Who's afraid of scary rats?

6th October 2000 at 01:00
When a Glasgow school for the visually impaired teamed up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, they produced a truly frightening music band, writes Douglas Blane

With a pupil-teacher ratio of 4:1, two multi-sensory suites, a talking microwave oven, a swimming pool and a little garden in the playground that is sponsored by the crew of an oil tanker, Kelvin School in Glasgow is no ordinary school.

But, for three weeks, lessons for the visually-impaired pupils - most of whom have additional special educational needs - were even more stimulating than usual, as a group of enthusiastic young musicians from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra rehearsed the entire school for a performance of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The classic tale was adapted and turned into a musical by RSNO's animateur and saxophonist Paul Rissmann, with a specially-devised ending that has the children of the town returning from the mountain into which the Pied Piper led them and flinging the mean-minded mayor into the river with the rest of the rats. This proved highly popular with the children, as indeed did the entire project.

"You have to adapt the material to suit your audience," Paul Rissmann explained. "During our School Proms project this summer we had a Billy the Kid who didn't kill anybody or even carry a gun. He was a bit of a wuss actually - used to steal the washing from the Chinese laundry."

The Pied Piper project, funded by Glasgow City Council, was more than just a fleeting visit to the school. It consisted of an initial training session for the musicians and teachers, five full days of musical workshops and rehearsals in school with the children, and a final day for the show itself performed by children and musicians to an audience of proud parents, nervous teachers and representatives of the education authority.

The project was regarded by the school as so imortant that it was written into their development plan for the year.

"Each of our pupils has an individual education plan," explained headteacher Sister Patricia Gribbin, "but we believe it is vital to enrich the curriculum through the arts. Music has a profound effect on the emotions, and although many of our pupils can't interact verbally they find a real channel for communication through music - for blind children in particular it has a vital role to play.

"The RSNO musicians have all been super and built up a tremendous rapport with our children."

Colourful scenery for the show, including a rippling blue river - "It should be the Weser, but we're making it the Clyde" - was put together by the charity Project Ability, whose Sandi Kiehlmann and colleagues also worked closely with the children.

Back in the classroom children and musicians were gathered in a circle playing little riffs on their instruments as Paul introduced them: "We've got Ursula Heidecker on violin, Mike Rae on double bass, Clare Johnson on oboe and Bill Chandler, usually on the violin, on xylophone."

Between a tom-tom as big as himself and a smaller snare-drum, Mark Beattie, the only child standing, waited with a collection of exotic percussion instruments - hand-chimes, a vibra-slap, a ratchet and a log-drum.

"Right," said Paul. "Let's see what our big, scary rat band sounds like."

He put his instrument to his mouth and the rich tones of the saxophone emerged, softly at first, soon growing louder. Oboe and violin took turns with the catchy theme while the children shook their tambourines and maracas or blew into recorders, and all the time Mark drove the music forward with an insistent, rhythmic, creative beat from his drums.

"What do you thing that sounded like?" Paul asked, after the piece had died away.

"Like a wild party with all the rats in town."

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