Christopher Lambton watches the Scottish Chamber Orchestra work with blind children to turn melody into a touching story
The expression "touchy-feely" has a whole new resonance when you are talking about students at Edinburgh's Royal Blind School.
For sighted people, tactile exploration is something of a luxury, but without sight, touch becomes a fundamental way of perception.
So, to say that the culmination of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's recent three-day education project at the Royal Blind School was visually rather chao-tic is to tell only half the story. It would be more accurate to refer to the instinctive grasp of rhythm, the strong purposeful singing, and the obvious pleasure with which the audience swarmed over a sculptural installation packed with tactile sensations designed to intrigue and amuse.
The SCO's involvement with the Royal Blind School was to celebrate National Touch Reading Day. As part of the National Year of Reading, which focussed during May on reading without print, the RNIB and the National Library for the Blind started a campaign on May 12 to promote the benefits of touch reading, at the same time as launching "A Touching Experience", a country-wide festival of creative events to illustrate the importance of touch as a means of communication.
For three days the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's education department, led by Fiona Vacher, experimented and improvised with a group of 10 S1-S3 music pupils at the Royal Blind School. They were able to explore the relationship of music, rhythm and shape with an intensity that their own music teacher, Judith Dean, says would be impossible within the normal musical life of the school, which involves a great deal of classroom singing as well as conventional instrumental training.
The pupils listened to John Cage's Imaginary Landscapes and Handel's aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo, and then with the help of animateur Dee Isaacs used the music as a springboard to create their own story, set in an imaginary landscape, with its own musical language.
The tale they came up with, beautifully narrated by Alastair Irvine at the final performance, involves a group of shipwrecked sailors whose existence on a desert island is threatened by a snake that demands a ransom before they can be set free.
Designer Patsy Forde worked with the children to give the island a form that was rooted in the story and the emerging music. Thus the jagged mountain shape in brilliant yellows and blues represented a melody that ascends in steps - each step marked by a fuzzy ball that can be felt by tracing a hand over the outline.
Other melodies were translated into shapes wrought out of pipe-cleaners which were then draped, like musical decoration, on top of the basic melodic idea. Under the mountain, a cave contained a slimy silver snake.
When it came to performance in front of fellow pupils and representatives of the RNIB, the group used a battery of percussion instruments to create the sea, shipwreck and subsequent puzzlement of the sailors as they search for the ransom.
With a nod in the direction of John Cage, the piano lid was opened and pupils plucked at the strings while others played the keys. One young girl, led by the arm to the "island", sang shyly as she let her hand run up the contours of the mountain. More boisterous was the chanting of an African song that had been learned as an encore.
As performances go, it was a long way short of polished, but that would miss the essential point - that during this project these blind or visually impaired children were given a rare opportunity to discover the touchy-feely nature of music. In the vote of thanks at the end, the participants were not content to clap politely but shouted enthusiastically. "I liked the song!" "I liked the composing!" "I liked making things!" "We really enjoyed having you here." It didn't seem remotely forced.