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Concerto in a classroom

Classical musicians are capturing the imaginations of special needs pupils with a viola, a xylophone and a rainmaker. Heather Neill listens in

The children in Lynn Cotton's class at Paddock School, Roehampton, are used to visitors. Josephine St Leon and Kate Buchanan are regulars; they come every couple of weeks to the same group in this special-needs school and have done so for more than two years. This is one project that cannot be dismissed as "hit and run"; it is anything but disruptive in the way some exciting but short-lived irruptions by strangers are.

Jo and Kate, education officer and education consultant respectively, are here under the aegis of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Together, sometimes with LPO instrumentalists, they spend a morning in musical games and activities with these 10 special needs children aged between seven to 10.

Jo was a full-time LPO viola player for 12-and-a-half years. She still freelances, but when she left the orchestra in February she found she was hooked on the education work. Kate teaches part-time at Trinity College of Music. Their long-term commitment to Paddock School has enabled them to share Lynn's observation of the effects of the visits on the class: improving confidence, better concentration and the acquisition of social skills like learning to take turns and listening to each other's efforts.

Lynn has an assistant, Jim, and a nursery helper, Tracey. Today Tracey has brought along her sister as a volunteer helper. The children's concentration scarcely wavers when I join them, the fourth visitor in the circle, although Linda is curious and draws me close for proper scrutiny.

Jo and Kate are not told, as a matter of policy, what the children's various disabilities are, but all have severe learning difficulties resulting in speech and language delay and some have poor sight or hearing. Not that these considerations are uppermost in anyone's mind as we sit in a circle on child-size chairs, Kate with her flute and Jo her viola.

This term's class theme is books, so Jo and Kate have made all kinds of sounds in other sessions to bring stories and poems to life ("Representing a banana was quite a challenge for my viola," says Jo). Today there are ghosties with lots of "oooh" noises which we can all join in. But first there is a storm to conjure up. Shane, who leaps up enthusiastically saying his name, ready to try anything, makes an excellent contribution with the rainmaker, a long wooden tube which "swooshes" when you turn it upside down. He beams with pleasure. Then it is time for animal noises. The idea is to identify each creature from a simple drawing - cat, cow, sheep, snake, bee - so that Jo can make the appropriate sound on her viola and we all hiss and moo as appropriate. The crocodile is everyone's favourite - an excuse to shout "snap" at the top of your voice.

A game called Coffee and a Chat is greeted with ripples of excitement. We all chant a rhyme as a bean bag is passed around the circle in the manner of pass the parcel. When you are chosen you improvise on a xylophone in "conversation" with the flute or viola. Everyone wants a turn - two if possible - but achieving the impression of musical dialogue is not easy. Linda loves this game; she throws her head back and attacks the xylophone with a real sense of rhythm, "answering" Kate's flute. They play for several minutes at the end of which Kate says, appreciatively, "We had a real concerto going there" and we all applaud and share Linda's delight.

The LPO plans to continue its visits to Paddock School. It also works in mainstream schools and with young offenders. A major project on composing for the cinema, which will involve 18 schools, is scheduled for later this year. For more information, ring Josephine St Leon on 0171 546 1600.

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