Here in the Creative Learning Department it feels a little like we’ve been waiting for a bus. December and January were relatively calm – a few days at schools down in London, our annual Composers’ Workshop [with Nico Muhly] and our regular work at Cambridgeshire Pupil Referral Units, but by and large we’ve been in the office planning and preparing and watching February sail into view like the proverbial three buses that all come at once when you’ve been waiting for ages.
So on Monday 1 February, we were split three ways – quite a feat when you consider that there are only two of us in the department. Creative Learning Intern Nick Jukes spent the day in Witchford Village College, near Ely, for the conclusion of a project based on Aaron Copland’s Sextet. The aim of the project was for pupils in years 8 and 9 to discover more about minimalist techniques used by Copland, and to compose their own pieces in a similar style. In early January, Rachel Leach (workshop leader) worked alongside Joy Farrall and Miranda Dale (principal clarinet and principal 2nd violin respectively), using music, games and group activities to explain the theory behind Copland’s music. Between then and 1 February, students worked on their own pieces, and attended a concert at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, to see Joy and Miranda playing the Copland sextet and (amongst others) a new piece by Nico Muhly. On our 2nd and final trip to the school, Rachel listened to the students’ pieces and spent the day developing and extending ideas through group discussion and performance.
Meanwhile I, along with oboist Emma Feilding and project leader Hannah Conway, journeyed to Norfolk to visit the lovely Browick Road Infant School in Wymondham (one of those wonderful English place names that is pronounced nothing like how it’s spelled – more like “Windam”, but why use one letter when three will do?).
Along with five other primary schools in the area, Browick Road is working with us on a project inspired by a children’s book about a character called Mr Big – a scary-looking gorilla who, despite his gentle persona, frightens off any potential friends. Finding his voice through music, his beautiful piano playing eventually charms his neighbours, until one day he receives a letter asking him to join a band, bringing fame and, more importantly, friends. The story is a gift to music making – from thumping gorilla footsteps to the sad and tender sound of lonely Mr Big’s tears as he watches other people enjoying themselves.
Hannah Conway has already led a training session for the teachers at the six schools, giving them plenty of ideas and resources to create music based on the story with their classes. The visit on Monday enabled us to see how they were all getting on, and help the children to develop their ideas further. With many primary schools lacking a music specialist on the staff – and music often a much-feared subject amongst teachers – projects like this one can be hugely helpful in demystifying the process of composition and showing that, as long as children are being creative and listening to each other and the sounds they are making, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way of doing it. Oh, and to continue with the bus theme, we also discovered that, when asked to mime being on a bus, most children did the traditional steam train action (arms shunting round, knees bobbing). Maybe with all the rail replacement services going around at the moment, it’s all getting a bit too confusing for young minds.
Finally workshop leader Simon Gunton and Britten Sinfonia flautist Sarah O’Flynn spent Monday afternoon at Romsey Mill in Cambridge, working with a small group of pupils from Ascham Road Pupil Referral Unit on writing and recording music. As that’s the bus that Nick and I both missed (so to speak) we will have to wait until we hear the results to find out what went on, but I’m sure that the pupils will have gained enormously from the opportunity to work so closely with such experienced musicians.
Looking ahead, there are plenty more Creative Learning projects to hop on to. We’ll be starting major new projects with two more providers of non-mainstream education in Cambridgeshire: Fenland Learning Centre and Hartford Student Support Centre, which both take pupils who are excluded from mainstream schools for medical, behavioural or other reasons. We’ve also got another visit to Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham; the culmination of our Mr Big project in Norfolk; coaching / mentoring work with Orchestra Europa in London; and a masterclass at Krakow Academy of Music. So whether by bus, train, plane or (more usually, because - try as we might to be a green orchestra - carrying 30 percussion instruments on public transport attracts a bad back as well as some pretty strange looks) the Britten Sinfonia van, there will be a Creative Learning project coming to somewhere near you soon.
Sophie Dunn, Creative Learning Director