Scribbles and sketches: AI, Beethoven & the learning process

In this week’s WimTeach, Dr John Parsons, Director of Sixth Form, muses over AI, Beethoven, and the learning process.

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827. Within days of his death, Beethoven’s first biographers were swift to recognise the seismic impact the composer had made on the musical language, style and forms of the emerging ‘Romantic’ age. They also saw him as providing a blueprint for a new kind of human creative spirit; a composer embodying not just the artist contra mundum but also the artist struggling against himself. Beethoven’s autograph scores and extant sketches show us that frustration and struggle; energised, angry scrubbing-out, playful trial and error, revisions and reworkings, rejected ideas and erratic inky marks made so quicky (‘when the spirit moves me,’ as he himself had said) that they are sometimes barely legible. Here on paper is Beethoven showing his working (as an exam-board or teacher might ask) and evidently learning as he went along. A look at the page helps us to imagine the composer (doubtless brow furrowed) very much in flow – in the moment. The layers of creative struggle and his learning process are there in black and white.

In school we learn that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. It is easy to see the slow-to-build but ecstatic exclamation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the closing section of the ninth as his final statement in the symphonic form. But it wasn’t; there is a tenth – or at least scribbles and sketches for one. Beethoven, it seems, had no intention of leaving it at nine. Musicologists for the next 200 years would be left wondering ‘what if…?’ Until now.

A ground-breaking project at Harvard university has brought together musicologists and computer scientists to see if an AI computer can be taught to create music that sounds like it was made by Beethoven and thereby to complete the composer’s missing tenth symphony. Here is a machine that has been taught not only Beethoven’s entire body of work but also his creative process in order to fill in the blanks and come up with a coherent and developed piece of music.

Beethoven was an intensively motivic composer, meaning that his compositional process saw him painstakingly derive complex and copious material from tiny motifs (just think of the famous four-note da da da daaa that opens the fifth symphony and the 40 minutes of music based on it that follows). As the Harvard AI task became more complex, so the machine became cleverer and more skilled at recognising such patterns in how Beethoven had reworked his motifs. The same happens when we as learners take on and stick with the struggle of learning something new and difficult, and (as with the AI, too) over time mastery is attained. Indeed, one of the computer scientists remarked ‘the AI reminded me of an eager music student who practises every day, learns and becomes better and better.’[1] Not for the first time, then, AI shows us something of what human learning is all about.

A year or so into their work, in 2019, the Harvard team travelled to Bonn and the composer’s birthplace museum to perform some of what had been ‘composed’ by the machine for a sceptical room of historians, journalists and musicians to see if they could tell where Beethoven stops and AI takes over. They couldn’t. There will be purists who say that AI should not try to replicate the human creative process, but of course the machine is not autonomous. Rather, it must have a multi-disciplined team of experts to teach it to do its thing (STEAM+ in action).

The human learning process is one of trial and error. Scrubbings out and puzzle solving is par for the course and the process owes as much to frustration as it does to playful experimentation and repetition. As teachers we see that in the classroom every day. The most effective learners accept and embrace the struggle. Evidently, that was the same for Beethoven – the most human of composers – as it is for any of us as we go about the business of learning new things and creating our own masterpieces.

Further reading on the Harvard Beethoven project here.


Recursive Creative Improvisation: STEAM+ in action

Rebecca Owens (Head of Art), Lucinda Gilchrist (Head of English) and Richard Bristow (Director of Music & SMT Secondee) reflect on recent work completed by WHS pupils combining three art forms; writing poetry, painting and performing music. This event formed part of the recent STEAM Tower opening.

Rebecca Owens – the view from the artist

The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)
Above: The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)

The links between art, poetry and music are many and varied, exemplified in the shared language around the disciplines such as composition, rhythm, tone, accent, vibrancy, dynamism. In an effort to create an emotional response in their audiences, visual artists, architects, composers and authors often use underlying mathematical concepts such as the Golden Section in their works. For example, Mozart made use of the Golden Section proportions in many of his piano sonatas. As we are all familiar with seeing the Golden Section sequence in nature, the use of these proportions and divisions in Art and Music is something the artist or composer hopes will help induce a natural affinity towards the composition, enhancing the sense of harmony in the piece of Music or Art.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a music lover and first realised the emotional power of music when listening to Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ in 1880. He then became friends with Schönberg, whose 12-tone method of composition was a turning point in 20th century music. As Kandinsky’s work developed, he came to believe that painting, as with music, should inspire emotions without having to necessarily be a visual representation of a particular thing, place or person. Arguably the first abstract artist, he transformed the course of Art using his synaesthesia to inspire his painting. Colours in his mind were linked to sound, shapes and emotions. Kandinsky said ‘The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble’.

Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’
Above: Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’

Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.
Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who created rhythmical paintings, in which he almost danced over the large-scale canvas which he laid out on the floor. He was obsessed with Jazz music listening to Jazz records for days on end and the controlled elegant movements with which he poured, dripped and threw the paint onto the canvasses, conveyed the dynamism and freedom of Jazz music.

Pollock ‘Convergence’
Pollock ‘Convergence’

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) often discussed the interest in the emotions that music created in her work, and for her there was a powerful link between music and her form of minimalist abstract art. She said ‘Our response to line and tone and colour is the same as our response to sounds. And like music, abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning beyond the power of words’.

Martin ‘Summer’
Martin ‘Summer’

These were some of the starting points for the art scholars, when exploring the connections between music and art, which was initially planned for our Cadogan Hall concert in March 2020. Sadly, owing to the pandemic, this event was cancelled, but the work and ideas were instead put towards the opening of our STEAM Tower in November 2020, with the addition of poets composing alongside the artists and musicians.

The artists responded to the rhythms, the tones and the emotions the music inspires as we work. As with all Art, there will be no correct answer, and in this experiment the process of creating the work will be as important as the outcomes. The speed with which one works undoubtedly affects the marks one makes. With timed drawings, which is something we often use in Life drawing classes, the fluidity and spontaneity of the marks created often more that makes up for the less accurate proportions. With less than 10 minutes to work on these pieces it will be interesting to see how each person responds differently to the music and how the canvasses develop during the time.

Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’
Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’

Alex in Year 13 reflects on the creation of her artwork: “Exploring links between different forms of creativity was fascinating. In this process I was able to respond to the music I heard and the poetry I read with a variety of colours, mark-making, and compositions. I was most influenced by replicating bow movements with brush strokes, which gave energy and flow to my artwork. This activity developed my skills as an artist as I was more aware of each creative decision I made.”

View some of the art created during the STEAM opening below.


Lucinda Gilchrist – the view from the poet

 We know proverbially that ‘two heads are better than one’, but collaboration is more than just combined brain power. Educational theory highlights that words and language solidify and consolidate thought, meaning that sharing and communicating with others is essential for learning. In collaborating across subject disciplines, we can make the most of others’ expertise in a way which serves to enhance and enrich our understanding in countless ways.

From the perspective of English, in looking at a poem, for instance, we can benefit from a wider contextual understanding that History can bring us, the deeper understanding of rhythm and tone from Music, attention to detail and imagery from Art, global artistic movements from History of Art, forensic attention to detail from Science, and grammatical understanding from Languages. But it is not just about what individual subjects can gain from using different disciplinary perspectives, but how the meeting of different disciplines then serves to open up horizons which would have been unthinkable without the combination of perspectives.

Jess in Year 13 writes: “Usually I would start writing about a preconceived subject matter, whereas responding in real time to music and visual art meant it took longer to establish a topic or a narrative. Therefore I think the influence over the structure of the poems is most pronounced- there’s the dislocation of short or non-sequiturial lines that correspond to staccato parts of the music; but on the other hand, there’s a lot of enjambement, since I think the timbre of the strings might have evoked a watery quality for the writers and painters.”

If lightning could be gradual
If it could be a majorette ribbon
If it could be a suturing needle
If it could be a hairline fracture
If it could be the persistent tautness of a diaphragm
If it could be the searing blaring flaring scarlet that stays in the back of your eyes
If it could cut
If it could be a vaulted ceiling
If it could be sweet, and if it could ache
If it could be the ridge of a mountain
Protruding through snow
Snow packed on scars
When figure skaters turn
And the air takes their necks
In its hands
Suddenly, very afraid of heights
Is lightning catching?
Can it reverberate down vertebrae?
Electrify the nervous system?
Pluck out spinal chords?
The spine a rose between
the lightning’s jagged teeth

Lauren in Year 13 writes: “I found writing to music and live art extremely helpful as each piece created a different atmosphere and led to me writing a range of poetry. I think I may even use music when writing poetry again in the future.”

Sky city suspended between storm clouds
Golden rain and bare feet
Feathers outlined in molten metal
Twisting as they fall
Like sycamore leaves
Laughter thrown at the sun
With the wild abandon of Icarus
In his final moments
Before reality came up to meet him.
Cradled by Zephyr as they spiral down
Either ignorant of the danger
Or too immersed in music to care.
The ground is far too restrictive for dancing
When falling allows them to fly.

Richard Bristow – the view from the musician

I still vividly remember the first time I experienced the music combined with art and spoken word. It was 1990, I was 5 years old, and Disney’s Fantasia had just been released on VHS. The whole school watched it in one afternoon and it introduced me to music that I had never heard before in such a powerful way that the memory still lives on, some thirty years later.

The film Fantasia was made in 1940, featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with animations by Disney. I still recall seeing Mickey Mouse battling against brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, the strange abstract shapes to Bach’s iconic Toccata and Fugue and of course the petrifying mountain demon pictured to Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. If you haven’t seen it, please add it to your Christmas list. It is simply brilliant viewing.

Fast forward to more recent times; it’s now the summer of 2019 and I’m busy planning the WHS Symphony Orchestra repertoire for the next Cadogan Hall concert, scheduled for March 2020. We have a large brass section this year and also a harp – a first for our orchestra – and as such Mussorgsky’s epic Symphonic Poem is something that provides challenge but is also accessible to all our players – from our new Year 7s right up to our Year 13s who will shortly be heading to University. The pupils take to it well, so much so that the simplifications I’d anticipated needing were quickly discarded in favour of the real authentic score.

Rehearsing the piece brought back memories of watching Fantasia for the first time and it is from here that we started to explore the idea of live painting to live music, essentially recreating Fantasia in Cadogan Hall in 2020. Combining these art forms, utilising some nifty camera technology, would allow us to see links between the disciplines in real time. Exciting stuff.

Sadly, the pandemic meant the concert couldn’t happen in March 2020, and obviously this was a huge disappointment to us given we had been working towards this for 7 months. However, with the opening of the new STEAM Tower, we had another opportunity to explore the combination of different art forms, showing inter-disciplinary learning in an improvisatory way and putting our previous learning to work. Current coronavirus restrictions meant the Symphony Orchestra was replaced by our wonderful socially-distanced String Quartet A and we expanded our thinking to include two Sixth Form poets to add another dimension to our exploration. Combining these art forms together facilitates wider conversations about art and creativity, and enables pupils to make connections and to think about things in more advanced ways.

Sophie in Year 11 writes: “It was really interesting to see how the poets, musicians and artists responded to each other, as all of us are artists. I loved how it allowed us to really explore our creativity and it has helped us to think of the pieces we are playing as an ensemble in new ways.”

It was fascinating to see the pupils work out how the inner bars of music evoked a sense of water with this being picked up in both the poetry and the art in various different ways. This prompted conversations about whether this was intentional by the composer or if it was more subtle in nature, perhaps influenced by our previous learning. Exploring the arts through different artistic lenses allows us to explore art in a larger, freer way, inter-connecting our learning and enhancing our understanding.

Final thoughts

Making connections between subjects, filling in the gaps and tinkering with new ideas are central to our educational provision at WHS. We relish the chance to investigate things we are expert in through lenses in which we are less accomplished, feeding into the kaleidoscope that is limitless learning in the modern day. This is STEAM+ in action.

We are all lucky to work and learn in a school where collaboration, exploration and adventure are inherent qualities that are highly valued.

Who knows what we’ll discover next…

Can music impact our health?

Sophie, Year 9, asks if and how music can impact our mental and physical health.

Music is everywhere. Wherever we go, no matter where, there will be some sort of tune or melody coming from someplace or another. Virtually all species, from the most primitive to the most modern, make music. In tune or not, our species sing and play, or clap and drum. Music is a cardinal aspect of our lives. The human brain and nervous system are programmed to distinguish music, rhythm and tones from noise and other sounds. Is this a biological accident, or does it serve a purpose? There might be no definite answer, but one could suggest from studies that music may enhance human health.


Music has always been a source of expressing people’s feelings, venting emotions and communicating with others, through words and notation. The soothing power of music is well-identified – it can have a big impact on our mental health. It can also have a strong link to our emotions, and, as a result, can be a brilliant form of stress relief. Listening to music can be relaxing for our mind and bodies, especially slow, quiet classical music. This type of music has a beneficial effect by slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and decreasing the levels of stress hormones. For example, studies[1] show that listening to music with headphones has reduced stress and anxiety in hospital patients before and after surgery. Listening to music can also relieve depression and increase the self-esteem of elderly people.

Music can also absorb our attention and can get rid of any distractions. This means it can be a focus technique as it keeps our mind from wandering. However, music with no structure and no form can have a negative impact on our emotions and can be unsettling and irritating. This is why gentle music with a simple melody is also more comforting. Familiar melodies bring a sense of calmness, awareness and it can be more comforting. The sounds of nature often are incorporated into CDs specifically to target relaxation. The sound of water or leaves or birdsong can be soothing for some. It can help picture calming images and help our minds slow down.

As well as calming, and being a stress relief, music can be a source of happiness. It has the ability to make people of all ages feel cheerful and energetic and could even lift the mood of people with depressive illnesses. A recent study[2] announced that scores of depressive symptoms (extending from 0-60) improved on average 4.65 more with the music therapy than standard care alone. In 2006 a study of sixty adults with chronic pain found that music was able to reduce pain and depression[3]. In 2009 there was another study stating that music assisted relaxation can improve the quality of sleep in patients with sleeping disorders[4].

Some skilled composers manipulate our emotions by knowing what the listeners’ expectations are and controlling when the expectations may (or may not) be met. Composers also change their music to fit our emotions. They will use specific techniques to make us feel a certain way. These techniques could include; tempo (a fast tempo could provoke an energetic feeling, whilst a slow tempo might induce feelings of sadness or tiredness), tonality (major linked to positive and minor negative), dynamics (forte – loud – may portray bold or confident, whilst piano – quiet – could be more subtle).

Some of these factors may cause the listener to maybe start swaying side to side or tapping our feet or nodding our head. This is connected to the dopamine drug which is linked to the pleasure of music. Neuroimaging studies have proven that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions. The deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system like the amygdala or hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music listening). The relationship between listening to music and the dopaminergic pathway is what is behind the ‘chills’ that people claim to experience whilst listening to music[5]. These chills are physiological sensations, like hairs getting raised on your arms, goosebumps down your leg and ‘shivers down your spine’ that is linked to chills.

Whatever your musical preference, understanding that music has a significant impact on our mental and physical health is central to knowing more about the immense power this art has on us. As Napoleon once said, “music is what tells us the human race is greater than we realise.”









A review of the Musical Theatre Concert & how to engage young people of different ages in musicals

Ms Katie Butler, Performing Arts Assistant, looks back to our recent Musical Theatre Concert here at WHS, as well as how we can engage different age groups in this popular form.

From Tap Dancing to Trunchbull

This year’s Musical Theatre Concert featured a selection of solos, duets and group numbers, with the very on-brand Wimbledon High theme of “Imagine”. This enabled us to tie numbers together through a common thread, while still allowing us to explore all sorts of different styles and stories. We hired in professional choreographer Lily Howkins to help create more specialised dance numbers, along with a brilliant three-piece band who really brought the music to life. This concert showcases the singing and dancing talents of girls across the senior school, providing a chance for Year 7s to perform with Sixth Formers, and for younger girls to have a taste of solo singing without the pressure of a whole show.

Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd was the WHS Senior Musical, with performances in January 2019

After Lilly and Emma kicked off the show with ‘Pure Imagination’ from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we enjoyed Year 8’s spectacular ‘Revolting Children’ from Matilda, featuring ten girls stepping out of their sensible Wimbledon High personas and into a rebellious, anti-Trunchbull mob, with ties tied around their heads and hockey sticks as weapons. We featured more Year 8 talent in the upbeat, energetic Hollywood party number ‘Someone in the Crowd’ from La La Land, with Lauren, Amelia, Phoebe and Alyssa combining pitch-perfect vocals with challenging choreography to their usual high standard.

Another choreography highlight was the tap-toed delight that was ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, with Melody and Lizzy’s vocals combined with the brilliant tap skills of Jasmine and Shangavi. Musical theatre stalwart Erin gave a convincing performance as Evan Hansen, showing real resilience and deftly taking on various characters throughout the night. Sweeney Todd’s ‘By the Sea’ and ‘Seventeen’ from Heathers were presented together, as despite the different musical styles and the twenty-five years between their creation, they explore very similar themes of women trying to convince murderous men to live a normal life with them. For the latter, Erin was joined by Lizzie, who also showcased her fantastic vocal versatility in the contrasting ‘I Feel Pretty’. All in all, it was a wonderful celebration of dramatic skill and musicianship from the entire WHS community.

Little Shop of Horrors
This dramatic moment from Little Shop of Horrors – the Year 9 and 10 musical in June 2018

Curating a Programme

As a facilitator of these kinds of events, the challenge for me was to choose a programme that was varied, interesting, and age-appropriate, engaging all the girls. Appreciation of musical theatre, and indeed of all strands of the arts and storytelling deepens with age, maturity, and life experience, and personal development is particularly accelerated during these teenage years; it’s the reason that Year 11 can sob their way through Les Miserables, yet many Year 8s are twiddling their thumbs by ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and I was keen to curate a concert that reflected this and provided something for everyone to enjoy.

While we had Year 12 Izzy performing the wistful ‘The Movie in My Mind’ from Miss Saigon, a ballad by a Thai showgirl during the Vietnam War dreaming of a better life, we also enjoyed Izzy from Year 8’s delicately beautiful rendition of ‘Jenny’s Piano Song’ from Howard Goodall’s little-known 2010 musical Love Story (an adaptation of the 1970 film), as well as Anna’s (Year 11) infectiously positive ‘I Can Hear the Bells’ from Hairspray.

The key to a successful programme is contrast – and so with powerhouse, belting performances like Anna’s and Eleni’s rendition of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ from NBC’s Smash, we also had numbers like Anna’s (Year 13) genuine and engaging ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ from Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle Songs for a New World, and Eleni’s other number, the vulnerable ‘When He Sees Me’ from Waitress, showing off her real versatility as an actress, and brilliant comic timing.

Other performances included the wittily staged ‘Show Off’ from The Drowsy Chaperone by Jasmine & Lilly in Year 12, and the always brilliant Musical Theatre Choir taking on an arrangement of Hamilton’s Helpless that even girls much older and more experienced would have found challenging. As Year 7 girls took to the stage with a lively Disney medley, featuring solos from Melina, Martha, Hannah and Sophia, it was clear that the future of musical theatre at Wimbledon High is in very safe hands. We ended the show with two more similar numbers: ‘The Life I Never Led’ from Sister Act and ‘Nothing Stops Another Day’ from Ghost, sensitively performed by Millie and Shangavi (Year 12) respectively, followed by a rousing ‘We’re All In This Together’ from the upcoming Year 9 & 10 production of High School Musical.

Musical Theatre: more than jazz hands

Having a concert solely dedicated to musical theatre, and particularly lots of different numbers from different shows, allows students to experiment with the differences between acting through song compared to acting through prose, and how despite the snobbery that often surrounds it, musical theatre absolutely provides as much opportunity to get stuck into interesting, complicated characters as straight theatre.

For next year’s concert, I’m keen to develop this further, delving into shows by writers like Sondheim that challenge these stereotypes better than anything else. As a writer of musical theatre myself, I’m particularly interested in using platforms like this to explore adolescent pastoral themes, and with shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Heathers featured, we were able to open up conversations about darker issues like mental health, bullying and violence in schools, performing songs from musicals that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate as school productions, but that are absolutely worthy of attention and that many of the girls know and love.

I also hope that it introduced both cast and audience to some lesser-known shows, further fuelling their interest in and passion for musicals, and that it demonstrates the versatility of musical theatre as an art form, showing that it isn’t all jazz hands and happy endings, but can be a medium to explore all manner of themes, issues and musical styles.

Review: WHS @Cadogan Hall 2019

Three WHS pupils – Lara, Lizzy and Laura – reflect on the recent WHS concert at Cadogan Hall, where girls in WHS Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia, Baroque Ensemble, Canto and A Cappella performed to a full house.

Lara (Year 7)

It was a privilege to perform in Cadogan Hall which is a very famous, beautiful music hall in Sloane Square dating back to 1907 that has hosted some of the greatest performances of all time. Its number of staircases, dressing rooms, corridors (and lack of signposts!) shows that the entire building was built to impress and a lot of the backstage is just as ornate as the front room itself. It’s wonderful acoustic and scenery lent itself very well to repertoire we did. I, for one, really enjoyed learning pieces by the likes of Brahms, Prokofiev, Mozart, Whitacre and Marquez in Symphony Orchestra, Canto and Sinfonia. In Symphony Orchestra, most of the songs stemmed back to a dance style with pieces such as Brahms’ first Hungarian Dance, a Conga by Marquez and Danza Ritual Fuego by De Falla. These pieces were all really fun to play with a strong sense of movement and liveliness. In the second half, Canto and A Cappella got the chance to perform with tenors and basses- a rare opportunity in an all-girls school. The Mozart Requiem took up most of the second half of the concert – being in Sinfonia, we got to accompany the choir – a new experience for me. We particularly enjoyed performing all these great pieces in such a prestigious venue.

Lizzie B. (Year 11)

Rehearsals for the concert started as far back as the mid-stages of the Autumn term as there was lots of challenging material to learn, both individually and then putting it together as ensembles. Preparations, however, had been going on even many months before that by the amazing music teachers to select and arrange repertoire that we would enjoy playing and which would show off our abilities. Over all this time each of the ensembles rehearsed for a minimum of an hour each week, not taking into account private practice. This is an especially impressive amount considering that most girls are involved in more than one group, displaying the incredible commitment, enthusiasm and engagement of everyone who performed at Cadogan Hall. Furthermore, as the concert drew nearer, the girls in A Cappella and Sinfonia were involved in a 4-hour long Saturday morning rehearsal during which they first sang with the professional tenor and basses, a really challenging task which was achieved with true Wimbledonian spirit and significant amounts of coffee. Finally, on the day we arrived from 12:30 at Cadogan Hall for our final run-through of the concert, getting used to the slightly different sound due to the addition of professional musicians playing parts we weren’t used to hearing. Then the concert began…

Laura F. (Year 12)

It is incredible to see how WHS’s music-making has progressed over the years we have been playing at Cadogan Hall. This year we saw the addition of four trombone players to the orchestra, as a result of a new scheme teaching trombone in school, and with the twelve-strong brass section, the orchestra was able to perform repertoire such as Prokofiev’s intense ‘Dance of the Knights’ from Romeo and Juliet. The concert included music written over a span of two hundred years from Mozart to Whitacre, showing the breadth of repertoire in the ensembles. In the first half of the concert, the Baroque Ensemble played a rousing rendition of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, a challenging four-movement work that celebrated string playing at school. The intermezzo and 3rd movement of the suite that included violin and viola solos, played sensitively by A Level students Miriam and Louisa, were a highlight of the performance, providing some calm contrast before the energetic 4th Movement. At the end of the concert, the year 13s were thanked onstage, as it was their last Cadogan Hall concert; their enthusiasm and participation in musical events will be greatly missed next year. We have all loved preparing for the concert and are so grateful to have had the opportunity to play in such a fantastic venue.

Does taking part in co-curricular activities really improve academic outcomes?

Jenny Cox, Director of Co-curricular and Partnerships at Wimbledon High, looks at the links between co-curricular activities and the impact these can have on academic outcomes in the classroom.

There has been much research over the years investigating the link between Sport and its benefits – not only to a healthy lifestyle – but to the academic progress of students in schools and universities.  Research has shown that regular physical activity leads to improvements in a range of cognitive functions, including information processing, attention and executive function (Chaddock et al. 2011). However, does involvement in any co-curricular club facilitate academic outcomes?


Can you think of a time when you have ever been so absorbed in an activity that you have completely lost track of time? That whatever you were doing was challenging, totally captivating, was extending your skills and you were virtually operating in the subconscious? If you can, it’s likely that you were experiencing a phenomenon known as ‘flow’. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi writing in the 1960s researched this initially with it really coming to the forefront of sports psychology in the 1990s.

He described it as:

“A deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterised

by intense focus on a specific activity

to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it”

Csikszentmihalyi suggested that experiencing ‘flow’ makes us happier and more successful, which in turn leads to increased performance. To get to this point, he pointed out that tasks have to be constantly challenging which in turn results in personal growth and development. This doesn’t mean that we always have to be in a state of optimal performance, but more that we are fully immersed in the process of the task in hand, as shown in the diagram below:

Activities & Flow diagram by Csikszentmihalyi

‘Flow’ experiences can happen as part of everyday life, and Csikszentmihalyi suggested overlearning a concept or a skill can help people experience flow. Within a sporting context, it is sometimes referred to a “being in the zone”, experiencing a loss of self-consciousness and feeling a sense of complete mastery.


In addition to overlearning, another key component of finding ‘flow’ is doing activities that we are intrinsically motivated to take part in. This means work and activities that we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing. Financial gain, awards and praise can be by-products of the ‘flow’ activities you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing. Csikszentmihalyi even goes further, saying the feeling should be “such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.”

Academic success

So why is this relevant to our school co-curricular programme and can it be linked to academic success?  The links here are two-fold.

Firstly, the co-curricular programme is designed to inspire and enhance the general learning of new skills and concepts. It gives us more time to focus on over-learning a skill or concept because there is no pressure of being examined, therefore no exact specification or course content to get through. We have the luxury of taking our time, over-rehearsing, over practising to a point of taking part in an activity with a loss of sub-consciousness. We may repeat skills so frequently because we revisit them two, three, four, seven, eight times a week, (think of rowing, drama, and music to name just three activities that have repeat weekly sessions), that the feeling of knowing a skill, a sequence, a technique really well and performing is sub-consciously really does happen.

Secondly, with this feeling of ‘flow’ comes those ‘magic moments’ we can all benefit from at any point during the day. The mere fact we are immersed in activity we enjoy could result in us being ‘in the zone’. We are busy immersed in something which is likely to mean we are automatically not thinking about an essay, a grade, a piece of coursework, a friendship or relationship issue at that time and so as a consequence that time contributes enormously to our state of well-being and happiness. This, in turn, is highly likely to lead to a more productive ‘head space’ for work when we return to it, less procrastinating, greater focus and possibly better outcomes.

So can we draw a link between participation in co-curricular activities and academic outcomes? There is research to indicate we can….. happy reading!


  • Chaddock, L., C. H. Hillman, S. M. Buck, and N. J. Cohen. 2011. “Aerobic Fitness and Executive Control of Relational Memory in Preadolescent Children.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 43 (2): 344–349.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row
  • Bailey R. (2016): Sport, physical activity and educational achievement – towards an explanatory model, Sport in Society



What are the links between romance languages and music?

Matilda, Year 13, investigates the links between romance languages and music to discover whether the learning of one can help in the understanding of the other.

Music and language

It is often said that music is the ‘universal language of mankind’, due to its great expressive powers which have the ability to convey sentiments and emotions.

But what are the connections between music and languages?

A romance language is a language derived from Latin and this group of languages has many similarities in both grammar and vocabulary. The 5 most widely spoken romance languages are Spanish (with 470 million speakers), Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

There are 3 main connections between languages and music:


The first of these is the role of melody in recall:

There is a link between languages and music in remembering words. This is shown in a study where words were better recalled when learned as a song rather than a speech. This is because melody and rhythm give the memory cues to help recall information.[1]

Language, music, and emotion:

The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who specialises in primate behaviour, Robin Dunbar, says that music and language help to knit people together in social groups. This is because musicians process music as a language in their heads. Studies have shown the planum temporal in the brain is active in all people whilst listening to music.

However, in non-musicians, the right-hand side was the most active, meanwhile, in musicians, the left side dominated, this is the side believed to control language processing. This shows that musicians understand music as a language in their brain.

In another study, scientists analysed the Broca’s area, which is crucial in language and music comprehension. It is also responsible for our ability to use syntax. Research has shown the in the Broca’s area of the brain, musicians have a greater volume of grey matter, suggesting that it is responsible for both speech and music comprehension.

The relationship between music and languages:

Brain and Languages Both music and languages share the same building blocks as they are compositional. By this, I mean that they are both made of small parts that are meaningless alone but when combined can create something larger and meaningful.

For example, the words ‘I’, ‘love’ and ‘you,’ do not mean much individually, however, when they are constructed in a sentence, carry a deep sentimental value. This goes the same for music notes, which when combined can create a beautiful, purposeful meaning.

Musical training has been shown to improve language skills.[2] In a study carried out in 2011, developmental psychologists in Germany conducted a study to examine the relationship between development of music and language skills. In the experiment, they separated children aged 4 into 2 groups, 1 of these groups receiving musical training, and one did not.

Later on, they measured their phonological ability (the ability to use and manipulate language) and they discovered the children who had received music lessons were better at this. Therefore, this shows that learning and understanding language can go hand in hand with musical learning and ability.


[1] See
[2] See

Being a Music Scholar at WHS

Clara and Lara, the WHS Year 7 Music Scholars, describe how their first term as scholars has gone and the opportunities that being a scholar has given them so far.

Lara (Year 7)

The thing I love most about being a music scholar (in addition to the great refreshments at concerts) is the opportunities it presents. From various concerts – to writing this article! I think all of these opportunities have helped me grow as a musician.

First, the Autumn Scholars’ concert. I had watched a scholars’ concert before, whilst in the junior school, and I remember thinking how amazing they were and how they made no mistakes. So, when the Scholars’ concert came around this term, I was absolutely petrified from a week before the concert. Half hyperventilating, I managed to get through the concert – and did well. I really enjoyed hearing the other music scholars play; they are all incredible musicians playing challenging music.

Another experience the music scholarship has given me is attending school concerts. When I initially heard we had to go to a series of these concerts, I must admit, I was slightly sceptical. So, when the piano competition came, Clara and I arranged to come together so we didn’t get bored. However, I didn’t get bored at all! I’m really glad I went to the competition and it was great listening to all the pianists; there were many points where my jaw physically dropped. If I had known how much I would enjoy it I would’ve done it in my spare-time anyway, and would encourage everyone to have the same attitude. I really enjoy being a music scholar, despite the occasional pre-concert nerves. The extra-curricular prospects it presents are wide and varied.

Clara (Year 7)

I sat with Lara to watch the piano competition, and am very excited to see her in the brass competition early next year. I really enjoy the support that the other music scholars give me. For example, when I had just finished performing my piece in the Scholars’ recital, and, as usual, I thought I had made mistakes (which I am sure they noticed too, as they are such good musicians), they still all cheered and clapped, which made me feel very special. I never feel being a music scholar is a burden, but I had fretted that my audience would expect me to play faultlessly at all times. Mr Bristow and the Music Department staff don’t, the other scholars and music teachers don’t, my friends don’t. Instead, all support us to play our best and acknowledge that the best musical performances are not necessarily the ones that are note perfect. We all just try to have fun playing different styles of music in different ways.

I have found even more opportunities to participate in different groups musically than I imagined, having fun, and without fear of making a fool of myself.  I really like the opportunity to be in ensembles with girls in different year groups – including Baroque Ensemble, which has girls from Year 7 to Year 13 in. I’m really excited about performing in Cadogan Hall in March 2019. I am loving doing so much music, but I am also finding time to do other things I enjoy, one of which is sport.  I have managed to sort out any clashes between sport and music, so I can fulfil the requirements of being a music scholar, but still do the sports I really enjoy.

The instruments you may hear us on are – cello, double bass, piano, trumpet and voice – the rest, one of the other scholars or orchestra members should have covered!

The importance of collaborative learning

How can we encourage collaborative learning? Alex Farrer, STEAM Co-ordinator at Wimbledon High, looks at strategies to encourage creative collaboration in the classroom.

Pupils’ ability to work collaboratively in the classroom cannot just be assumed. Pupils develop high levels of teamwork skills in many areas of school life such as being part of a rowing squad or playing in an ensemble. These strengths are also being harnessed in a variety of subject areas but need to be taught and developed within a coherent framework.  Last week we were very pleased to learn that Wimbledon High was shortlisted for the TES Independent Schools Creativity Award 2019. This recognises the development of STEAM skills such as teamwork, problem solving, creativity and curiosity across the curriculum. Wimbledon High pupils are enjoying tackling intriguing STEAM activities in a variety of subject areas. One important question to ask is what sort of progression should we expect as pupils develop these skills?

The Science National Curriculum for England (D of E 2015) outlines the “working scientifically” skills expected of pupils from year 1 upwards. Pupils are expected to answer scientific questions in a range of different ways such as in an investigation where variables can be identified and controlled and a fair test type of enquiry is possible.

However, this is not the only way of “working scientifically”. Pupils also need to use different approaches such as identifying and classifying, pattern seeking, researching and observing over time to answer scientific questions. In the excellent resource “It’s not Fair -or is it?” (Turner, Keogh, Naylor and Lawrence) useful progression grids are provided to help teachers identify the progression that might be expected as pupils develop these skills. For example, when using research skills younger pupils use books and electronic media to find things out and talk about whether an information source is useful. Older pupils can use relevant information from a range of secondary sources and evaluate how well their research has answered their questions.

The skills that are used in our STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High in both the Senior and Junior Schools utilise many of these “working scientifically” skills and skill progression grids can be very useful when planning and pitching lessons. However, our STEAM lessons happen in all subject areas and develop a range of other skills including:

  • problem solving
  • teamwork
  • creativity
  • curiosity

Carefully planned cross-curricular links allow subjects that might at first glance be considered to be very different from each other to complement each other. An example of this is a recent year 10 art lesson where STEAM was injected into the lesson in the form of chemistry knowledge and skills. Pupils greatly benefited from the opportunity to put some chemistry into art and some art into chemistry as they studied the colour blue. Curiosity was piqued and many links were made. Many questions were asked and answered as pupils worked together to learn about Egyptian Blue through the ages and recent developments in the use of the pigment for biomedical imaging.

There are many other examples of how subjects are being combined to enhance both. The physiological responses to listening to different types of music made for an interesting investigation with groups of year 7. In this STEAM Music lesson pupils with emerging teamwork skills simply shared tasks between members of the group. Pupils with more developed teamwork skills organised and negotiated different roles in the group depending on identified skills. They also checked progress and adjusted how the group was working in a supportive manner. A skill that often takes considerable practise for many of us!

Professor Roger Kneebone from Imperial College promotes the benefits of collaborating outside of your own discipline. He recently made the headlines when he discussed the dexterity skills of medical students. He talks about the ways students taking part in an artistic pursuit, playing a musical instrument or a sport develop these skills. He believes that surgeons are better at their job if they have learned those skills that being in an orchestra or a team demand.  High levels of teamwork and communication are essential to success in all of those fields, including surgery!

Ensuring that we give pupils many opportunities to develop these collaborative skills both inside and outside of lessons is key. We must have high expectations of progression in the way that pupils are developing these skills. Regular opportunities to extend and consolidate these important skills is also important. It is essential to make it clear to pupils at the start of the activity what the skill objective is and what the skill success criteria is. It is hard to develop a skill if it is not taught explicitly, so modelling key steps is helpful as is highlighting the following to pupils:

  • Why are we doing this activity?
  • Why is it important?
  • How does it link to the subject area?
  • How does it link to the real life applications?
  • What skills are we building?
  • Why are these skills important?
  • What sort of problems might be encountered?
  • How might we deal with these problems?

Teacher support during the lesson is formative and needs to turn a spotlight on successes, hitches, failures, resilience, problems and solutions. For example, the teacher might interrupt learning briefly to point out that some groups have had a problem but after some frustrations, one pupil’s bright idea changed their fortunes. The other groups are then encouraged to refocus and to try to also find a good way to solve a specific problem. There might be a reason why problems are happening. Some groups may need some scaffolding or targeted questioning to help them think their way through hitches.

STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High are providing extra opportunities for pupils to build their confidence, and to be flexible, creative and collaborative when faced with novel contexts. These skills need to be modelled and developed and progression needs to be planned carefully. STEAM is great fun, but serious fun, as the concentration seen on faces in the STEAM space show!

Twitter: @STEAM_WHS

Happiness Festival 2018: Peace Edition

Wimbledon High School Happiness Festival 2018

Ava (Head Girl, Y13) talks about the latest of Wimbledon High’s annual Happiness Festivals, discussing what makes such an event special and uniquely Wimbledonian.

Last Friday marked a truly extraordinary day in Wimbledon High School’s calendar: Happiness Festival 2018. From start to end, the day served as a wonderful reminder of all the warmth and support ever-present here within the walls of WHS.

When the Student Leaders and I sat down to start the task of planning the event some months ago, we thought long and hard about the properties of happiness we wanted to focus on. For us, we decided that happiness could be explained through a combination of inner peace and global peace and subsequently decided the theme of this year’s event would be “Peace”, providing a perfect tie-in to concurrent celebrations of Remembrance.

The day itself provided many opportunities for contemplative reflection, along with moments of pure fun and laughter. Our inaugural FeelGoodFest opened the event, a combination of effortlessmusic performances, beautiful poetry and heartfelt messages read aloud by students from all years. Particularly prominent in the morning’s proceedings was a lovely sense of friendship, provided not only by girls themselves thanking their friends for supporting them through thick and thin, but also through a heartwarming rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend” from Louisa and Anna (Year 13).

Later in the day, as part of our “Laughternoon” festivities, students and staff were treated to a very special performance from comedy duo Harry and Chris, who have appeared on The Russell Howard Hour and sold out three consecutive Edinburgh Fringe shows. This was a real treat indeed, with giggles heard all across the room. Harry and Chris ended their performance with a funny yet touching message of self-love, encouraging everyone to remind themselves that they are “a ten” every once in a while.

A huge thanks must of course go to The Music Department, House Captains and Music Rep for the fabulous House Music event in the afternoon, which may or may not have included a whole-school dance-along to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, a firm Wimbledonian favourite. It was lovely to see students of all ages putting themselves forward to compete on behalf of their houses; a special mention goes to Meredith for winning the House Song category, and to Arnold for their win in the House Ensemble category.

Overall, the day left me with a real sense of the enduring nature of “Wimbledonian Spirit”, with girls smiling through the wet weather and wholeheartedly engaging in the entirety of the event. A final thank you goes to the staff and sixth-formers who led sessions on Inner Peace and Global Peace throughout the day, and to all those who contributed to the organisation of the event, a real WHS team-effort!

I have to agree with the smiling Year 7 who left the school gates on Friday Afternoon with a resolute “well, that was fun”. I couldn’t agree more.