How to make music sing

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Four Dundee schools are to benefit from a three-year pound;18,000 music partnership with the RSNO. Esther Read reports

Most teachers could be forgiven a moment's scepticism on hearing that their class is expected to compose and perform a piece of music in a major public venue at the end of just four three-hour sessions with a couple of visiting musicians. Yet that's exactly the challenge being faced by four Dundee schools under a joint Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Dundee City Council initiative.

The city has provided the money for an intensive three-year RSNO project as part of its wider "Music Plus" programme. Lottery-funded to the tune of pound;180,000, Music Plus aims to bring "a clearer focus for the creation, development and presentation of live music in Dundee." To that end, the city's arts and heritage arm has given another pound;20,000 and the Scottish Executive's Social Inclusion Partnership fund gave pound;30,000.

All sorts of music will be supported, from jazz to traditional to rock and pop and classical. However, the RSNO's schools project, which has captured pound;18,000 of the available kitty, represents the culmination of the city's efforts. The project builds on the sort of work the orchestra, under its education manager and music animateur, Paul Rissmann, has been pursuing for several years. Rissmann takes whatever the orchestra's current repertoire happens to be and then looks for ways in which to assist the children in discovering it for themselves. "The secret," he says, "is offering the kids ownership of the project. This isn't something we do for them. It's something in which they play an active role."

Composition is the key to his approach. The children are given the structure for a particular movement in an orchestral suite and asked to devise their own music in a way which recreates that structure. In the first year of the initiative, the music will be Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges and the two primary classes involved - P5 at Glebelands and Bracken primaries - will focus on the story behind the music. They will be offered a simple, five-note scale with which to work and encouraged to experiment with instruments to discover which sounds and rhythms best suit their story.

At secondary level, the approach is more akin to devising music for a film. Students will be offered a "map" reflecting various stages of their particular movement and asked to invent their own pentatonic scale with which to achieve the desired effect. Two S3 music classes from Baldragon Academy and Menzieshill High School will participate.

"By the time they actually attend the concert and hear the orchestra perform," says Rissmann, "they understand how and why the music is composed as it is. In fact, they're among the most informed audience members."

What's unique about the project is that all four classes will be involved throughout its three-year-run. For Rissmann this is one of the most exciting aspects. "Sometimes in the past we felt we'd got to the point where the kids were all fired up and then the funding ran out. This time we'll be able to build on what we've done, year on year," he says. Both Rissmann and Rachel Gardner, Dundee's music development officer, dny that this could mean musical opportunities for the few at the expense of the many. They point to the wide range of other initiatives pursued by the RSNO.

"In addition," says Gardner, "it's open to the teaching staff to extend the project with art work, drama or dance in whatever way they choose. We might have a corresponding exhibition in the concert hall where the children will be playing and as the project progresses I'm hoping to enlist the support of groups like Dundee Rep's outreach team, the Scottish Dance Theatre, or the School of Contemporary Dance."

Clearly, for the initiative to work, there has to be a partnership between musicians and teachers. The bond was formed during an initial in-service training session where teachers were asked to compose and perform in response to exactly the same stimuli as the pupils will experience. Despite initial trepidation, the reaction was enthusiastic.

"The process takes away the mystique from composing and understanding music," says Donna Small of Brackens Primary, "and if we loved it, the children will. We've recently invested in some specialist musical instruments for our special needs children and I can see how easy it'll be for them to contribute, since the methods used allow for a whole range of abilities to be challenged at the same time.

"Also we have one child who can be quite disruptive but has a great sense of rhythm and this will be wonderful for him."

RSNO musician Philip Hore agrees. "Music-making is the ultimate team game. It requires children to work co-operatively, watching out for what the other person does which will cue them in while being responsible for what they are doing themselves. The social aspect spills over into other aspects of curriculum and children's general behaviour."

So, on February 19, just four weeks from their initial meeting with the musicians, the pupils will be performing their own work in the foyer of Dundee's Caird Hall, immediately prior to joining the audience to hear the orchestra's performance of the Prokofiev piece itself. This pattern will be repeated with the new repertoire in year two. But that's not all. The most exciting part comes in year three when the RSNO will commission a new work from composer Graham Fitkin. This will include "windows" into which students insert their own compositions, invented in conjunction with their teachers, the musicians and the composer himself, and will be the first time there has been a stand-alone, fully-integrated, educational performance with the pupils and RSNO performing together. Further funding for this element of the project is being sought, and Rissmann is typically optimistic.

Scott Sneddon, who teaches piano at Baldragon, has worked with the RSNO on similar projects. "Working in this way with professional musicians brings all the dry words of the musical dictionary to life - things like structure, texture, scale, rhythm and pattern. "The students learn compositional techniques without even realising they're doing it. They grow in confidence through creating, performing and expressing themselves. What they achieve in the next few years will stay with them for life - personally as well as musically."

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