they were 5. That deflated them in some ways. They thought they'd made the transition to being a musician but actually they were still beginning, like anyone would be after just three years of tuition."
Hamill used that experience as a motivational tool.
"We explained that they needed to double down on their practice and efforts," he says. "The great thing about music is that everyone starts at the same point, and our students were on the same journey as the others but just at an earlier stage, so presenting the inevitable outcome of more practice and hard work became a motivator."
The orchestra took a major step when Hamill arranged a tour to France. There are two ways to view the orchestra's trip. One is from the point of view of the locals.
"Tuning was a bit of an issue so we didn't sound great but we gave it full welly," laughs Hamill. "You could see Parisians shuttering their windows on this Sunday morning when we were blurting out some out-of-tune piece."
The kids, however, had a different perspective.
"They never went abroad; this was completely alien to them. In the space of three years, the kids went from playing two or three pieces to feeling like international superstars."
None of them have become superstars but that was never the point.
"I've only ever had two kids who went on to study music and neither of them went to Merchants'. One of them wrote to me and said, 'Listen, I won't be your last, but I've gone on to university to study piano.' Turns out he was the last." Hamill bursts into laughter, clearly untroubled by the low hit-rate.
"I was pleased for him but I was more pleased with the social changes we were making."
Although none of the Merchants' kids are studying music, several have gone to university.
"Just getting to higher education is a big achievement. I've kept in touch with one or two, or emailed their mums to see how they're getting one and they're happy and fulfilled."
Is that the legacy of the programme, kids living fulfilled lives?
"For me the ideal legacy would be that they can communicate with people in ways they wouldn't otherwise be able to, and that they pass that on to their own kids. Maybe buy their child a violin at 7 because they enjoyed doing it at school."
Is he proud of what he achieved? Hamill takes a long pause.
"I don't know. Not to sound like a dick, for me there was nothing else I could have done. So it's not pride, it's just, we did this thing that was good.
Another long pause.
"Maybe I am proud of it."
School of Rock, Civic, September 3 - 29