Space Oddity – The Langley Schools Music Project

The Langley Schools Music Project was a group of 60 elementary school children from four different schools in Canadian British Columbia circa 1975-1977 who all shared the same music teacher, Hans Louis Fenger.

In 1971 Hans Louis Fenger was – in his own words – “a guitar strumming hippie“, teaching guitar by day and playing in clubs at night. When his girlfriend became pregnant he enrolled at university, gained a teaching certificate and was hired by Belmont Elementary School in Langley, British Columbia to teach music to kids aged 9-12. In 1975 he was asked to teach at three other local schools as well. The schools themselves were all small 3 or 4 room buildings serving local rural communities; many of the children came from isolated farms.

Fenger later said: “I knew virtually nothing about conventional music education, and didn’t know how to teach singing. Above all, I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be. But the kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal…This was not the way music was traditionally taught. But then I never liked conventional ‘children’s music,’ which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary...Much music that I like was made not by people who broke the rules, but by those who never realised there were rules, such as Sun Ra and Brian Wilson…I was also influenced by Phil Spector’s ‘Symphonies for Kids’ – taking a basic concept like ‘Be My Baby’ and turning it into Wagner.

Fenger was also inspired by Carl Orff’s ‘Schulwerk‘ – a developmental approach to music education that focused less on ‘the right notes’ and rather on engagement. After several months practicisng, Fenger arranged a sing-a-long with all the three schools’ children in one of the school gyms. He also thought it would be fun to make an album from these sessions so that the children could learn about recording. The recordings were made live in the gymnasium using two microphones and a two track tape deck. The experiment was a success and a couple of years later a second record was made. On both occasions the children’s families all chipped in a few dollars, for which they would receive a copy of the album, and this helped cover the cost of pressing and packaging the record. Enough copies were made to give to the children, parents and faculty – around 150 copies of each session. They were never intended for wider release.

25 years later Brian Linds, a record collector, found a copy of the first album in a thrift store. He sent it to outsider music enthusiast Irwin Chusid and within a year a compilation of the best of the two school records was released on CD to critical acclaim.

Apart from the American Orff-Schulwerk Association who stated: “It is very evident that the [Orff] instruments were not used as they would be used in the Orff-Schulwerk approach. AOSA has no desire to be connected with this recording … Thank you for your interest in the American Orff-Schulwerk Association.

Oh well. Their loss. Fuck the American Orff-Schulwerk Association.

You can find a page of letters sent to Hans Fenger by the students who took part in his classes, after they discovered as adults that they were all now rock stars, here – They make for a lovely read. This little snippet from one, pretty much encapsulates them all:

“For twenty-five years I’ve carried with me the memories of you and all the classmates; the good you did has never disappeared from my heart.”

Fun Fact: Screenwriter Mike White’s concept for the 2003 Richard Linklater movie School of Rock was inspired by the Langley Schools Music Project story.

David Bowie described their version of Space Oddity as “a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of,” while musician John Zorn said: “This is beauty. This is truth. This is music that touches the heart in a way no other music ever has, or ever could.