Children’s Corner

Spotlight

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.

Evaluation reports, case studies and free teaching resources are available on their website.

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).

Music on the Brain

Spotlight

It’s been nearly 15 years, but I finally have a piano back in my life, and I’m enjoying playing again so much that I’ve even taken up the ukelele to have a second instrument I can carry with me everywhere.

I played music for several hours daily from an early age – first piano, then also violin and guitar –  until I moved away from home to start university and it all became a bit too much. In my early teens, I was seriously considering a career as a piano teacher, and I often remind myself that what I do as an arts administrator and producer is very much along the same lines of sharing my passion for music and the arts and trying to get people to appreciate them from within.

As I continue to research what art is and does, I like to organise my findings into more-or-less structured lists, so here are a few resources I’ve recently come across about the effects of music on the brain. Nothing exhaustive here, just a few starting points for further enquiry that can perhaps support advocacy efforts.

 

Musicophilia

Like all other books by the neurologist Oliver SacksMusicophilia (2007is a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening dive into the mysteries of the brain, looking at the biochemistry of music perception through case studies based on clinical observations of Sacks’ own patients and correspondents. A keen amateur pianist himself, Sacks probes into the musical phenomenon with a rigorously scientific and deeply empathic mind, sharing fascinating insights into the role of music in people’s life: sometimes a burden, for example when it takes the form of intrusive auditive hallucinations, most often enriching and transformative.

The video below is a 90 minutes’ talk that Sacks gave at the Cambridge Forum about the book, where his personable storytelling style shines.

The Benefits of Music Education

The Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music has recently published a pamphlet on The Benefits of Music Education, using neuroscience research to convince parents to sign up their children for formal instrumental lessons (another publication details how Structured Music Education is the Pathway to Success).

Promised benefits include:

  • speeding the development of speech and reading skills;
  • training children to focus their attention for sustained periods;
  • and helping children to gain a sense of empathy for others.

It’s also peppered with quotes from successful people who studies music in their youth, such as writer Annabel Lyon:

Music study made me disciplined, and it’s helped me to understand that you don’t need to feel brilliant or inspired all the time to know that you’re moving forward.

Or Olympic champion and motivational speaker Jeremiah Brown:

…piano lessons were my first experience sticking with something over a long period of time. This set me up for being able to pursue goals that did not come with quick rewards.

I also found on their website a nice animated video conceived by music educator Anita Collins about what happens in the brain when we are playing an instrument.

Neurosymphonie

Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, the French public broadcaster Radio France is organising a series of conferences on music and the brain entitled Neurosymphonie between March and October 2015.

Gathering prominent neuroscientists and musicians and aimed at an audience of music, health and science professionals, the conferences examine questions ranging from the differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians, the links between music and memory and between music and health. Video highlights will be made available soon.

musique-et-cerveau-3-bd-article-585-x-390

How Music Works

The first instalment of this series of conferences featured a discussion on amusia, a congenital or acquired condition whose sufferers can’t ‘hear’ music. Amusics have difficulties in processing pitch, rhythm and melody; depending on the severity of their condition, they can be keen amateurs but a little tone-deaf, rather indifferent to music or downright hostile to it: for some people, music is an unpleasant or even painful experience.

What makes music music rather than noise? That’s one of the many questions that classical composer and physics professor John Powell set out to answer in his 2010 book How Music WorksIt’s quite simple really: a sound is a ripple travelling through the air that hits the eardrums with a certain pattern; the eardrums then translate the information to the brain. The difference between a musical note and a noise is that notes have a regular pattern – whereas noises are erratic ripples.

Powell goes on to explain why the minor mode sounds sad and the major mode triumphant (or rather why we think so), why harmony sounds good and other historical, psychological and scientific musical facts. It’s an entertaining book that covers a lot of ground to help readers become better listeners.

Here’s a trailer that gives a good sample of the questions explored in the book:

 

(featured image by Matt Kish – from his awe-inspiring Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page project).

Take it away

Spotlight

In the midst of the Arts Council England funding cuts, I wanted to check if a brilliant scheme that they used to run was still in operation, but I couldn’t remember the name of it, so here is how I went about it (a feeble attempt at network mapping – for a more impressive example, see this Map of Jazz):

1. I remembered that video interviews with musicians were featured on the website, including one with clarinetist Arun Ghosh, a regular Manchester Jazz Festival guest.

2. Last time I spoke to Arun, in 2009, he was musical director for Something in the Air, a MIF Creative project with Oily Cart, described as “a stunning aerial adventure for young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities or an autistic spectrum disorder.”

This brought up great memories but didn’t advance my search. However, checking Arun’s website, I noticed two noteworthy facts:

a. Arun has a new album out.

b. He is playing at a festival called Love Supreme, which, with such a name, could only be jazz, and turns out to be “the first 3-day greenfield jazz festival in the UK for over twenty years”, a few miles from Brighton.

Going slightly off-track, I investigated this new festival to glean a few more facts:

i. As well as high-profile international artists – Robert Glasper Experiment, Melody Gardot and Esperanza Spalding – and excellent local acts – Portico Quartet, Neil Cowley Trio, Gogo Penguin, Kairos 4Tet, Troyka – Love Supreme features Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music fame playing his own repertoire in a big band style (with a big band) and the intriguingly-named White Mink Vs Peppermint Candy, which turn out to be two hot electro swing club nights currently surfing the cabaret revival wave (for a French and live version of the genre, see Caravan Palace).

ii. To break a few more stereotypes about jazz, it actually has a nice website, with lots of Instagram-style photos and an easy navigation. It offers camping, glamping (glam camping, anyone?) and podpads (which look truly adorable with their candy-stripe beach hut vibe).

As this didn’t bring me anywhere nearer the object of my initial enquiry, I turned to the Arts Council England website and looked at their Initiatives page, and there I found it: Take it away. The link provided sent me to an 404 error page, but a quick search finally got me to the right website.

What is Take it away? A programme aiming to make musical instruments more accessible to children and young people by providing interest-free loans of up to £5,000.

How do I take it away?  Individuals must either be over 18 buying an instrument for a child under the age of 18 or aged 18-25 using the scheme in their own right. They also must be a permanent UK resident working at least 16 hours per week. They can apply by mail order or directly at one of the 300+ participating shops, then pay a 10% deposit, et voilà! They can take their new or reconditioned instrument home and practice, practice, practice.

Who runs Take it away? Take it away is an Arts Council England intiative operated by ​Creative Sector Services CIC, designed to help more children and young people get involved in learning and playing music.

The website is full of tips and advice, as well as some lovely customer case studies – such as 17-year-old multi-instumentalist Emma who dreams of becoming a music teacher or young sax player Omar who wants to be in a jazz band.

Professional musicians across all genres also share their career path and their thoughts about the scheme – here is a small selection, with links to the full interviews:

Frank Turner:

I think that anything that helps getting younger people into music is good. Although I think a little adversity is important too – Rock ‘n’ Roll is, and will always, at heart be rebellion music.

Courtney Pine:

In many cultures outside the UK music is an integral part in the development of the young. This has been a tried and trusted way of supporting positive growth patterns in young minds. From the beginnings of our existence in Africa repetitive reinforcement of social conduct, order and general safeguarding against danger has been reliant on songs or nursery rhymes which allow the young to ‘get the message’ in a very direct way. Playing an instrument is a further development of this, which gives (in my experience) the student an even closer attachment to personal development. I believe this scheme to be important and very relevant to our current society.

Joseph Arthur:

It’s amazing to give people the gift of access to their imagination. Apart from the basics of survival I can think of no  greater gift.

And finally, to close the loop, here is the video interview with Arun Ghosh that got me started on the Take it Away trail, where he talks about clubbing, improvising on the recorder and why the clarinet is a vastly superior instrument.

Art and Animals 1: Collective Learning

Programming

“Perhaps art begins with the animal”, ask Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy?

And perhaps recent examples of participatory experiences involving animals is a good starting point to explore new ways to engage and develop audiences.

As a first “Art and Animals” entry, I wanted to come back to TransHumance, a large-scale participatory experience hailed as the highlight of Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture.

Transhumance – from the latin trans – across and humus – land: the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures.

Transhumance is a century-old practice, developed on all inhabited continents. In Provence, it has shaped the landscape and created exchange and circulation, of people, animals, stories and seeds.

After a sharp decline in the 20th century, it is currently garnering a new surge of interest in France.  As herds of sheep, cows or goats are guided along well-defined routes – that need to be carefully negotiated with local authorities and landowners – villages along the way celebrate this seasonal event with festivities and educational opportunities about pastoralism.

Théâtre du Centaure, a Marseille-based company working exclusively with horses, have conceived TransHumance (note the emphasis on the Human) as a vast participatory experience for Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013. Starting on 17th May in Italy, Camargue and Provence, 3 groups will converge near Marseille, gather for a transcultural celebration, and walk through Marseille on 9th June.

TransHumance features horses and their riders, livestock, land art, animal choreography (for which the term animaglyphs was coined) and village fêtes.

Audience participation is encouraged before, during and after the experience, offering different ways of contributing to the work, but also of learning:

While these opportunities are open to everyone, TransHumance is also working closely with the Academie d’Aix Marseille (regional school board), which represents about 200,000 pupils, from elementary to secondary schools, to embed arts, sciences, philosophy and digital skills projects into their 2012-2013 curriculum. Suggested pedagogic projects are outlined here. TransHumance is also featured in the free collection of “dossiers pédagogiques” (learning files) called Pièce (dé)montée, offered to teachers to prepare their class for a touring play.

The TransHumance trail starts on 17th May – a free app is available to follow the live journey, and active phones on the sponsor network will be visible on an augmented-reality 3D map – but audience engagement starts much before: the calendar on this regional school board document states that the first call to schools was scheduled for January 2012.

One class has taken the project at heart: the “classe d’accueil” of the Vieux Port secondary school, in Marseille, open to children learning French as a second language, coming from Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and many more countries. They are writing a year-round blog inspired by the project: poems about identity, visits to exhibitions, and other ways to help them discover their new city and culture, learn French and develop friendships and common points of interest.

Not all learning opportunities are aimed at schools: in conjunction with TransHumance, free workshops are offered in Marseille to train to be a dance “guide” for BalBêtes, the giant ball organised where the three trails meet, before the Great Crossing of Marseille. As several thousands of people are expected for this evening of traditional dances, each “guide” has to commit to train ten “mirror dancers”, who will in turn help participants to follow the steps and enjoy the choreographies.

And to finish, here’s the teaser video created by Théâtre du Centaure, marrying the strange and the mundane with its centaures visiting the busiest train station in Marseille.