Symphony on a blue straw

Orchestras can be fun, and in a classroom near you thanks to technology

on its first-ever performance, "The Blue Danube" got a lukewarm reception from Viennese music-lovers. The reason finally becomes clear when four woodwinds from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra get together by video-conference with a classful of kids at Papdale Primary in Kirkwall.

Strauss simply forgot to score the parts for blue and purple plastic straws.

The sounds these home-made instruments make in the mouths of schoolkids are duck-like, slightly musical and highly entertaining - particularly as the young musicians in Glasgow take turns to stand up and sit down as a signal to the kids in Orkney that it's their turn to blow.

"Nothing you do is stupid when it's about education," explains Barry Deacon, a clarinet player .

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has a remit to cover the whole of Scotland, says Jennifer Martin, learning manager. "But we cannot physically go everywhere. The orchestra is simply too big for most halls."

Virtual travel, on the other hand, is perfectly possible, using technology in the SSO's new home at City Halls in Glasgow, which lets them refresh the parts other orchestras can't reach.

"We now have one of the most technologically advanced halls in the country," says Ms Martin. "So we've started working with primary schools in the Western Isles, Orkney and Dumfries and Galloway. The musicians introduce the kids to the families of instruments. They hear the music of each. They show them how the sounds are made.

"Then the children get a chance to play with the musicians."

Video-conferencing at its best is about interaction as much as instruction, and right from the start the pupils are encouraged to contribute. "As you can see, there are four of us today rather than three," Mr Deacon says.

"Can anybody tell me what a group of four musicians is called?"

Undeterred by the tech-nology, the pupils soon offer suggestions like quadrilet, quadruplet and quadruple. About the only word that does not get a mention is quadruped.

But a beast puts in an appearance when the musicians give a little introduction to each instrument, working up from piccolo and flute, through oboe, clarinet and bassoon to the grandaddy of them all, the contra-bassoon.

Looking like 10 feet of bent but sturdy plumbing, and sounding like musical rumbles from the nether-world, this monster of the orchestra impresses deeply.

"Is the floor shaking?" they ask. "Yes we can all feel the vibrations here," Sarah Andrews tells them truthfully.

The name of the group may be new to them, but the youngsters recall a great deal from their first session. They recognise the instruments. They know a flute has no reed. They even remember the musicians' names.

There is more musical learning to come. "Schools are getting two virtual visits from the musicians, followed by one physical visit where we actually go out and work with them," says Ms Martin.

In just 30 minutes, the Papdale pupils have heard music by Strauss, Ravel, Dvorak, Henry Mancini and Jean Francaix. They have been introduced to eight different instruments from the same family, and heard what they sound like in the lips of experts.

Best of all, they've discovered that members of an orchestra, who can seem remote and aloof on the concert stage, are human beings whose dedication to their craft is accompanied by a sense of fun.

"This isn't about teaching instruments," says Ms Martin. "It is about giving children access to a world-class orchestra."

More on how the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra works with schools to enhance the appreciation and enjoyment of music can be found on their website. This includes an online guide to the orchestra, with audio recordings and interviews with musicians.

Jennifer Martin, learning manager T 0141 338 3027 E


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