This year's schools proms, run by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, are bigger and better than ever, says Christopher Lambton
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra's four schools "proms" look set to be one of the largest music education projects ever undertaken. More than 7,500 children of around Primary 6-7 age are expected to attend four concerts, two in the "Armadillo" Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow and one each in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. One hundred and seventy-three primary schools are involved. Some larger schools, such as Our Lady of the Missions, are sending over 200 pupils to the concert, while even the tiny island of Lismore off Oban will be sending 10.
This daunting project has been coordinated by the RSNO's animateur Paul Rissmann. Before the concerts, there will be 283 workshops, each school having at least one session in which pupils will have a chance to explore the music of one of the works in the programme, Malcolm Arnold's Tam o' Shanter. Orchestral musicians will be present, but only "as a resource for the school to use", claims Rissmann, not to run the workshop. That, he says, is up to pupils and teachers. And to help smoothe the way, he has held seven teacher training sessions around the country.
The workshops have caught the interest of teachers who were initially sceptical about the hassle of bundling pupils off to a concert. A workpack has been produced with simple projects to help schoolchildren get to grips with Arnold's music.
Having witnessed Rissmann's intense, "hands-on" approach to running his own workshops, it is interesting to see how thoroughly he has prepared the ground for workshops he is unable to attend and have control over the children or the instruments available.
"It's impossible to devise something that will work everywhere," he admits, but that doesn't stop him trying. He has written out the main themes of the piece, transposed them for different instruments, written words to accompany Tam's jaunty tune, and even drawn a keyboard to show how "spooky storm" music can be created with semitone intervals.
The pack is littered with the sort of questions that lead naturally to creative development. Should each sound be used only once? Should the rhythm stay on one instrument? What would a witches' dance sound like?
The music for the schools proms has been chosen for its association with transport. Tam o' Shanter rides a horse, while other journeys - not all of them successful - are given orchestral clothing in James Horner's Titanic, Ron Goodwin's stirring 633 Squadron, John Williams's cult music for Star Wars, and Strauss's Train Polka.
Workshops will also include straightforward rehearsal of the Skye Boat Song, so that those who can bring an instrument to the concert will be able to join in. In the case of the Armadillo, the combined forces of 2,500 children promise to create a sound unlike anything you have heard before.
The schools' proms, to be conducted by Christopher Bell, are part of a wider season of popular concerts given by the RSNO between late May and June. Entry to these is restricted to participating schools, but the orchestra is also performing three "Kids Proms", or family concerts, in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow (in the Royal Concert Hall) with exactly the same programme, but without the preliminary workshop.
Friday May 28, Aberdeen
Thursday June 3, Edinburgh
Tuesday June 15, (two performances) Glasgow
Saturday May 29, Dundee
Sunday June 6, Edinburgh
Saturday June 19, Glasgow