Inspiring With Opera

Last month we looked at the relevance of classical music in education, following violinist, Nicola Benedetti’s comments about the value of introducing young people to subjects that they may at first find difficult. This month we look at the world of opera – a sticking point even for some music lovers.

Maria_Thomas-300x247Maria Thomas, Founder and Artistic director of the Music Workshop Company, is passionate about opera but is also aware that it has a particular reputation within the classical genre for being inaccessible. She tells us about her recent experiences as an opera lover, discusses the role of opera within the Arts and asks whether opera companies are heading in the right direction to encourage new, young fans…

My first experience of professional opera was at the age of four – Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. By the age of 10 I was a regular opera goer. I suppose it was inevitable that I would love or hate opera following that early exposure.

Opera is something that some people find challenging. I’ve heard people say that they don’t like it when they’ve never experienced a live performance. The most common barrier in this respect is the perception of high prices, but many opera tickets are cheaper than those for football matches or musical theatre shows.

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There’s also the worry about ‘opera etiquette.’ What should you wear, when should you clap; things that can cause stress to what should be an enjoyable experience. Opera companies have addressed these concerns in various ways.

The Royal Opera House website has helpful advice on what to expect when attending a performance, Seattle Opera has a great first timers’ guide covering questions about dress code and what happens on stage, and the Welsh National Opera encourage new audience members with their New to Opera page.

Театр_оперы_и_балета._ЗалThere’s also this guide from the Telegraph, so there’s plenty of encouraging information out there.

I really feel many people would be more open minded about opera if they had enjoyed an opera performance when they were young.

Most opera companies have school matinees which give young people a chance to experience live opera, often supplying support materials for teachers and offering in school projects such as Opera Holland Park’s Inspire Project, Opera North’s Education and Engagement projects, and Scottish Opera’s schools touring programme.

Is opera relevant today or is it an outdated form of entertainment?

One of the challenges for performers and producers is how to set the opera. Should the production be staged in a traditional setting as stated by the composer and librettist, or should it be updated? Some operas have worked extremely well in modern settings, for example Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti at the Royal Opera House incorporated strong use of modern staging and props, including mobile phones, but not all updates are so successful.

In working to appeal to a modern audience, and to challenge ideas outside of music, some productions are perhaps moving even further away from increased inclusivity.

The Royal Opera House’s current production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell) by Damiano Michieletto, is one of the biggest stories in opera at the moment, and brings this question of relevance strongly to the forefront. The production sets the story in war-torn Bosnia. The aim is to bring home the horrors of war, moving away from the traditional storybook image of William Tell, whilst still representing this aspect of the character. However, there’s a feeling that the production goes too far.

I was in the audience on the first night of the show. The singers and orchestra were outstanding, but I found myself not enjoying the production. The sense of dismay became real during a rewrite of the traditional ballet scene in the third act. The scene was interpreted with a graphic, violent scene, which was very distressing to watch. No warning was given of the graphic scene (an issue which has now been rectified by the ROH). Many in the audience reacted with loud booing, which was repeated when the production team took their curtain calls at the end.

It has been reported that this is the first time anyone can remember such a strong response from the audience at the Royal Opera House, certainly during a performance.

The response in the press and on social media about this production has raised questions in the opera world.

Should opera be used to raise social issues or challenge audience perceptions?

Opera, unlike live theatre, film and video games, is not subject to age classification. In encouraging young audiences, should all productions be suitable for all ages?

Some operas are clearly not appropriate for young people. For example, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Weil’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny both tackle graphic topics which are not suitable for children. But William Tell is often told as a children’s story, much like Robin Hood. Although the story is about the challenges of war, the heroic personal story of William Tell is usually a bigger feature both in storybooks and at the opera.

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It is clearly an important role of the Arts to challenge social issues, but it should not be gratuitous or self-indulgent. Often a powerful message can be felt by more subtle means. I feel that by performing explicit productions, opera companies (the current English National Opera performance of Carmen includes nudity) are creating a further barrier for future audiences. Most people have their first and most formative classical music, theatre or opera experiences at a young age – being taken to see a production by friends, family or school. If productions are not suitable for young people, families feel discouraged from attending? As opera is becoming more available through the big screen and cinema showings, producers must consider their audience. Not every production should be a children’s show, but difficult topics can be dealt with sensitively.

During my time working at the Royal Opera House, one of my most vivid memories was being back stage as the cast of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman took a curtain call at the end of the schools matinee. The clapping and cheering of the audience was phenomenal, showing that young people can really enjoy opera. I feel very strongly that they should be given the chance to make up their own minds as to whether this is an Art form for them.

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If you would like to know more about introducing young people to opera or are interested in an opera workshop for your school or business, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

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A Focus on Listening

In a recent interview by The Scotsman, world-renowned violinist, Nicola Benedetti, passionately criticised the suggestion that children should not be exposed to classical music.

580px-Nicky_BenedettiBenedetti is a great advocate of music education. In 2010, she became Sistema Scotland’s official musical ‘Big Sister’ for the Big Noise project, as well as creating The Benedetti Sessions, giving hundreds of aspiring young string players the opportunity to rehearse, undertake and observe masterclasses, culminating in a performance with the violinist.

She is an also an ambassador for the BBC 10 Pieces project, an initiative for schools led by BBC Learning and the BBC Performing Groups, focusing on classical music and creativity. The project centres on 20 pieces; 10 for primary and 10 for secondary school ages; covering the spectrum of western classical music from the Baroque period to contemporary works, with a heavy weighting towards 20th Century music.

Benedetti argued that since, if children were given the option either to play a video game or study mathematics, the majority would choose the video game, deciding against teaching them to listen to classical symphonies because they don’t seem interested or it is considered difficult is a nonsense. MWC’s Maria Thomas explains why this is a subject close to her own heart.

Should we be encouraging young people to listen to whole symphonies or even whole operas? Interestingly, neither the primary nor the secondary 10 Pieces include a full symphony, concerto or other complete large-scale work. Individual movements are included, but not full works. Perhaps the chosen pieces are meant as an introduction to classical music, allowing listeners to explore the rest of the works themselves, or maybe, as the proposed lesson plans suggest, the individual movements are designed as a starting point for inspiration for creativity, I don’t know.

Learning to concentrate on listening to a whole symphony or opera is not an easy task, particularly when the work is new to you. I often enjoy listening to works I have studied more than those that I am discovering for the first time. I am more familiar with the themes, the structure, the instrumentation and how the material is developed.

HHCMF14s-37I was lucky enough to have been brought up as a regular concert and opera-goer, being encouraged to learn about the pieces before attending performances and having the chance to listen to recordings before hearing the live performance. Even so, when I hear a new piece, I can imagine how daunting or incomprehensible the idea of listening to a symphony must be, particularly for someone who has not had that opportunity. With no one to make recommendations of what to listen to or explain things about the music such as what to listen out for and the context that the composer was working in, where do you start?

So maybe the single movement decision by the BBC makes sense. Research suggests that with increasing access to new technology, young people are not able to concentrate for long periods, and the popularity of the single movement performance has been popularised by the huge success of Classic FM. However, when I worked at the Royal Opera House one of my favourite memories is of hearing the rapturous applause and cheering following a schools performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

I believe it comes down to what we feel is important. Getting the young to listen to any classical music will open their ears to music, art and experiences that are new to them, and will develop other skills such as listening, analytical thinking and concentration.

Research has shown that listening to music can help the brain, but that research also highlighted that familiarity with the music was important.

Another question worth considering is where the responsibility should lie in getting young people to listen to classical music. Should it be done in the home, at school or both?

For parents who have not experience of classical music, the idea of introducing their children to a symphony orchestra concert or recital is completely alien. Trying to research music can be challenging; programme notes, both online and in concert programmes can vary from excellent to incomprehensible, or be aimed at the very knowledgeable.

In schools it is increasingly difficult to introduce classical music into the classroom. Many primary schools do not have music specialists and both primary and secondary schools have music specialists who do not have a Classical music background. It was widely researched as long ago as 1997 that many primary school teachers feel negatively towards introducing classical music in their teaching as they lack confidence in their own knowledge of the subject.

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I don’t have the answers. I’m just glad that the BBC 10 Pieces is making access to Classical Music easier for young people, and that other fantastic outreach projects by organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Warwick University and the Sage are reaching out to their local communities and offering them the chance to explore Classical Music both with families and schools.

It was wonderful to share this enthusiasm for introducing young people to Classical Music and the wider arts at the brilliant Ahead For Culture conference, run by the ROHBridge Project, on 12th June at the Royal Opera House. The morning was hosted by Kirsty Wark who shared her early experiences of the Arts, and featured many inspiring speakers. Sir Anthony Seldon stressed the importance of introducing young people to the Arts in ways that help them to understand and engage with their experiences, Nii Sackey highlighted the fact that young people have their own answers about how they want to engage with the Arts, and Susan Coles gave a motivational call to action encouraging us all to push for the Arts to continue to be a key part of every young person’s education.

The afternoon sessions of workshops got everyone talking and sharing their experiences, before a fabulous performance by Next Generation Youth Theatre. The day was rounded off with an emotional reminder from Camila Batmanghelidhj CBE, founder of Kids Company, (who MWC are proud to work with) of some of the challenges today’s young people bring to their Arts experiences, and how experiences need to adapt to the needs of each young person.

It was a truly inspiring day and will lead to some exciting new projects and partnerships for MWC. Watch this space for more news!

The Music Workshop Company is in the process of developing resource packs for schools, designed to introduce and expand on many aspects of music. We would value your input. If there is a specific topic or aspect of music that you would like us to cover, or if we can make our resources more helpful in any way, please contact us via the website with your ideas and requests, or email info@music-workshop.co.uk.

We also run tailor-made inset workshops, integrating music into teacher training. Meeting with professional musicians who can explain music in an approachable way will give you exciting ideas to develop, and can be a great boost in confidence in the classroom. There is no great mystery to music. Just as you can teach a child to look at a beautiful painting and appreciate it without yourself being able to either paint it or explain how it was painted, it is possible to learn how to introduce children to music and the skills needed to listen to it.

English Folk Dance – Swords, Sticks and Ribbons

There is a huge variety of dance associated with English folk music, some of it quite alien to modern culture. Folk music was either written as song or for dancing, and the dances have deep roots in the social history of England, as well as offering an insight into agriculture, industry and cultural diversity.

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Our English Folk and Ceilidh workshops at the Music Workshop Company explore the music of England through dance and song.

Ceilidh, an accessible social dance typical of Ireland, Scotland and England, in which participants learn the patterns and steps of traditional dances from a caller, has recently become popular for weddings and parties, but there is much more to folk dance than a good old barn dance.

On the first of May, May Day, celebrations were typically held to mark the arrival of spring. A young girl from the town or village would be selected as May Queen, and crowned to preside over the party, a bit like the Prom Queen at a modern high-school. A maypole decorated with garlands of flowers would form the centre of a dance, and dancers would circle the pole to music.

Later, long coloured ribbons were attached to the top of the pole, and the traditional and recognisable maypole dance was born. Each dancer would hold one length of ribbon, and they would weave in and out around the pole, in complex patterns, until the ribbons had been wound onto the pole. They would then reverse the dance to unwind the ribbons. The maypole was a source of huge local pride and competition, and it was common for one village to play a prank on another by stealing the top half of their maypole the night before May Day!

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Maypoles and maypole dancing were declared illegal during the reign of Edward VI as the Reformation took hold, and the practice was seen as idolatrous and therefore immoral. Many poles were destroyed, including the famous Cornhill May Pole of London, and the maypole at Castle Bytham in Lincolnshire was cut in half for use as a ladder. The practice was reinstated under Mary I, but never became as popular or widespread as it had been.

Morris_dancing_outside_the_Gerneral_Havelock,_HastingsMorris dance is a form of rhythmic stepping dance, performed to traditional regional tunes. It is unclear where the dance got its name, although it’s possible it arose as part of the 15th Century fashion for “Moorish” spectacle. The dances have similarities with Italian folk dance. The dancers often wear costumes decked with colourful ribbons and tie small bells around their ankles for a percussive sound, and it was traditional for some dance teams to black-up their faces. It is unclear whether this is a reference to the Moors, miners or a common disguise used by beggars.

Morris dancers from the Cotswolds use handkerchiefs and wooden sticks as part of the dance, whereas Rapper Morris Men from Northumberland use short, flexible steel swords, blurring the line between Morris dancing and Sword Dancing.

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The Long-Sword Dance is a traditional Yorkshire dance, using long, rigid wooden or metal swords. These dances came from the mills, the mines and in the case of sword dances, from military training exercises. They were danced in village teams.

Clogging, or English clog dancing is yet another form of traditional dance. Developed during the Industrial Revolution, it is thought to have come initially from the Lancashire cotton mills. Wooden-soled shoes were preferred in the mills, as the floors were kept wet to provide the humidity needed for spinning cotton. Workers would tap their feet in time with their machines in order to keep their feet warm. On breaks they would have competitions to see who could make the best rhythmic patterns.

Clogging is still a popular competition dance in modern traditional music circles. The dancer uses the heel and toe of the shoes musically to create rhythmic patterns on the floor. Clog dancing styles exist in Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire and contain a wide array of techniques and rhythms.

Here’s a great short video of the Unthank sisters performing a traditional clog dance from Northumberland to some rather untraditional instrumentation…

The barn dance is a social tradition. This is the dance where everyone joins in, dancing together, like the Gaelic Ceilidh. Many traditional dances are based around introducing the men and women, so often dancers will start the dance with one partner and dance with many others during the set. These dances would facilitate the courtship and marriage of young people. In England the dances evolved slightly differently from the Irish and Scottish counterparts, using a slower tempo of tune and different variants of a step-hop step depending on region.

If you would like to find out more about English Dance from your region, contact the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who hold an extensive archive of tunes and information. Contact the Music Workshop Company to book one of our English Song and Dance Workshops.

Planning the Perfect Workshop

Maria and the Music Workshop Company Team are gearing up for the Rhinegold Music Education Expo, which will take place on March 12th and 13th at London’s Barbican Centre. This year we’re excited to be holding consultation sessions for clients, helping you get the most out of your music workshops.

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We particularly love creating bespoke projects, understanding your needs and making a music workshop that absolutely fits the bill. The finished event should be an enjoyable and straightforward experience, so we’ve put together a simple guide for anyone planning a music workshop, based on our experience of things that sometimes get missed and cause hiccups on the day!

Planning and Design

You will find that the more notice you can allow for the design and planning of a workshop, the easier it will be. We often accommodate workshops at short notice, but ideally prefer a month to prepare for a workshop. This gives us time to get to the heart of what you need and fit in with every aspect, from topic and curriculum to students, instruments and scheduling.

Who Should Call Us?

It’s easiest for us when your enquiry comes directly from the decision maker, whether that’s the Head of Music, Head Teacher or another project leader. We always aim to respond to enquiries within one working day. With any bespoke project, we plan each element to suit and it can be difficult to assess exactly what is required without speaking to the right person.

The more information you can give us on enquiry, the more detailed our proposal can be. For example, if you want the workshop on a specific day, let us know. How many groups or participants will be involved? What outcomes do you want? Is the focus on a multi-cultural day, G.C.S.E. coursework, or Arts Week, or do you want the workshop linked to a theme or topic of study?

Confirmation and Contracts

Our workshops are confirmed by email with contracts, and terms and conditions emailed out.

If you are waiting for confirmation of funding, or need time to assess the number of potential participants, workshop dates can be held for you, but workshops do then need to be booked within one month of the original enquiry.

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To hold an effective workshop, we need enough space for all the participants to sit in a circle.

Remember, workshop noise levels can be quite high (particularly for Samba!) so it’s important to be somewhere where other people won’t be disturbed. It’s also best to be somewhere that others won’t disturb the workshop. This can be challenging to be in a hall at the centre of a school where people are walking in and out, so plan your workshop space carefully. However, we will always do our best to accommodate the facilities you have.

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We do need to be made aware of any venue challenges. For example, if the space we’ll be using for the workshop is only accessible by stairs and there is no lift, it’s important to know so we can get any heavy equipment in place.

Fees and Invoicing

All our prices are fully inclusive and include the musicians’ time, planning, set up, the duration of the workshop, use of instruments (where supplied), travel, administration and public liability insurance.

Our quotes are valid until the end of the following academic year, so a quote given in October 2015 will be valid for a workshop held before August 2017.

Workshops are usually invoiced after the date, but if it makes the payment process easier we can supply the invoice in advance. Payment is due within 14 days, as specified in our terms and conditions. We ask to be made aware if you are not able to meet the 14-day payment terms, which can be the case if payments for your school are issued centrally by the local authority. It is useful for us to have the contact details of the bursar or finance manager, so we can liaise directly regarding payment.

If you reach the end of the financial year with money left to spend, we can invoice you in advance for a workshop you book for later in the academic year. This means you can count the invoice in one financial year, for a workshop in the next.

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Workshop Day – Final Thoughts

It’s the small things that make a difference to the smooth running of a workshop on the day, so here are a few things that help us:

  • Please ensure the school office know about the workshop. It can be confusing for a musician to turn up and feel they’re not expected.
  • Please ensure there is somewhere for the musician to unload instruments, preferably close to the workshop space.
  • It takes about 30 minutes for the musician to get unloaded and set up, so if the workshop co-ordinator is not able to meet the musician, please arrange for someone else to show them the workshop space and allow them to get unloaded.
  • Help in unloading the instruments is always appreciated.
  • Access to the staff room for hot drinks and toilets is also appreciated.

We look forward to seeing you at the Expo if you can make it. Meanwhile if you’d like to book a consultation or speak to us about booking a workshop, contact us for a chat.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

As Christmas approaches, there’s always a race for the number-one spot in the charts. This year the Music Workshop Company team have been discussing their favourite seasonal music and have come up with their own top songs. Here’s a little bit about each of the team and their Christmas choices.

Maria Thomas is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Music Workshop Company. She specialises in Early Years, Creativity workshops and World Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is the 1961 song Christmas Time in London Town (words by Frederik Van Pallandt, music by David Flatau).

It was a favourite at my Mum’s school and I love the imagery in the words. It reminds me of trips to London as a child to choose a present in Hamley’s!

I also love the Calypso Carol/O Now Carry Me to Bethlehem, which is another favourite from childhood. I love the Calypso rhythm.”

Matthew Forbes is a cellist who also plays piano, mouth organ, kazoo, djembe, guitar, and mandolin…. And is a composer! Matthew leads workshops on Composition, Song Writing, Indian Music, African Drumming and Ceilidh.

“Easy. It’s Fairytale of New York by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues. It has everything; sad, funny, ironic, moving, energetic, sentimental and festive. Perfect”

Colin McCann is a percussionist who specialises in Samba workshops but also loves leading Junk Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter (words based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst). I love the words; they are so emotive.”

Chris Woodham is a professional percussionist who specialises in World Percussion workshops but also loves leading Composition workshops.

“My favourite Christmas Song is When a Child is Born, by Boney M, (written by Zacar with lyrics by Fred Jay) which was released in 1981, the year of my birth.

It’s from the Christmas Album by Boney M that used to be a firm favourite in the Woodham household.  I’ve always been drawn to reggae, and the album includes lots of lovely ‘reggaefied’ classic songs.  I really like When a Child is born because it uses humming then a full choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also has some spoken word and a key change. What’s not to like! It was recorded at Abbey Road and Air studios both of which I have been lucky enough to work at in the past.”

Sarah Ford is an actor, director and singer, and leads many of our theatrical workshops such as Play in a Day.

“My favourites are Angels from The Realms of Glory (words by James Montgomery to the tune of “Regent Square” UK) and Hark the Herald Angels Sing (music by Felix Mendelssohn, words by Charles Wesley, amended by George Whitefield and Martin Madan).

The first one is because it’s a grand, full-out sing and the second because I love singing the descant.”

Johanna McWeeney is a violinist and journalist who writes and edits the Music Workshop Company blog and newsletters.

“My favourite Christmas piece is Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, an orchestral piece that dates back to 1948. The lyrics weren’t written until 1950. I just love the melodies, the witty use of percussion and the fun textures from the brass, particularly the horse at the end. It really conjures up Christmas for me and it’s great fun to play.”

Alison Murray is the Project Manager for the Music Workshop Company and liaises with clients to help them find their perfect project.

“Once In Royal David’s City, music composed by Henry John Gauntlet (1805-1876), words written by Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895), originally written as a poem.

Why?  The words of the song are so beautifully written, simple yet so meaningful, and of course when you hear the solo at the beginning, the sound is so pure and spine tingling. I have sung this song myself so often, since primary school days (a very long time ago now!) and we always sing it our church crib service, with everyone around the crib holding candles, it’s just magical.”

Pass the Spoons

We love unusual instruments at the Music Workshop Company. This month’s blog is by professional percussionist and workshop leader Jo May, who specialises in workshops teaching the spoons. Jo trained at the Royal College of Music and has performed with orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She explains how she came to play the spoons and why a Spoons workshop offers an easy introduction to music for any child.

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“For the last few years, I’ve been running Spoons Workshops in schools, and for festivals, parties and events. That’s spoon playing, not spoon making!

I first became interested in playing the spoons whilst playing in a folk band. We were learning a song, and I’m not sure why, but it really felt as if it was calling out for spoons. I found a tuition video by a fantastic American musician and historian called David Holt. I learnt some of the basics and went on from there.

There are spoon playing traditions in many different countries around the world, including Ireland, America, Turkey and Russia. I think it’s a tradition that’s been dying out recently in this country but there are still plenty of spoon players around and I’m really keen to encourage more people to play. Often when I’m running workshops people will say, “Hey! My grandad/uncle/great grandma used to play the spoons.”

Spoons are great fun to play and obviously we have them in our homes, so they’re very accessible and very portable too.

I started just using ordinary stainless steel spoons from the kitchen but I love experimenting with different types of spoons now. I’ve built up a collection from rummaging around in junk shops, hardware shops and kitchen shops, as well as searching for spoons that have been made specifically for playing. In workshops, I have an assortment of spoons for participants to try out:

  • ordinary stainless steel ones
  • assorted wooden ones carved especially for playing (some with finger grooves)
  • aluminium ones made from de-activated bombs in Laos
  • a few different sized/coloured plastic measuring spoons recently acquired from rooting around a kitchen shop… (the largest ones make great bass spoons!)
  • a selection of smaller wooden and metal spoons for smaller fingers
  • an assortment of joined-up spoons for younger children and anyone who has difficulty with the grip

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I usually run my Spoon Workshops with accompaniment from a guitarist or fiddler. It’s brilliant to have a tune to work with. I also run sessions without accompaniment, and they usually involve more singing. I teach some basic techniques and we usually work on a little routine to go with a tune or song; maybe a folk song, a well-known tune or an old-time music hall song. And it’s always great to end the day with a performance from some of the participants.

I find that spoon playing is brilliant for co-ordination, particularly fine motor skills. I often try to involve movement and singing too, stamping your feet, singing and moving in time with the music whilst playing the spoons is a lot to think about. It’s also great for improving rhythm, teamwork, creativity, listening, performance, confidence and focus.

Most of all, spoon playing is fun and really open to anyone. Many children go home and show their families how to play, which is brilliant. There’s no need to go out and buy expensive, large instruments, just head to the cutlery drawer.”

To enquire about a Spoons Workshop, contact the Music Workshop Company today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Composition, Improvisation and Creativity

The Music Workshop Company (MWC) runs a range of workshops based on a wide variety of World Music, including African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion and Singing.

We also run Music Composition workshops during which participants create and perform new music under the guidance of one of our workshop leaders. These workshops can be based on a theme or topic, or they can focus on a particular style of music such as pop, jazz or classical. Compositions are built up from ideas, notes or chords, often using improvisation, and built into a final performance where students play the pieces without sheet music.DSC_0033

Improvisation is an effective tool in a classroom composition workshop, and is not exclusive to children who play instruments. In fact, using percussion instruments or voice and getting children away from the technical constraints of their violin or clarinet can free them to experiment more confidently.

A workshop exploring improvisation can also be designed as a one-off event for budding musicians, perfect for an Arts Week in school, or for a group such as a youth orchestra or music summer school. It can even be used in the workplace as a team-building exercise and to develop creative thinking.

Playing from memory and improvising are both concepts that can be intimidating, but they are integral to a creative workshop experience. This month, Matthew Forbes, professional cellist and MWC workshop leader, introduces the topic of improvisation, and explains why he believes it is so important to musical development.

“Few words in the vocabulary of the musician provoke such an extreme reaction as ‘Improvise!’

I have known it to strike fear into the heart of the most experienced professional, and yet to trigger excitement in the eyes of children. Why is this?

Many people seem to think that improvisation is a skill that you either can ‘do’ or not, depending on personality and natural ability. These people, in my experience, are the ones who confess themselves to be unable. And yet the only difference between them and those who ‘can’ is the environment and teaching that they have received and absorbed on the subject.

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Matthew Forbes

In the UK, and particularly in England, the opportunities to learn how to improvise have been very slow in coming. For as long as I can remember, to learn an instrument at school or privately, you must learn how to read music on top of all the physical techniques of the instrument itself. The two elements are inextricably paired. Moreover, the written word is sacrosanct. You must play THAT note, THEN, and for THAT long.

This is a lot to take in at once.

Is it any wonder then that so many give up or never reach their potential? Despite so many developments in the progress of literacy education in this country, why is it still assumed that in order to progress as a musician you have to be able to read as well as you play? As a professional classical musician who still finds reading music the hardest thing of all, it upsets me deeply to think that so many people stall in their musical experience because of this weight of responsibility to be a good reader. Not everyone is, and when learning a musical instrument or studying singing, the two senses that are most crucial must be the aural and kinaesthetic. Particularly for us boys, this latter sense is much stronger and more easily learned than the skill of turning a written symbol into a sounding gesture. The physical act of playing or singing can be far more powerful and satisfying than we give it credit for. The same part of the brain that catches a ball, holds a knife and fork and writes with a pen has limitless power to weave the same magic with a bow, a mouthpiece or a keyboard.

‘Some students respond well to the chance to improvise or develop skills away from written music.’ Maria Thomas, MWC

Think of some of the great non-reading musicians of the last hundred years: Art Tatum, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder to name a few. Their engagement with the music, the audience and their ideas had nothing to do with anything written down, yet their skill and attention to fine detail were as rigorously crafted as any great concert pianist or opera singer. Just because music is improvised does not mean it has to be jazz, despite the strong associations. Mozart, Beethoven, Messaien and many others were proud improvisers, developing their voice and their style through immediate participation.

Thankfully improvised music is more and more finding its importance in performance and music education now. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s schemes of work for primary and secondary schools all mention improvising as a vital skill for any musician, particularly in regard to any cross-cultural participation. To assume that “I just can’t do it” is like saying that because he has never done it, a professional chef can’t bake a loaf of bread. The myth that improvising is some magical power needs to be dispelled. Improvisation is as much a teachable and learnable discipline, along with sight-reading, playing chamber music or song writing.

The secret to it is to start from a place of comfortable familiarity and develop one step at a time from there. A child who can only play one note can still improvise! There is still rhythm, there are dynamics, structures and ideas. Similarly, the student who doodles incessantly and without focus needs a framework to turn their repeated random sounds into something coherent. photo 3

Any composing, whether written or not, needs parameters – a framework. Some musicians find these parameters comforting, some find them restrictive. In my fifteen years of teaching improvisation, the first category tend to be female, the second male. This is not a judgement on whether one is better than the other, nor is it any more than a general observation. But being aware, as a student of improvising, which one is more ‘you’ can be reassuring.

Music, in its bewildering beauty, is rich with potential angles from which to begin – rhythm, melody, visual stimulus or a deliberate effort to break free of convention.

 For young players this is particularly to be encouraged. All the times I was told, ‘Stop messing around and practise what you’re meant to,’ made me even more curious to find my own sound. I only realise now how significant this act of rebellion was.

 But improvising is not really rebelling – it is the musical equivalent of thinking out loud. Throw away that music stand for an hour. Play something. Sing something. See what happens…”

Whatever the level of musical or instrumental skill in your classroom or workplace, MWC can create a workshop to facilitate and develop improvisation. Contact us today to discuss a bespoke Composition or Improvisation workshop for your school, business or community group.

 

MWC Supports Protect Music Education

This month, we wanted to bring to your attention the Protect Music Education campaign, a drive launched in April by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) to rebuild Government support for music education.

The campaign focuses on 5 key points:

  • The Government must unequivocally support music education
  • The Government is telling local authorities to stop funding music services
  • Local authority funding is in addition to national funding
  • The flagship National Plan for Music Education is at risk
  • Music is central to society, education and economy

Protect-M_EThe benefits of music education, particularly amongst children who learn an instrument, have been explored widely in recent years. We have read many times in the media about the improvement in literacy and numeracy, as well as the development of skills including co-ordination, presentation and team working, which come with the study of music. Learning an instrument has been shown to have a positive impact on academic studies.

In 2013, researchers in neuroscience at the Northwestern University, Illinois, found that childhood music lessons also have long-term effects on neurological health. The study demonstrated that participants who had between four and fourteen years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training, despite the fact that many of them had not played an instrument for about 40 years.

As well as being of benefit to individuals, the creative industries are worth £36.3 billion a year to the UK. The music industry is worth between £3.5 billion and £3.8 billion depending on which measure you use.

Despite this knowledge, funding cuts in music education have been a common trend for a long time. According to a BBC report from 2011, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insisted he would ensure that all children had access to quality music education, but even with that assurance he was unable to guarantee funding beyond the end of the year.

In 2010/2011, the Government spending on music education was £127.5 million. This dropped to £111.6 million the following year.

Despite the Government’s commitment to support music education, many local authorities are being forced to cut funding, with their main budgets being slashed by at least 30%. Some councils are cutting music education budgets altogether, with the Department for Education recommending in March this year that hubs should no longer be funded by local authorities.

The recent consultation document on local education funding shows that central government expects local government to cease funding music in English schools from 2016 and there is little certainty as to the continuation of funding after the current financial year. The expectation is that music services will be funded through music education hubs and school budgets, and no longer from the Education Services Grant (ESG).

The consultation is part of a plan to make savings of up to £200 million to the ESG, stating, “Schools should take greater responsibility for their own improvement, leaving local authorities to focus on their statutory functions.” These statutory functions are broadly administrative and include planning for the education service as a whole, providing a director of Children’s Services, health and safety, pensions and other services.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 18.04.18This recommendation, along with cuts in funding to the Music Education Hubs, puts the National Plan for Music Education at risk.

According to a report in the May 2014 edition of Music Teacher Magazine, the Musicians’ Union are currently backing a campaign to prevent the Council in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight from cutting 92 music teaching jobs, after Councillor Steve Priest remarked on BBC South that he would be, “looking for musicians in the area to teach our children as volunteers as there are many people who can play instruments”.

On May 17th, former winner of the Young Musician of the Year, Mark Simpson, writing in the Guardian, expressed his concern that funding cuts in classical music are depriving children from low income backgrounds of the opportunity to learn an instrument.

The problem is not specific to the UK. In Ottowa, Canada, where in 2012 fewer than half of schools had even a part time music teacher, astronaut and scientist Chris Hadfield criticised cuts in music education, saying, “All these cuts are not doing our children any good, they’re not doing the development of our children any good, and I don’t think they’re doing much for Canada.” Speaking at an event promoting music education in schools which took place on May 5th, Hadfield explained, “Learning to play the guitar taught me to improvise and be creative. Music taught me to be a better astronaut.”

Protect Music Education is attracting support from musicians including violinist Nicola Benedetti and soprano, Dame Felicity Lott, journalists and organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Trinity College, London. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of the potential threat to music in education.

MWC’s Maria Thomas says, “Many of the musicians here at the Music Workshop Company, received their early musical training through the music services. For generations, local music services run by councils have created opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills and make friendships that last for life. The Music Workshop Company fully supports the Protect Music Education campaign.”

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Add your support to Protect Music Education today, and help ensure that future generations have the chance to benefit from learning music, with all the pleasure and benefits it can bring.

Play in a Day

The Music Workshop Company’s “Play in a Day” workshop grew indirectly from Maria’s experience organising school plays and concerts. The aim of the workshop is for participants to work together with workshop leaders and teachers to stage a play in just one day.

The idea for “Play in a Day” came from talking to primary school teachers with no music or drama specialism. Many teachers found it hard to know where to start when asked to put on a performance, and others were too busy to spend weeks planning and preparing.

Putting on an affordable, successful production requires experience and confidence, and it takes time to find a story, research music and co-ordinate a performance. It takes a level of expertise to judge what the participants can achieve in the time, individually and as a group, and to know how best to use performance space, instrumentation and choreography. This is where MWC excels.SAM_1669

“Play in a Day” was developed for schools and community groups; Brownies, Guides, Cubs, Scouts and holiday clubs. In the course of a day, workshop participants learn songs, dances and percussion pieces from around the world, or from different periods in history. The workshop utilises simple, effective pieces that are quick and easy to learn, which allows participants to perform to a high standard within the intensive one-day framework. These pieces are linked through dialogue into a play with music.

One of our favourite themes for “Play in a Day” is a Magic Carpet story, a trip around the World where the main characters get to experience many different cultures. The performance includes singing, dancing and percussion, depending on which countries are visited. In previous workshops the magic carpet has stopped off in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Israel, Palestine, India, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, China, Japan and Brazil.

Sometimes the play is themed to incorporate International events like the World Cup or the Olympics, or it can tell the story of a festival such as Christmas. We can make a play to fit around specific topics, countries or cultures being studied by the children in other lessons, or even tell a Time Travel story.

When we’re working with a school, several classes will join together to create a performance. Each class will learn at least two pieces of music, which the MWC team choose to suit, amongst other things, the theme of the play and the age of the participants. These pieces are often picked on the day so they really work for each specific workshop group.

A workshop for four primary school classes, working with up to 35 children in each session, will contain a performance incorporating at least eight pieces, which can last from 20 to 30 minutes in total.

Sometimes participants choose to give their final performance to the rest of the school or to invite parents along, and even to make a video of the play to use in the school.

“Play in a Day” is a brilliant activity for primary school children, which was how the original concept was devised. It’s also an ideal workshop for all ages and abilities, in schools, or in community settings where we can work with up to 40 participants. Workshop leaders adapt the workshop to the abilities, creative inspiration and needs of the students.

One of our focuses at MWC is to work with clients to create workshops tailored specifically to their needs. “Play in a Day” is the perfect vehicle to design this sort of customised workshop, and to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of our workshop leaders and musicians to produce a wonderful performance that the children will learn from, be proud of and enjoy!

To enquire about our “Play in a Day” workshop, please contact the MWC team to discuss your requirements, pick a theme and book a day for your play.

MWC at the Music Education Expo

The Music Workshop Company team enjoyed a productive and inspiring two days at the 2014 Rhinegold Music Education Expo, which was held on February 7th and 8th at London’s Barbican Centre.DSC_0049

The Expo gives music and teaching professionals the chance to network, share ideas and browse stands from the top contributors in all spheres of the world of music education, from the ABRSM and Trinity College London to the Incorporated Society of Musicians, Musicians’ Union and Schott Music.DSC_0048

Speakers this year included flautist Sir James Galway, educationalist Paul Harris (author of over 600 books including the Improve Your Sight-Reading, Improve Your Scales and Improve Your Teaching series’ familiar to instrumental teachers), Richard Hallam, chair of the Music Education Council and Carol Reid, Programme Manager at Youth Music.DSC_0046

The Rhinegold Theatre hosted keynote debates, discussions and workshops covering topics such as the Ofsted Report Music in Schools, The Future of GCSEs, Music, Dyslexia and the Mind, Essential Leadership and body percussion warm-ups.

The MWC team met literally hundreds of people and had the chance to talk to music teachers, head teachers, community group leaders and musicians. Over 120 people signed up to the mailing list and 900 people took away one of our free Music Workshop Company pens!

DSC_0029Maria Thomas, who set up the Music Workshop Company in 2002, says, “It was wonderful to see how music education in all settings is alive and well in the UK and abroad. It was great to have the opportunity to talk to current and potential clients. Because we design our workshops around the specific needs of our clients, it was really helpful to talk to people face to face and discuss ideas.”

MWC is now busy working to assimilate ideas discussed with clients during the Expo. The team is also developing some exciting new workshops with newly recruited musicians and workshop leaders. Watch out for details of these in our newsletter and upcoming blogs…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the week since the Expo, MWC has had new enquiries every day. We’d love to hear from you to discuss your Music Workshop needs. It looks like 2014 is going to be a busy year!

And if you missed us this time, we’ll be back on stand J2 at next year’s Music Education Expo.

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