Orchestras learn to teach in harmony

21st November 1997 at 00:00
As orchestras have expanded their education and development activities, so the need to provide specific training opportunities for the musicians involved has grown more pressing.

One means by which both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are able to do so is through a joint training initiative funded by the Scottish Arts Council and the Association of British Orchestras.

The initiative was launched in April 1995 and came about through the efforts of Naheed Cruickshank, former education manager at the RSNO, and Eona Craig, former development director of the SCO. Both were aware of the need to provide musicians with some grounding in the specific requirements of working with children in a school environment. Many musicians are accustomed to teaching private pupils on a one-to-one basis as instrumentalists, but it is a very different matter being faced with a class of eager primary pupils, or a room full of sceptical teenagers.

For musicians used to the relative anonymity of the orchestra section, the business of communicating and interacting with pupils in this exposed fashion can be daunting. The work is paid, but voluntary - some players take to it readily, others work to overcome difficulties they encounter, and still others express no interest at all.

Responsibility for conducting the training sessions is entrusted to Alec Roth, a composer and educationist with a wide-ranging experience of the field. Naheed Cruickshank had worked with him in other contexts, and felt that both his experience and his personality made him an ideal choice to run the workshops, which began with the most basic considerations.

"The musicians are all professional players who are very competent on their instruments, but what they do on the concert platform does not really prepare them for this kind of work.

"The workshops started out with such basic things as the proper way to introduce themselves to a room full of children, as well as trying to develop their communication skills. The sessions are linked to particular projects that the musicians will subsequently take into schools, so they were very much directed to practical aspects of their development work."

Periodic sessions have taken place in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with musicians from both organisations taking part, a combination that has added a further frisson to an already potentially unnerving situation.

Jeremy Fletcher, a cellist with the RSNO, acknowledges that the experience was an interesting one, and found the session particularly helpful in terms of the approach to the whole business of helping the kids to create their own music, an aspect of the development process which has become increasingly important. He makes the point, however, that there is no substitute for hands-on experience.

"The workshops themselves are a strange mixture of the interesting and the embarrassing, and it can be difficult to make a fool of yourself in front of your colleagues, especially if your section leader happens to be there. A lot of the stuff that goes on with the kids is essentially common sense, but I've picked up useful tips on presentation, and especially on dealing with the creative aspects of the work.

"There is no substitute for the experience of going out and doing it, though, and I believe that newcomers can learn as much, and probably more, from going into the schools with colleagues who have experience of these projects. "

Brian Schiele, a viola player with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, agrees that much of the work is down to common sense, but says that he found the sessions with Roth very useful in building the necessary confidence. (He admits that he gets nervous over the school projects in a way that he does not in a performance situation.) They also emphasised the value of proper preparation and presentation, he says.

The courses are intended to help the musicians put across their ideas in an interesting and engaging way, and to assist them in evaluating their own contributions, both in the course of the work and its aftermath. A number of musicians have participated in successive workshops, helping to build their skills over time and giving them the opportunity to explore ways in which things that may not have succeeded initially in the classroom might be made to work.

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