The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.
– Albert Einstein
I’ve been playing the piano from the age of 5 and haven’t discovered anything yet – but I can certainly feel everyday the benefits of having studied music. Growing up in a musical family made it easy not just to pick up an instrument, but also to stick with it: my parents and older siblings were there to help me understand and accept that the road to perfection, or at least to being able to play to satisfactory standards, is paved with hours of practice.
To follow up from my previous post about music and the brain, and more specifically the Royal Conservatory of Music’s advocacy for early years music education, I’m looking now at a few schemes that introduce children to music. The examples below are actually only about classical music, mainly because being hosted by large institutions means that they come with structured learning programmes, nice videos and evaluation reports – and also that they’re easier to find.
El Sistema / In Harmony / Big Noise
Back in 2009, I got to spend a full day at a primary school in West Everton to observe musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra teaching pupils (and their teachers) for several hours a day, from singing at the morning assembly to practicing their tiny violins in small classes then rehearsing as a full ensemble in preparation for their performance at the Royal Festival Hall. This was the very first year of In Harmony Liverpool, a learning scheme inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan “system” based on intensive instrumental practice and orchestral performance embedded into the daily life of underprivileged children with an overt goal to promote individual and collective change. Or in the words of its founder, musician and politician José Antonio Abreu:
An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.
El Sistema has attracted its share of praise over the years, but also criticism – most recently by British academic Geoff Baker, who has just published El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (previewed by Baker in the Guardian, and reviewed pretty much everywhere – I especially like the responses from El Sistema-specialists Tricia Tunstall in Classical Music Magazine and Jonathan Govias on his own blog – watch out for the aggressive comments by the reviewed author himself!).
Wile the debate is raging, El Sistema-inspired schemes are still going strong in the UK and have grown to 6 official programmes in England, where they are called In Harmony, and two in Scotland, where they are known as Big Noise.
Children & the Arts: Start & Quests
Children & the Arts is a national charity backed up by the Prince’s Foundation with a mission to introduce children who are least likely to discover the arts to high-quality artistic experiences. Their approach is based on long-term partnerships between venues and schools to develop year-round engagement programmes, with regular visits, participatory activities and embedded learning. I found out about them through the Relaxed Performance Project that they piloted a few years ago, enabling children with special needs and their families to enjoy live theatre together.
They offer two main types of programmes: Start, fostering partnerships between primary schools in deprived areas and cultural venues that are geographically local to them yet a whole world apart; and a series of year-long Quests focusing on one area and one single art form at a time and structured around teacher support, workshops with professional artists, access to free performances and opportunities to create and perform. Quests have so far explored architecture, poetry, theatre, orchestral music, dance, opera and visual art.
They also run Start Hospices, work with children’s hospices to enable children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions to enjoy a cultural outing with their family in a welcoming, friendly and very supporting environment.
Orchestras Live: First Time Live
I came across Orchestras Live recently via their new music scheme Beyond the Premiere through my ongoing research on new music commissioning. They also run a large-scale national outreach initiative, First Time Live, a touring programme that not only brings orchestral music to young people, but also involves them in repertoire selection, production and presentation of the concert.
In 2013 and 2014, First Time Live – Youth brought 20 concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia to young people aged between 10 and 14 years living in 10 locations in the bottom 20% for arts engagement across England (Hull, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Grimsby, Luton, Harlow, March, Peterborough, Thurrock and Mansfield).
Here are a few selected quotes taken from the evaluation report of the project’s first phase, from both Young Producers and teachers.
‘It just felt like it wasn’t something we were ‘allowed’ to experience but we were the ones creating the experience’. Young Producer
‘I’ve learnt that I definitely want to be a music teacher, because the [project] experience has shown me how really accessible music is to children, no matter what age and I want to support and encourage that’. Young Producer
‘The children were very impressed and gave standing ovations – which took us teachers by surprise. I think this demonstrates the strength of their feelings towards the concert. They chatted about it for days afterwards too’. Teacher
The project has now entered a ‘legacy‘ phase, building on the success of the first tour to develop and consolidate new outreach and participation models. In Barrow-in-Furness, 30 young producers aged 12-15 organised two concerts by the Manchester Camerata for their school peers; in Spalding, young people devised their own collaborative concept for a concert with the City of London Sinfonia and young local musicians; in Harlow, a group of students worked with composer John K Mile and the City of London Sinfonia to commission and promote a collaborative piece with young musicians; and in Luton, young musicians created and performed a new orchestral piece with the City of London Sinfonia on the theme of Carnival (work-in-progress documentary below).