When Bach adds bite to an arts project

27th November 2009 at 00:00
There is a hub of activity as a Connecting to Culture initiative has pupils clamouring for more

The audience bursts into frenetic applause as the tenor hits his final note. Some are doubled up in hilarity, others wide-eyed with astonishment, and there are whooping exhortations for multiple encores. These audience members do not observe politely - the operatic experience races through their bodies.

The mood was subdued four hours earlier. P7 pupils from Hermitage Park Primary had arrived at The Hub - an arts venue in a converted church on Edinburgh's Royal Mile - to hear they would be drawing, prompting protests of "I can't draw" and "I don't like drawing."

The Edinburgh International Festival's year-round Bank of Scotland Connecting to Culture programme attempts to thaw resistance to the arts that has already hardened by the end of primary school. The 29 Leith school pupils are among 1,100 from 40 schools taking part over the year.

Their day begins with the simplest of artistic endeavours: drawing a line. Project leader Audrey Grant and fellow artist Louise Fraser spread the pupils around the expansive floor, arm them with pencils and A3 paper, and begin to issue instructions.

The first prompts are for parallel lines, but things soon get complicated. Without giving it any thought, the pupils have to draw lines imbued with various qualities: fast lines, fat lines, loud lines; triangles and spirals are also thrown into the mix.

Louise holds up some of the results. From the same set of instructions, the pupils have produced strikingly different pieces of work: one looks like a landscape, another like cave drawings.

Next, the pupils are split into groups of five or six and allocated a trestle table covered in a sheet of paper. Earlier, they were shown the "desktop drawings" of Australian artist Greg Creek, who fills sheets with an eclectic mix of doodles, watercolours and finely-drawn sketches. He is the inspiration for what happens next.

Each child is given two cards with instructions. They might be asked to draw their route to school, a map of their heart, a cartoon hero or an underground city. There are also creative-writing prompts: statements to complete, such as "Wouldn't it be strange if .?", and poems to write about a journey, or an old man by the sea.

They have 50 minutes. The room becomes a hive of industry, and even the most reluctant artists throw themselves into their work. The results range from the prosaic to surrealist flights of fancy, but there are few white patches remaining when Audrey and Louise line up the tables in a long row.

Batman and the Hulk mix with one boy's "scary" Goth brother; an underground metropolis belches plumes of smoke; an intense self-portrait in pencil is achieved, as specified, without a mirror. There are conceptual interconnections between different pieces - a path leads from a drawing of lunchbox contents to a segment of the brain marked "eating". Arran ponders how strange it would be to live in a cake. Innes explains that the "map centre" in his brain records "where I've been and how I got there".

"I liked doing the big map thing," says Dillon Haston, referring to his group's desktop drawing. "I hated drawing, but now I like it. It's better with a group than drawing by yourself, because they all help you."

After lunch, attention switches to music. The pupils sit in a semi-circle around a Bosendorfer grand piano, and are asked if they would like to hear some music. "It'd better not be opera," shouts a voice.

Tenor Chris Elliot and pianist Ingrid Sawers get up to perform "If Music Be the Food of Love", by 17th-century composer Henry Purcell. Some pupils giggle, look away, and pull jumpers over their mouths; others are rapt. The piece ends to spontaneous, hearty applause, and mixed reactions: it was "scary", "excellent", and made some feel simultaneously happy and sad. Others were startled by Chris's ability to sing so resoundingly while barely seeming to open his mouth.

The children lie on the floor and, after relaxation exercises, listen as Ingrid plays some Bach. They are given silhouettes on paper, to express how they felt. "The music was flowing over my body and into my brain," records Ryan; others express the same impression through bold, coloured strokes.

It's back to the piano for more from the classical repertoire. Chris and Audrey dupe the pupils into expecting a sad song. Far from it: Chris launches into a wild performance of Verdi's "Rigoletto", "Questa o quella", a jaunty number in which the Duke of Mantua proclaims an intention to acquaint himself with as many woman as possible.

Chris bounds between chairs, gesticulates inches from faces, sits on knees, slides onto his own knees, and sings with absolute abandon. The pupils love it: the girls, in particular, are gasping with laughter, and an encore is demanded.

Audrey explains that the day had to start with the drawing exercises. "Children carry so many preconceptions about classical music," she explains, but they're more receptive after the morning's work, which is designed to open minds to creativity and expression.

"I loved the drama and the enthusiasm," says Oscar Shirlaw when he looks back on Chris's performances. Classmate Innes Brynes echoes the sentiment: "I have to say, that was top drawer."


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