Always totally composed

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Victoria Millar sees how the Academy of St Martin in the Fields makes a point of involving schools in its playing

Dust is catching sunlight in the music room at North Herts Music School as 35 pairs of Doc Martened feet stomp time. A group of 14 and 15-year-olds are clapping an intricate rhythm they have just invented. Well, they are until one gets out of synch and then another, and another, and giggles ripple round the room. Brendan Beales, the composer leading this music workshop, is giggling too.

"It's a group confidence thing," he tells them. "If somebody looks confused you automatically get confused yourself. Happens in orchestras all the time."

There are four Hertfordshire schools taking part in this workshop organised by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Virtually every academy performance is accompanied by education work of some kind.

Usually, as here, a composition is put together from scratch in three days spread over a fortnight. Sometimes elements may be taken from the piece being performed by the orchestra, a theme or a melodic fragment perhaps, giving the children new ways of thinking about how the composer worked. The final product, however, is their own. On the night of the concert it forms a prelude to the academy's performance.

In her six years in post, the academy's education officer, Elise Akseralian, has built up relationships with the schools and education authorities involv-ed in the projects. The academy makes a point of working with GCSE groups.

While these students are sometimes afflicted by what John Cooney, the composer in residence, diplomatically calls, "the psychology of adolescence", the workshops do feed directly into their school composition work. "The brainstorming approach is very much what they are looking for on the GCSE syllabus," says Paul Herring, the head of music at Knights Templar School, Herts. "As teachers we are always trying to get them to come up with something new. The workshop frees them up so that they are not thinking along too traditional lines."

This is a challenge for teachers and musicians alike. "My group chose C minor," says Judith Busbridge, one of the musicians taking a workshop group. "I really should have encouraged them to choose something less safe. While they were practising I wandered past Brendan Beales' room where others were trying some really wild harmonies." A flautist with the academy who has toured all over the world, she says she finds leading the groups more challenging than playing.

When the orchestra plays in Hong Kong this summer for the hand-over celebrations, education will be part of the tour, with training days for teachers as well as students. "I have lost count," said John Cooney, "of the number of teachers who say 'We trained as flautists or cellists and have performing degrees and have no experience of approaching this side of the curriculum'."

A feedback session had been planned - even after the comparatively low-key workshop in Hertfordshire. Paul Rooke, head of music at Hitchin Girls' School was concerned that training for teachers would escalate the cost of the workshops. Cash is tight at his school; the orchestra receives no public funding and finances its education work through private sponsorship and school contributions.

Each of the schools taking part in the Herts project paid Pounds 300, much of which they raised themselves. Yet for pupils and teachers it is a chance to meet musically-minded contemporaries. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Hughes said that "it was better than at school because everyone has a sense of rhythm, so you can use other people's ideas too. You aren't singled out here because you are all as good as each other."

Everyone enthuses about the contact with "real" musicians. Peter Chapman, the head of Knights Templar school, said: "It is a fantastic experience for the kids. The lot that we had this time had come back from Germany the previous Saturday and were off the next with Alfred Brendel. For our Year 9s to be rubbing shoulders with musicians of this calibre is just tremendous. Especially at a stage when the children are thinking about whether to do music or not."

Elise Akseralian is clear that the contact with schools is just as good for the musicians. "One reason for doing this is to encourage a new generation of concert-goers. We all react better when we know someone on stage and the education work encourages students to look on us as their orchestra. It is a way of getting a future for ourselves and for our music." She estimates that 800-900 children are involved in their projects each year.

Poet William Anderson's piece The Green Man, set to music by Paul Pritchard, will be premi red this July. Plans were underway more than two terms ahead. The lamp-lit open air premiere at Farndon Park in the Thames Chase Community Forest, Essex, will be invaded by school-children. Their dance projects, artwork, and compositions will work right into the centre of the event. Not something that happens in orchestras all the time.

Academy of St Martins: 0171 702 1377

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