Orchestral music in another light

Katrina Tweedie

Teachers in Orkney are using computer-generated images to help nursery pupils respond to music through dance, pictures and stories, writes Katrina Tweedie

Every nursery teacher understands the difficulties of getting young children to listen to music for any length of time. Within minutes contagious fidgeting has spread to almost every child.

So, asking under-5s, with their limited vocabulary and command of language, to express their response to music might seem an impossible challenge. Yet this is exactly what teachers at Sanday Community school in Orkney attempted, with startling results.

In a collaboration with the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music and a local resident, teachers tapped into the children's innate creativity.

Using an overhead projector and an amplifier, music played on a laptop computer by Windows Media Player was translated into images projected on to the gymnasium wall. The response from the children was astounding.

At the end of a week-long exercise, during which pupils used information technology and traditional methods to express their feelings about the music, the children were suddenly able to develop intricate stories based on the music they heard.

Some children placed layers of cellophane on the overhead projector to build up a light collage on the wall, while others sat quietly and watched the visual display. The children found that if they scrunched up the coloured plastic they could create moving pictures as it unfolded.

When a digital projector was used to show animations produced by the Windows Media Player's visualisation features (found under the View menu) to accompany the music, the children at first sat and watched the colourful images until one little girl asked if she could "get inside" the display.

Within minutes, most of the children were dancing and all were mesmerised by the lights, images and sound filling the hall.

The children were also asked to draw on the electronic whiteboard. When the music was playing they drew shapes and patterns, but when it was silent they reverted to representational drawings instead, such as boats.

"The difference was really quite marked," says Helen Newman, a nursery nurse at the school. She devised the groundbreaking initiative with Jayne Hayden, the school's music teacher, while thinking up new ways to use information technology in class.

Mrs Newman explains: "Flicking through the new computer menus at the nursery I found Media Player. The visualisations were so mesmeric I decided I had to find a way to use them and thought it would be a fantastic way of presenting 21st-century classical music to children."

Mrs Newman, who is also a violin teacher, chose a light orchestral piece, "Maxwell's Reel, with Northern Lights", which was written in 1998 by Maxwell Davies after seeing the northern lights on his way to a dance on the island.

The choice was a way of meeting the curriculum's demands for children to experience different sounds and rhythms, while keeping them focused.

"We decided not to dumb-down music by using something specifically written for children, but look at how we could present classical music that might inspire children," says Mrs Newman.

"Then we decided that language was not the best way to let them respond initially, so we looked at other ways, because too often you have to feed them lines and the response doesn't come from within the children."

The children's response to the piece showed that they appreciate classical music to a much greater degree than would have seemed likely given their limited verbal skills, says Mrs Newman.

"It appeared that, through using other artistic media, they were able to reflect upon what they were feeling," she says. "After the exercise they developed a wonderful story about angry giants eating the stars in the sky.

They hadn't had this freedom of expression in the same way before."

Children's reactions to classical music are interesting because they have not developed adults' preconceived notions about its highbrow, inaccessible status, she says. For example, at other times when children at Sanday Nursery ask for music, Mozart is played and they disco dance to it.

All the children were able to participate in the musical experiment. Only two chose not to dance and instead sat mesmerised by the lights, listening intently so they were able to recognise the structure and themes.

"We are very remote and have very few opportunities for children to experience other cultures," says Mrs Newman. "Now we want to try and expand this project into other cultures and music, possibly using Indian or African music, and giving artefacts to the children to play with, to create other atmospheres.

"With Windows Media Player and the darkened hall it was perfect, because it focused the children. And it can be done in any room, anywhere in the country to create a similar experience."

SETT Maxwell's Reel, with Northern Lights: ICT, a Catalyst to Creativity, by Helen Newman and Jayne Hayden, Thursday 12.45pm

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Katrina Tweedie

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