Early years go classical

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Too young for a symphony? Not according to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. James Allen reports on its 'Monster' concerts

The idea that playing Mozart to an unborn child can improve its academic chances in later life has spawned a whole industry of "genius baby" audio and video tapes. But in the real world, encouraging children to enjoy classical music concerts from an early age may yield more tangible results.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra's latest "Monster Music" concerts for nursery school children aim to get youngsters interested as soon as they can start walking.

This month, more than 5,000 pre-school children from around 100 nursery schools in the Central Belt saw the RSNO play in 15 concerts. They took place in the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Grand Hall, Kilmarnock, making it the biggest "Monster Music" tour so far.

The RSNO has been running music concerts in some form for nursery school children for almost four years. The first events in the late 1990s were quite makeshift: children were simply brought along to hear the orchestra rehearse its standard repertoire.

As Ewan Small, the RSNO's education development manager says, that was not ideal, but the reaction of the children who attended those rehearsals was a big impetus to develop something geared more towards their needs.

"That age group of children is intrinsically musical," he says. "They hear music and they clap or dance. They are not afraid of music. They have got some idea of rhythm and they are excited by music. It is the kind of audience that orchestras don't traditionally aim for, or perhaps even think about."

To be fair, both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BT Scottish Ensemble regularly involve nursery school children in their education projects. But the RSNO is the only Scottish orchestra that has set out to provide a dedicated concert for the under-fives.

This month's event was a brilliantly conceived and colourful show, lasting about 40 minutes, with huge coloured balloons arching above the orchestra, PowerPoint cartoon presentations and a machine pumping bubbles over members of the audience as they entered the hall.

Infants sat on the floor in front of the full-scale symphony orchestra and the players wore polo shirts instead of formal evening dress.

It is all designed to make infants feel at home in the concert hall and is much more enlightened than those dreadful and patronising children's concerts, which did the rounds with other orchestras in the 1970s, in which a besuited figure introduced pieces of classical music from a lectern in front of an orchestra.

With "Monster Music" the whole ambience is conducive to making orchestral music appear friendly and to helping infants feel the beat and pick out sounds.

Paul Rissmann, Scotland's premier music animateur, was drafted in to comp re the concerts and it was his job to inspire the children both to listen and to take an active part in the music making.

Anybody who has seen him at work in an open-necked shirt and trainers, rousing children of all ages at other RSNO schools events, will attest to his jovial manner. But for the under-fives, being cool and trendy is less important than being fun and keeping them amused, as Rissmann well knows.

"With nursery school children the greatest challenge is time," he says.

"You have a short period of time in which children will focus and engage with what you're saying and, no matter how exciting and brilliantly you are doing it, you get to a point where they've had enough."

Mr Rissmann chooses the music carefully. Most pieces are short and either tell a story or have a particular quality he can exploit with the children.

Activity seems to be the key to keeping their attention.

In the recent "Monster Music" events, there was always something to do during the music. For example, imitating animal movements in excerpts from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, watching a cartoon horse gallop on the screen behind the orchestra in Rossini's William Tell Overture, or singing along to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

But "Monster Music" is not just about making classical music fun; it is also about developing listening skills.

"The danger of society now is that music is used just as a background noise," says Mr Rissmann. "I use music as background myself at home. But there must come a point when your ears tune into music.

"I imagine that for many music teachers one of the greatest challenges is to get kids to really listen. All the creative participation is geared towards preparing the ears. What we are aiming for in making it all interactive is better listening."

For further information on educational activities and concerts for nursery schools, contact Ewan Small at the RSNO on 0141 225 3584

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