Score with bravado and imagination

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Composition is crucial in Standard grade music. Kenny Mathieson and, below, Judy Mackie look at two approaches

The conductor taps his baton, the audience falls silent and the orchestra is poised ready to begin. But wait: where's the score? There's not a music sheet to be seen. Nerve endings jangle at the prospect of public humiliation.

However, for four groups of pupils from the north-east, their nightmare has been laid to rest after an exhilarating six-week creative music experience culminating in a score-free performance at the Aberdeen Music Hall.

This term, musicians from Cults Primary, Cults Academy, Bridge of Don Academy and Aberdeen City Music School have learnt to overcome the angst of working without sheet music. They have experienced the excitement of improvisation and composition and played their diverse works for a discerning audience at a concert given by the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Their achievement was inspired by a series of workshops led by composer Andrew Cruickshank and RSAMD students Emma Jane Hughes and Fraser Gordon as part of an education project organised by University Music at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland's Conservatoire and Aberdeen City Music School. The workshops covered a variety of topics, from understanding how orchestras work, to the sounds made by individual instruments, to group composition through improvisation.

"All the work was built around the concert, which featured Beethoven's ninth symphony and Webern's arrangement of Bach's "Ricercare a 6" from The Musical Offering," Mr Cruickshank says.

"Rather than have a one-off performance, the idea was to make it more of an experience for more people, so local schools were invited to get involved."

The group composition workshops aimed to encourage pupils to experiment with their own musical ideas and to feel confident with their own decisions.

"I gave them starting points and we looked at options for taking the music forward," says Mr Cruickshank. "Once they got the idea, they could decide for themselves what should come next.

"It often takes time for individuals to realise they can make this decision, instead of simply reading what someone else has written, which is what most musicians do most of the time."

But such an epiphany can provoke anxiety as well as exhilaration, as Bridge of Don Academy viola player Jennifer Tack, aged 17, confirms. "At the first workshop, we were all a bit nervous, because nobody likes improvising. It's scary," she says. "Then it started to come together. We had a performance plan and played from memory, guided by Mr Cruickshank's signals.

"It's been fun to take part and, now we've had experience of improvisation, I think we'll be more confident about using it in the inventing section of our course."

Bridge of Don Academy's principal teacher of music, Dorothy Marshall, says:

"I'm a great believer in encouraging pupils to use their imagination and take chances when inventing, but it's often difficult to instil that idea.

The workshops have been a useful learning experience."

Miss Hughes says that while the school players were generally well matched, the focus of the workshops was less about ability than about understanding the range and character of the sounds their instruments could produce.

She describes the Bridge of Don Academy piece, "Fear Over the Menacing Skies", as "very dark and Beethovian in that it has recurring motifs and expresses mood rather than telling a story".

She adds: "All four works are unique and bring in lots of pupils' own ideas, which is brilliant."

"We've been greatly impressed by the range and depth of musical ability in the schools we've visited," says Mr Cruickshank. "It's definitely a reflection of the quality of music teaching in Aberdeen."

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