Football, television and lying in bed took second place to a choir rehearsal as thirty 10 to 14-year-olds from Blackheath in South London took a serious look at contemporary music one Saturday morning. Putting them through their paces in St Mary's Hall, Blackheath, were members of the London Sinfonietta: composer and project leader Fraser Trainer, soprano Mary Phillips and cellist Matthew Barley. The choir was one of three children's groups rehearsing a specially commissioned work, True to Life, to be performed during a weekend of new British music at London's South Bank in mid February.
True to Life, explained Fraser Trainer, is a collaboration between himself as composer, poet Sue Butler and the Sinfonietta photographer Marcus Tate, whose photos form a backdrop to the piece. Some of the photos are of the students taking part in the project; others are drawn from past projects. The piece, inspired by children making music, was composed specially for children to perform, not, as often happens, written for professionals with gaps for children's improvisations. Composer, photographer and poet devised four episodes around themes such as time, pulse and speed, and building a community. One movement, "Urban Playground", is based on children's rhymes.
"It works on two levels," says Trainer, "a straightforward children's level and a more challenging one. The most difficult thing has been writing at different levels. I have tried to compose something which is challenging for everyone." Trainer says that working with children helped him keep his feet firmly on the ground. "You tackle the same problems, whether you are writing for children or professionals."
The piece is scored for classroom and conventional instruments (electric viola, keyboards, flute, guitar, clarinet, recorders and percussion) and voices. "It's in the British tradition of composers like Benjamin Britten who wrote music for children," says cellist Matthew Barley. "There's a good feel to it."
Music teacher Sharman Steel agrees. Thirty pupils from her school, Crofton Junior, Orpington, will be performing alongside the Blackheath Choir and a Year 7 class from Northbrook C of E School, Lewisham. Each school has had three visits from the Sinfonietta team. "The really interesting thing about this project is that it teaches performance - something that never used to matter, " she says. "I was really impressed by the way the pupils listened to each other. They have loved every minute of it."
Trainer feels that the Sinfonietta has a role to play in raising the standard of performance in schools, and encouraging singing and vocal techniques which have been neglected in recent years. In "Urban Playground" the children chant in a series of syncopated cross rhythms that would tax even a professional singer. The Sinfonietta's education officer, Victoria Dawes, maintains that the ensemble, which pioneered education work in the 1980s, can provide a service to teachers who might be diffident about new music. Next season marks the orchestra's 30th anniversary, and to celebrate it there will be more new commissions and educational initiatives.
As for the children of Blackheath, they had more difficulty getting up early than with the complex score they were being asked to perform. They weren't put off by the idea of contemporary music. "I like all sorts of music," says one, "I don't notice what I play. I just play what I like."
The players had been easy to work with, comments another. "They don't shout at you - not like my teacher at school." Most of the children I spoke to played instruments and were at pains to point out that they did not rate the Spice Girls or other pop groups very highly. So, I asked triplets Olivia, Rebecca and Alex, were they going to form a trio when they were older? The answer was definitely no. "We're all going to be vets."
For more details about True to Life and London Sinfonietta projects call Victoria Dawes on 0171 378 8123