Some notes on how to keep your ears open

Svend Brown suggests a new approach to developing pupils' appreciation of music.

Music education in the broadest sense is dominated by participation. Role models for aspiring musicians are performers and composers; children are encouraged to play and create, join the choir, take up the piano. All of that's to the good, of course, but there is one particular skill which is too often neglected: listening.

Not the sort of formal listening skill that is so valuable an element of many exam curriculums (recognition of chords, styles, speeds etc), nor the very practical sort of listening developed by every good player or singer, but the experience of coming to a piece of music with a receptive, informed and enquiring mind.

Most school musicians will ultimately enjoy music more as listeners than participants, yet few of them will have been taught how best to do it. This may be because listening and hearing are too often confused, and we expect listening to be almost a natural faculty. Or it could be that fairy tales are to blame. Just as we learn how the prince met Snow White and they lived happily ever after, so we are constantly fed this notion that music is something which magically moves, transfigures and inspires you - Orpheus with his lute, bringing the world to a standstill by the beauty of his voice.

That can be true. There are pieces that do seem to cast an immediate, universal spell - Barber's Adagio for Strings, Pachelbel's Canon. Just as Cinderella offers precious little marriage guidance counselling, Orpheus gives no hint that you may have to work to discover things in music. You cannot always just sit back and let things happen.

This is an issue that is complicated by a minefield of prejudices. Sally Hobson, education programme manager, and Audrey Grant, music projects officer of the Edinburgh International Festival open their "Connect to Music" workshops by getting these problems out in the open. Their aim is to introduce classes to the enjoyment of classical music, so identifying the enemies is as good a place to start as any.

Hobson points out that when challenged, most classes come up with familiar accusations of the music being "dull", "not for them" or, just to be frank, "crap".

The measure of their success is that usually, by the end of the sessions, the class has enjoyed several pieces of classical music. Hobson and Grant build these bridges in three stages. Personal experience and responses are encouraged, shared and affirmed - at the simplest level, participants write down their thoughts while listening to a piece. As the workshops have nothing at all to do with testing ability or musicality, all responses are equally valid.

Having established that level, the next step is to discover how listening with an awareness of historicalmusical context might be enriching. So the class talk about what the 20th century means to them, then relate their experience to three pieces of recent music.

Finally, they aim to give the class an insight into the difference between listening to live performance rather than CD. They experience for themselves how much more intense the experience is live.

Those are three big steps which could form the basis of a whole curriculum. Regrettably, as with so many education projects, funding will never stretch that far. The school I attended had just three packed weekly sessions: inevitably there are limits to what can be achieved. Even so, the teacher was impressed at the level of response from the class, particularly as the sessions involved some unorthodox techniques, liable to produce giggles. Hobson had the children lie on the floor in a darkened room and relax with a breathing exercise. Once all were quiet, she played the first movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. The mixed-ability class of 14-year-olds listened intently.

In a sense, these workshops are a continual development. Grant and Hobson do not claim to have found an ideal formula yet, but there is plenty of demand, and not only from schools. They run similar sessions for various adult groups around the City of Edinburgh, and this year - for the first time - they will be integrated into the main programme of the festival. Sessions will be linked to concerts and open to the public - a chance for anyone to hone their listening skills.

* Further information from Sally Hobson on 0131 473 2001.

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