Anxious, creepy and happy music;Arts in Scotland

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Kenny Mathieson watched pupils and musicians from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra prepare for this week's School Proms

It has been a case of all hands on deck for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's education section, with two projects running simultaneously preparing for this week's Scottish Power School Proms concerts.

The main focus has been a wide-ranging project based on the programme for the concerts in Edinburgh on June 3 and Glasgow on June 9, sponsored by ScottishPower Learning under the title Play Me A Story. Twenty-four musicians from the orchestra are giving one hour workshops in 130 primary schools in 10 education authorities in 11 days.

At the same time, a smaller project sponsored by Tesco has taken six musicians into schools in Dundee and Aberdeen and a special needs workshop in Edinburgh to give composition workshops. These were followed last week by a children's performance in Dundee, prior to the RSNO's evening concert at the Caird Hall, while pupils in Aberdeen had the opportunity to buy subsidised tickets for the concert at the Music Hall.

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has provided the common thread for both projects. The work is featured in whole or in part in all of the concerts. The School Proms also focus on another strongly narrative composition, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, in a new Scots translation by Liz Lochhead.

An excellent schools action pack to accompany the musicians' visits was prepared by Jeremy Fletcher, a cellist with the orchestra and one its most committed educationists, and Vanessa Fernand Miller, a primary teacher with a special interest in music. It is intended to provide simple exercises for use in class by non-specialist teachers.

The pack is clearly laid out and eminently practical, with exercises designed to acquaint pupils with the practice of working together in an ensemble and with ideas about the creation of activity and moods in music. The exercises relate to the Mussorgsky and Prokofiev pieces, but could readily be adapted to other contexts.

Fletcher and his fellow cellist Lyn Armour, who turned violinist for the occasion, demonstrated the principles in a session at Stane Primary School in Shotts. The main aim was to provide an introduction not only to the idea of telling a story in music, but also to the orchestra itself.

The level of basic information can vary widely from school to school, and it was interesting to note that this group of 50 or so pupils were able to suggest some fairly arcane brass instruments. But they were less forthcoming on the winds and strings, perhaps reflecting Lanarkshire's brass brand traditions.

The principal focus of the sessions lay in participation. First came exercises to demonstrate rhythmic and dynamic movement using mouth or hands. Then eager volunteers quickly snatched up a small selection of mainly percussion instruments.

The point was to establish familiarity with ways music can be used to evoke or represent moods and feelings within a narrative framework.

The musicians encouraged pupils to imagine a simple scenario in which they were alone in a house, and their initial happy mood was interrupted by a little anxiety over unfamiliar noises, only to be dispersed again.

The ensuing sequence used cello and triangle to create happy music, followed by a section of creepy music with cello, violin and trumpet, dispersed by a chime on miniature cymbals and a return to the happy music.

The simple sequence, conducted by one of the pupils, may have been somewhat untidy. But it underlined points the musicians had been making and allowed the pupils to bring their own imaginative input to the exercise.

All the pupils involved in the exercise attend one of the School Proms. The workshops will have given them not only a flavour of the music they will hear, but also an inkling of the processes which lie behind it.

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