Get this show on the Silk Road

21st September 2012 at 01:00
A collaboration with students from China is helping Scottish schools to hit an interdisciplinary note. Jackie Cosh reports

Today we are sharing history. Never before has a Chinese orchestra travelled beyond China."

Standing in the assembly hall at St Aidan's High in Wishaw, the pride in Nigel Osborne's voice is obvious. The Reid Professor of Music from the University of Edinburgh has been working with the students from Peking University for some time and, as a member of the Tapestry Partnership board, he has been keen to see this aspect of its Silk Road project developed.

The Silk Road to Scotland takes music from the Silk Road countries, such as China and India, as the key to interdisciplinary learning, with the creative arts helping students to learn.

"We have been running Silk Road in North and East Ayrshire and North and South Lanarkshire," says Professor Osborne.

"The object is to use music to lead an interdisciplinary project, to open doors. There was never a road between Scotland and China. Silk Road was the route the silk took through India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Silk Road countries by coincidence are the countries where many of our immigrants come from - the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, so this is a celebration of the richness of these cultures."

As well as silk, much knowledge passed along the route - maths, chemistry, medical knowledge. And in many ways the arrival of the Peking University students is seen as a modern-day Silk Road.

"The students who are here are from undergraduates to postgraduates. They are the creme de la creme of China. Peking University recruits the best brains. Not only are they fabulous musicians, but they are clever too," says Professor Osborne.

During their week-long stay the students have been divided into two groups and are visiting four hubs, schools which are either Confucius hubs or planning to become one. In some schools, they will be filtering into classrooms, sharing thoughts. "We have the best brains in China wandering round schools," says Professor Osborne.

The concert comprises a range of pieces being played by the Chinese students - duets and ensembles - before they join the North Lanarkshire Schools Symphony Orchestra.

This morning was the first chance to rehearse with the Scottish students. The Chinese style of reading music is different from the Western style, with numbers instead of letters, but this does not affect the quality of the music.

Violins and bassoons play alongside Chinese flutes, erhu (Chinese violin) and the yangqin (Chinese dulcimer). Professor Osborne explains what each of them is.

Head Tony Rooney is proud that this year the school had the highest number of students sitting Higher music in Scotland and knows the value of such visits.

"We are exposing them to the wider sense of music," he says. "We are moving into running different courses with music, opening barriers and seeing what we can develop. They will now have a wider idea of what music is about and the cultural aspects, too."

After the concert, the group has lunch before getting ready for an afternoon with the CSI science group, followed by a mock trial. With a biomedical engineer, a physicist and a medical student among the visitors, the chance to tap into such experience and knowledge is not being lost.

Both groups will gain a lot from the visit and from talking and getting to know a little about each other's lives, says Professor Osborne. "We have a dreadful tendency to stereotype. Although we are very respectful of China, we think people are locked into certain political philosophies, but they are much more open-minded. It is useful for us to see what they are like. These are the young people of today and it is good that we get to know this.

"We have the people who will lead China in the future here at St Aidan's and the Scottish pupils are getting the opportunity to hear music from the best musicians.

What the students said

"The concert was a good experience and I have never heard music like that before. It shows how good they are that they can read our music. The way they play, they never play the same piece of music the same way twice."

Clarinet player Sarah McKenna, 17

"It was really interesting, even the instruments. It was the first time I had seen them. The concert went really smoothly."

Saxophone player Nicola Welsh, 17

CSI-Style science inquiry

Rather than go down the route of the Silk Road project, St Aidan's set up an interdisciplinary learning project after five members of staff completed the Harvard Teaching for Deeper Understanding module.

A CSI-style investigation looks at the science involved in finding a murderer, and in examining the evidence, but also brings in areas for debate and discussion such as problem-solving and moral values.

As well as setting well-defined understanding goals, students are very clear about the success criteria, explaining the overlaps between subject areas, common threads for learning and how this enhances learning.

"The principles of Silk Road are similar to what we are doing," says Mr Rooney. "The children are taking responsibility for learning. They are learning the value of research and how to apply it. The idea is that they should be able to apply these skills anywhere in the school."

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