The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's development programme in schools is one of the best established of all music education projects in Scotland, but their Highland Tours have taken them into what is still relatively new territory. The current project began last year, and has continued in Islay, Jura, Ballachulish and Plockton earlier this month, and in the Grantown-on-Spey area this week.
The players must be prepared to undertake a broad range of tasks in these areas, which can be a daunting prospect in itself. The trio which visited Islay and Jura, for example, were there to work with primary school pupils for whom a close encounter with orchestral instruments was a new experience, but also to offer specialist help to Standard and Higher grade pupils in IslayHigh School.
Stephen Page, the SCO's development director, emphasises the importance of responding to the needs of local circumstances. In Islay, for example, the sole focus of instrumental tuition has been on woodwind, but the visiting teacher recently retired, and no replacement has been appointed. Thus the trio which visited the islands included clarinettist Alison Waller, who was able to provide some specialist coaching within the programme.
The development projects are highly valued by the SCO, but they are not solely altruistic. The presence of violinist Lise Aferiat and cellist Su-a Lee also gave the pupils a taste of what to expect when the SCO string orchestra visited the island last week. The SCO is uniquely placed to take its work into the smaller Highland venues, which could not accommodate a full symphony orchestra, and has developed a special relationship within the area.
Following a development project in Fort William last year, the audience for the associated annual orchestral concert rose from 160 in 1995 (with no development project) to 260. Even more encouragingly, however, the figure remained at the higher level when they returned in May of this year. The benefit to the orchestra in such an arrangement is clear, although education remains the main priority in the school visits - the Ballachulish project, for example, was associated with the SCO wind ensemble's impending tour of the region, but it was felt that the needs of the schools themselves would be better served by sending in Quartz, the SCO's highly experienced string quartet, rather than a wind group, given the emphasis on string tuition in that region.
Nevertheless, the purpose of the development and education programme also finds justification from such audience figures. Few of the pupils who take part in these projects will go on to a musical career, but all have the opportunity of the enrichment which an involvement with music brings.
The musicians introduce them to instruments and musical concepts, but the sessions are invariably highly participatory, and generally involve the pupils in creating music of their own.
Viola player Brian Schiele says: "There is only one real challenge, and that is to get through to the children. It can be very hard work, but when we are able to do it, it can generate a real excitement for them, and for us as well. At one time we would go along and spend the session telling them things, but the focus has shifted, and very often it is they who tell us what they want, and there is a great sense of satisfaction in seeing that flame of enthusiasm being lit."
The emphasis on sending small groups into schools is partly dictated by the current bleak funding picture, exacerbated by the need to form new relationships with the revised network of local authorities. But Stephen Page does not rule out further full-scale development projects like the Music Factory in Inverness in 1995, which involved the full orchestra, and played a part in the launch of the Highland Youth Orchestra.
These small-scale visits, however, allow a kind of close contact between players and pupils which would be hard to create in any other way. The Highlands are still fresh ground for much of this work, and the schools involved are eager to make space in their timetables to accommodate them. The special relationship, it seems, is set to be a lasting one.
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, tel: 0131 557 6802