Jungle fever hits nursery schools
You are never too young to play an instrument, or even compose your own music. At least that is the message behind the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's education project in East Renfrewshire, which culminates next Tuesday when nursery school children perform songs and dramatised improvisations in front of hundreds of their fellow playmates in the John Wright Sports Complex in East Kilbride.
Each of the 13 nursery schools in the area will perform a miniature piece of music theatre based on Giles Andreae's noisy collection of animal poems, "Rumble in the Jungle", together with a couple of new songs by the Welsh composer Dyfan Jones.
The animals started rumbling in the jungle of East Renfrewshire last autumn, when education officials got wind of the RSNO's Monster Music programme for nursery children. Spurred on by central government funding for early intervention, they approached Paul Rissmann, the orchestra's education manager and music animateur, whose impressive track record includes inspiring 1,200 primary school children to listen while explaining the intricacies of Malcolm Arnold's orchestration.
Rissmann despatched a musician to each of East Renfrewshire's nursery schools for a day of "fairly basic stuff - songs, rhymes, and making music". He then put on the RSNO's first ever nursery school concert. In October the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow was dressed up with balloons and streamers as for a children's party and the entire double bass section came to the front of the orchestra to play the Elephant from the Carnival of the Animals. The concert was such a success that it had to be repeated twice for East Renfrewshire and twice again for Glasgow nursery school children.
But Rissmann, who could probably persuade earthworms to make music if he wanted to, was searching for a way of introducing composition into nursery schools. It so happened that Rumble in the Jungle was a book in every East Renfrewshire nursery, and that the 13 animals represented by Andreae's jolly poetry corresponded to the 13 nursery schools. Accordingly, each school was allocated an animal and a musician, with Barrhead Community Nursery, for example, getting not only the tiger but the RSNO's formidable percussionist Pam Dow. Giffnok got the snake and the orchestra's resident charmer, oboist Claire Cushing, while the only rumble of discontent came from Madras, where the children thought that the grace of the gazelle scarcely compensated for the likelihood of being eaten by the others.
Dyfan Jones wrote some appealingly mysterious music for two songs to open and close the show, while each school nominated 20 or so children to work with the professional musicians and create a three-minute composition about their animal. Rissmann gathered the music teachers together for a day of training and produced a Rumble Pack which gives a step-by-step guide to composition for five-year-olds.
One technique, he suggests, is to place chime bars on the floor and ask the children to choose four to create an instant melody. "Never say that anything is going to be difficult," he warns. "Treat everything like a game."
Using words and rhymes, he suggests, even very young children can learn complex rhythmic structures without realising it.
He has been working in Hazeldene Nursery school on the elephant, where a simple chant has introduced the children to transitions from 4:4 to 5:4 time, something that most musicians would not expect to encounter until their late teens.
Back in gazelle territory, the discontent simmered, despite Andreae's appealing poetry: "I can leap up so high, That my horns touch the sky, And I'm awfully pretty as well."
Rissmann came to the rescue by encouraging the childen to think of these leaps in musical terms. Asking them each to pick a chime bar in turn, he was astonished to see that between them they were able to choose a regular pattern that leaped from one end of the scale to the other.
Rumble in the Jungle offers yet another perspective on the interminable debate about music provision at all levels of education. While the organisers of the National Youth Choir of Scotland complain that singing is, or has been, eroded from the secondary curriculum in favour of instrumental tuition, orchestral musicians such as Rissmann are worried that nursery school children never get to play an instrument.
"When we started with the nursery schools in East Renfrewshire, we found lots of new instruments which were never played because the teachers didn't know what to do with them. We hope to give them confidence."
Contact Paul Rissmann, RSNO, tel: 0141 226 3868