Shakespeare's Macbeth, a popular theme with 19th century composers, proved a source of inspiration to year 10 GCSE pupils in two Westminster schools. Working with players from the Philharmonia 0rchestra and workshop leader Paul Bartholomew they created their own tone poems based on Richard Strauss's Macbeth, first heard at a concert some months earlier.
Pupils from St George's School used letters from Macbeth - ACBE - to compose a series of short episodes with titles such as "Macbeth's Guilt after Killing Duncan", "The Good Face of Macbeth and the Bad Face of Macbeth" and "Duncan's Funeral". An instrumental group from St Augustine's School created a " symphonic" tone poem based on the story, including a "Three Witches" rap, narration and a fanfare.
Instrumental expertise in both schools is limited. At St George's several pupils played keyboards. Their teacher Jo Morgan explained that they had been asked to think about how their music would sound when arranged for trombone, saxophone, double bass, percussion and keyboards, the instruments played by the professionals. Simple riffs were soon transformed into dramatic pieces and in some cases it was difficult to believe that the ideas had come from the students.
"The pupils' enthusiasm was tremendous," said Anita Langridge, a Philharmonia player. With few exceptions, none of the pupils from St Augustine's had played an instrument before the workshops began. "It was a case of raiding the music cupboard and seeing what could be found," said Paul Bartholomew. They discovered enough brass and string instruments to form a chamber orchestra, an achievement of which he is rightly proud. "The pupils were particularly fascinated by the vibraphone and the alto saxophone - instruments they might aspire to play."
Head of music Jeremy Wilkinson is saddened by the thought that now the Philharmonia players have left there will be no instrumental tuition at St Augustine's unless extra funding can be found. "Our pupils are deprived of musical experiences. This project has gone a long way to make up for gaps in their musical education."
The Philharmonia 0rchestra also works with more advanced students. Sixty young string players from Brighton, Berkshire and Bedfordshire youth orchestras joined five players at the Royal Festival Hall to perform String Soundscape, a piece devised largely by themselves with guidance from composer Jackie Walduck, who was also the conductor.
During April, Jackie and the players ran a series of one-day workshops to introduce improvisation to the students. The basis of the piece was chant, and the ideas came from Time Chant Music for Violin and Orchestra by German composer Wolfgang Rihm, which was performed later in the evening at the Festival Hall. The students were asked to improvise eight episodes which were then linked by specially composed tutti sections.
Jackie, who teaches at the Guildhall and studies at City University, said she felt inspired by working with young people with such a high level of musicianship. "It was good to see how many ideas came from them," she said, explaining how birthdays, spaghetti bolognese, frogs and beer, ham and Parmesan had found their way into the piece.
Berkshire string coordinator Stephen McDade felt the project had been an original way into contemporary music for pupils reared on Mozart and Beethoven, and was impressed with the level of technical skills players acquired in a very short time. "Jackie is a marvellous communicator, and a role model for our female string players. This project has certainly given me some ideas on how to tackle contemporary music with students."
The Philharmonia's education co-ordinator Helen Houghton feels that the orchestra is breaking new ground in working with musically able students. "As for our GCSE work, we really want to make composing and performing accessible to children who can't read music or play instruments."
For more about Philharmonia Education write to the Education Co-ordinator at 76 Great Portland Street, London WIN SAL.