Vienna learns to improvise

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Mozart and waltzes are synonymous with the Austrian capital, but it can still be taught some things about music. Douglas Blane reports on an unusual Scottish export.

On a warm afternoon in Vienna, tramcars are clattering along the Ringstrasse and the ornate spire of St Stephen's Cathedral is sparkling in the sunlight. Inside the Palais Eschenbach, in a hall of red and gold, 40 excited children are listening to a saxophonist in a blue shirt: "Mein Name ist Paul und ich bin ein Musiker aus Schottland."

Unlikely though it seems, Vienna is about to learn something about music from Glasgow. Scottish schoolchildren have been taking part in events like this workshop with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for several years, but it is an entirely new experience for the Viennese.

Nine volunteer members of the RSNO are taking part, led by animateur Paul Rissmann. He has devised a project that begins with a collection of musical instruments, some pictures and a roomful of children and produces four original pieces of music with a dispatch even Mozart might have envied.

First the children must be warmed up. As they follow Paul's lead, the adults clearly wonder what touching toes or shouting "Boom Chicka Boom" has to do with composition. But half-an-hour later the ice has been broken and, with the children in four groups, the music-making begins.

The structure of the project is provided by Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Only the Promenade has been retained as a link for the pieces the children will compose, inspired by evocative, abstract images provided by Paul.

The first part of the creative process, in which the groups discuss the qualities of their pictures - "happy, funny, dancing", "cool, blue, mysterious" - takes a little time. The second part, creating the music, takes longer and at first is hesitant and led by the two professional musicians in each group. But soon the children start to contribute and musical structure begins to emerge as the professionals prmpt, encourage and ask the children to try variations. And not only structure, but progression too, as subtleties in the pictures influence the music.

Sooner or later something extraordinary happens in each group as barriers of language and experience dissolve, creativity takes hold and for minutes on end the professionals simply listen. "That's exactly what we were aiming for," says Paul. "The musicians are there to help the kids discover the music, not tell them or show them."

When the time allotted for composition and rehearsal is over, everyone returns to the main hall to play music that did not exist just a few hours before. A group gives its unique performance, then everyone walks to the next group to the sonorous accompaniment of the "Promenade", and the pattern is repeated. Finally the children troop around the hall playing their instruments and singing. It is a spectacular triumph.

As Christopher Gerber helps his children - Konstantin, six, Marlene, 9, and Samuel, 13, who between them play piano, cello, violin, trumpet and flute - with their coats, he says: "Mainly what you learn in Vienna is classical music and this sometimes discourages children. Today was more open because they could have classical melodies and modern rhythms or jazzy sounds. And they had fun - that's a good way to learn.

"In Vienna the musicians sometimes have happenings for children, playing music and giving explanations, but nothing like this."

Constanze Wimmer, of the international group Jeunesse Musicale, which set up the event, agrees. "Education by professional musicians is more advanced in Britain than Austria. Now we'd like Paul to come back and educate our musicians so they can hold children's workshops too."

"I was nervous," says Paul, "and not just because it's Vienna. It's a long time since I spoke German.

"Music should be about giving people a shared experience, where it puts its arms around them and pulls them together. I think that's what happened today."

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