Classroom cacophony

17th May 1996 at 01:00
The London Symphony Orchestra is at the forefront of efforts to involve children in music. Mark Whitehead reports on its education programme.

Go into most school music classes nowadays and the scene is likely to be one of children banging, scraping and blowing their instruments in an enthusiastic cacophony. Music education has undergone a quiet revolution - or rather a noisy one - in recent years, a revolution that came about with the more practical focus of the GCSE and the national curriculum. The main emphasis now is on participation.

"I prefer playing to listening," says Richard McNicol, the London Symphony Orchestra's animateur - a kind of musical enabler, he explains - "and I think that children are the same. They don't want to just sit and listen. They want to join in."

McNicol, a former teacher, remembers being made to take part in concerts for children in his days as a flute player with the LSO and other orchestras. His fellow musicians, he says, were less than enthusiastic. "I was desperately frustrated by the sort of thing that was going on. All the players hated it. You could see that the children in the audience just weren't interested. It was all either pitched way above their heads or extremely patronising."

In 1977 he formed the Apollo Trust to offer an alternative and, with groups of professional musicians, began to stage practical workshop sessions in schools. Three years ago he brought his approach to the LSO, taking up the post of animateur. Now he leads school music workshops all over Britain, Europe, North and South America and the Middle East. The LSO, which has its own education department, is recognised as a leading force in music for young people.

McNicol is the brains behind the LSO's latest product, Music Explorer, a video and booklet for primary school teachers and home use. (In fact, it appears to be suitable for older children or adults as well.) The package won this year's Education Television Association award for the Best Video and Print Resource.

The video features the LSO, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, playing 12 short pieces, including such favourites as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Holst's The Planets.

The music is presented in an easy-to-follow way. There are clear camera shots of the instrumentalists and a panel on the screen giving a bar count as they play.

The accompanying notes are divided into three levels to suit different degrees of ability or interest. At the most basic level, there are simple diagrams of the musical structure and notes on the instruments used. The more advanced-level notes outline the background to the music and the composers' lives, giving more extensive explanations of how the pieces are structured. The video, the first of its kind, is linked with classroom project packs being produced by the Apollo Trust and due out later this year.

Clive Gillinson, the LSO's managing director, is a former cellist with the orchestra who set up its education department. He sees participation as the key. "Children want to be involved," he says. "In all the things we do, children are in some sense participants."

The orchestra's education programme offers a wide range of activities, including concerts for children and families, in-service training for teachers, school workshops for all age groups, and work in special schools, adult training centres and prisons.

Every summer, it runs a two-day Make Music Live event at the Barbican Centre in London, with music workshops and an hour-long session with the full orchestra. Before Make Music Live, schools take part in a programme of preparatory work under the guidance of the LSO's education department, which includes visits by members of the orchestra.

Emma Chesters, head of the education department, sees work in schools as central to the orchestra's activities, rather than the bolt-on extra some musicians perceived it to be in the early days. "A lot of players wouldn't touch it with a barge pole at first," she says. "They couldn't see why we should want to go into a school and play with a bunch of kids. But now they see that it helps the orchestra by breaking down barriers and making music more accessible. It gives a lot of the players the chance to use their communication skills. They get a huge amount of enjoyment out of it."

The LSO education department's aim is to get Music Explorer into every classroom in Britain - and to make composers out of schoolchildren everywhere.

Richard McNicol tells the story of a small boy who approached him at the end of a Make Music Live event in which the children, who had been working on musical themes in a piece by Stravinsky, finally heard how the composer himself had used the same musical material. "'Ere, sir," the boy asked, "How did that man Stravinsky know about the music we wrote?" Music Explorer, Pounds 25 (including VAT) plus Pounds 1.20 postage and packing from Discovery Department, LSO, Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. Tel: 0171 588 1116. The Apollo Trust project packs can be ordered from the department and will be available later this year.

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