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Stringbabies: Changing Lives Through Music

Kay Tucker formed Stringbabies to help teach young children to learn an instrument and read music. Now, despite its name, Stringbabies’ techniques are used by people of all ages across the country and beyond. We met Kay at her Horsham home to discover how the business evolved...


Formulating an Idea

About 14 years ago, Kay was at a crossroads. With her husband approaching retirement, Kay was considering what to do. As an experienced musician and teacher, she created Stringbabies, an idea she’d been formulating for many years. “There was a gap in the market for instrumental lessons for young children. I had provided tuition for many years, but had long felt that traditional ways of teaching children to read music were ineffectual. I wasn't completely satisfied with the methods I was using to teach. When I started to break down what was involved in teaching young people, I came up with a new approach, far removed from conventional methods.”

It Began with the Cello 

Stringbabies was born when Kay received a phone call from Arundale School in Pulborough, which closed in 2010. The school’s Head of Music asked if she could provide music tuition, and Kay took the opportunity to try out her new method on pre-school pupils. After discussing the idea with parents who expressed an interest, Kay launched her first Cellobabies class. “The lessons were great fun, but it took me six weeks to go through what I could now achieve in a matter of minutes. My aim was to ensure that the idea worked because it was fundamentally a good idea, and not just because I was an enthusiastic teacher. After a year, the children were able to read music and I had a feeling that Cellobabies might have a future.”

Making Music Fun

 Kay’s method involves children learning music by linking each string to a child’s toy, or even a shape for very young children. Gradually, through musical games, the child develops an understanding until they can read a five-line stave. Students are also encouraged to create their own compositions as they progress to a level where they can read conventional musical notation. “Young children love to play, and if they can associate a music lesson with playtime, it would be engaging and fun. At the age of three or four, children can learn good playing habits and pick up music reading very easily.“For those that start at such an age, most achieve grade four by the time they reach Year 7 and often they are playing at a grade six or seven level. One young lady, who started playing when she was three and has just turned ten, has reached grade 8 with a high distinction and has been accepted to the National Children's Orchestra.”

The Violin Version

After two years of teaching Cellobabies, several parents suggested that Kay should write a book, which she did with guidance from Pat Legg, a leading music educationalist. “Pat had vast experience in this area and very quickly she felt that the book could work. Putting it together gave me a headache as I had to explain things simply in writing, which was challenging. Slowly, but surely, the Stringbabies method began to spread through word-of-mouth and some of the more curious teachers in the profession took notice. Eventually, I was asked to write a violin version of the book. However, what greatly surprised me was that it wasn’t just being used to teach children. I heard about adults who had never learned to read music using it.”

 Fighting Music’s Corner

Nowadays, the Stringbabies method is used to teach the violin, viola, double bass and recorder, as well as the cello. Whilst Kay continues to offer one-to-one tuition, the books are also used by an increasing number of registered Stringbabies teachers. In 2010, the Surrey Music Service (now Surrey Arts) decided to run a Stringbabies pilot scheme. Surrey Arts now has 15 teachers delivering tuition across the county, whilst the service has also been taken up in Cornwall, East Ayrshire and Oxfordshire. The method has reached America and Kay is training her first teacher in Australia, via Skype. However, she still believes classical music is being undervalued as an educational tool. “Music teaching is under threat because it is not given priority by the government. I know school budgets are tight, but having spoken to politicians and leading music educationalists, it is my opinion that the value of music is generally not being recognised. “I have young children learning to read music and it’s no big surprise that when they start school, their literacy skills are much sharper as a result. Research proves that playing an instrument challenges and develops the mind. If the government focused more on music, drama and sport, schools would see better results across all subjects. Yet unfortunately, we’re continually having to fight our corner.”

A Good Teacher

Kay was a musical late starter, picking up the cello at the age of 12, passing grade 8 by the time she was 16. Unfortunately, she wasn’t taught an adaptable technique and by the age of 18 had to re-learn the instrument completely. Two excellent teachers guided Kay through this difficult time whilst she studied at Huddersfield School of Music, before she was accepted to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. After four years there, where tutors noted Kay’s passion for teaching, she spent a year in teacher training. “It’s true that a brilliant musician doesn't necessarily make a brilliant teacher. Having to relearn the cello was significant, because to understand the problems that instrumentalists face, you need to have been there yourself. You need to be able to analyse and offer a solution that will help a musician improve. That is a skill I've developed. I had a tough experience, but if it hadn't happened, Springbabies would never have been born. “Even now, I still feel I’m learning. I love watching others teach as everyone has their own approach. Stringbabies has core principles but it's a very adaptable method and that's why it has such a wide appeal.”

Showcase for Talent

Music has been a way of life for Kay. Having spent most of her working life in tuition, she is also an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals for Music, Dance and Speech, travelling around the country and abroad. She has also performed many times and continues to play recitals and orchestral work when good opportunities arise. Kay has played in a piano trio and a string quartet with local musicians, including Rosemary Hensor (piano) and Rachel Ellis (violin), with whom she co-founded the Horsham Performers Platform. “We would come together and have joint pupil concerts. They became so big that we decided to hold a festival. It's grown from a one day to an eight-day event, so it’s been a huge success. “It gives us all the opportunity to showcase the talent of students.”

Life Changing Music

The success of Stringbabies has been recognised by a string of awards. As well as being a finalist in the Rhinegold Music Education Awards for Excellence in 2013 and 2014, Kay was a finalist in the BBC Radio Surrey and Sussex Community Heroes Awards in 2014. Not one to rest on her laurels, Kay continues to expand and evolve the business, hosting Stringbabies classes for the European String Teachers Association’s pathway programme. She has also introduced a three-tiered qualification, developed in collaboration with Victoria College of Music and Drama, and SoundPost, a musical instrument distribution company. More developments are likely as Kay’s method gathers popularity. “In future, I would like to see Stringbabies being used to help more disadvantaged young people. I was asked to set up a session in Hertfordshire with a legacy left by a lady called Dorothy Wells. The legacy will be used to buy instruments and provide either free or subsidised tuition for disadvantaged people. “It is my hope that Stringbabies will have an expanding role to play in social intervention, being used by children to put them on a life changing path, as that is what music does. It changes lives.”




Kay Tucker with a young pupil