Wedding dramatic arts with the classroom

A Scottish Opera scheme inspires teachers with creative ideas for children

Deedee Cuddihy

It's called "Hitting the High Notes", but Scottish Opera's continuing professional development course for primary teachers is all about using the expressive arts to achieve excellence across the curriculum, rather than learning how to sing arias.

All the elements that are used to create and stage an opera, including movement, voice, costume-making, music and design feature in the free intensive weekend course which the company first piloted in 2008.

Five Hitting the High Notes courses have run this year, in Perth and at Scottish Opera's Glasgow home base, the last taking place last month at its vast, purpose-built production studios in Glasgow.

Up to 30 places are available on each of the courses, which are led by Scottish Opera's own professional team. Participants are split into three groups, each of which takes part in six workshops during the weekend: two drama; two music and two visual arts. The slightly less intense workshops on the Saturday go up a level on day two.

Over the 12-hour weekend, teachers learn how games, creative play exercises, warm-up routines and other techniques aimed at integrating the expressive arts into the classroom can be used to deliver Curriculum for Excellence - and unlock their own creativity.

At last month's Hitting the High Notes, dance and drama specialist Johnny McKnight showed the teachers how to create simple movement pieces on a Second World War theme. They used Churchill's "We will never surrender" speech as inspiration for short group performances, followed by solo work based on imagined letters to evacuee children (which they had to make up themselves).

"There's great pressure on teachers these days to do performances for assemblies, plays and so on, and my aim is to give them the skills and confidence to create and deliver a performance from scratch," said Mr McKnight.

In Karen MacIver's music workshop, participants are also led through a series of learning games and exercises which, to everyone's delight, culminate in the creation of a short and simple piece of work that sounds remarkably like real music.

The percussion work, devised using drumsticks, hand chimes and someone pounding on a piano, was inspired by a brief snatch of music (later revealed to be Prokofiev's opera, Cinderella). This sparked a "musical detectives" exercise, in which teachers had to discuss the sounds they were hearing, what instruments might have been used to create them and how the music made them feel.

The wide range of sources that can be used to inspire creativity included Ali MacLaurin's costume workshop, where teachers read Czech writer Miroslav Holub's poem "What the Heart is Like". Working in groups of two or three, they went on to produce fantastical, theatrical garments made from paper and other cheap materials, working from a base of black bin bags and masking tape.

The Hitting the High Notes CPD package includes a free pre-weekend outing to a Scottish Opera production and a teachers' pack detailing all the workshop games, exercises, resources and outcomes.

Ruth Donaldson, a teacher at Kelburn Primary in Largs, couldn't praise the weekend enough. "The whole package was brilliant," she said, "and I've been boring my colleagues about it since I got back. I'm giving a mini- feedback to staff at an in-service later this week, because I learnt so much that can be used right across the curriculum."

Mrs Donaldson has already tried out some of the games, warm-ups and movement exercises in a class drama session and her P4s loved it. "I'll be using what I learnt for an assembly we have coming up and I can adapt the Second World War workshop for our Egyptian topic.

"After 22 years in teaching, you can run out of ideas for drama and the arts, but the Scottish Opera CPD has re-inspired me."

- The next Hitting the High Notes course will run in March 2011. Further information available at

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Deedee Cuddihy

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