“How is this possible?” I asked myself? Nine high school students from the rural Scottish town of Kelso—average music students not hard core music geeks—were having their compositions performed by a quartet from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, live on national BBC radio. The students had worked with composer-teacher-Animateur Alasdair Nicolson and these four players (flute, violin, viola, bass) for just three days. The short pieces, including an ode to Procrastination, were all far better than the best student compositions I had ever heard in the U.S. The musicians were dead serious and having the time of their lives; twice they asked to perform a piece again because they hadn’t done justice to the work. This was just the first hour of the Music and the New Musicians conference in Scotland in November 2006; three days that firmly planted Scotland as a world leader in connecting professional musicians and learners; three days that expanded my sense of the possible.
The mostly-European conference (with representatives from all of the other continents, but only me from North America), funded by the Scottish Arts Council, put performances at the center—most of the talking head panels responded to, expanded upon, the work we had seen. And we saw very significant work. My role was to kick off the conference with a speech that set the tone, and wrap it up with a keynote that mirrored back the key elements we had witnessed and challenged them to consider what next steps might be. My impressions follow, but the essential points for American ensembles to notice are:
- Scottish orchestras and ensembles (and to some degree English ones too) believe their mission is to serve the community. This is not just verbiage; they believe it, and they live it. They describe “a revolution” there in the ‘80s that resulted in a change of core belief—from the traditional one to produce great music into a commitment to be an excellent community resource. One result of this is that the musicians love their work with youth; you could see and feel it; it was infectious. The Scottish Royal National Orchestra played for an audience of three to five year olds, and they delighted in the contact with kids. Many of them voluntarily were in the audience doing demonstrations one-on-one before and after the concert, they had to be shoo-ed out of the hall at the end to get the kids back to school. The musicians are not trained to do the outreach or education work—an issue dealt with at the conference—but they see it as an essential part of their job, the right way for their time to be spent, a worthy part of the reason an ensemble exists. (Scottish orchestras do receive significant government funding, which certainly changes the attitude a bit.)
- The quality and sophistication of the work in the performance hall results from the quality of the music education foundation in the schools. Music has a far more evident and honored place in their schools, and in their society—and they are successfully pushing for more. On the closing day of the conference, there was a formal Culture Ministry announcement of a new National Youth Music Strategy, presented with the modest Scottish version of hoopla. It aspires to provide every Scottish student with: music-making experience to learn to play an instrument; instruction that respects and supports their individual musical preferences (electric guitar is as respected as violin); access to high quality musical resources (physical and human) for every student; and instruction to develop their music-making to whatever level they aspire to go. Both music-making and music-composing are essential learning components for every student. Their already-high standards and community visibility are being set higher. The ceremony included student performances by a brass band, a jazz band, a bagpipe ensemble, an almost-all-white gospel choir, and one more group. This final group was introduced by Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson herself at the culminating moment. A somewhat prim, soft spoken older lady, she cheerfully called forth the final musical offering—not the brass ensemble or classical orchestra I expected, but a punk rock band of four boys, who went full out with screaming and shouting, gyrating, in well-grunged outfits. The Minister tapped her toes happily through the loud raucous five minutes, and everyone was quite thrilled with them. All musics are equal. All music making is honored. All musicians and music teachers aspire to contribute to the national goal.
- The stars of the conference were the Animateurs. This is a term first launched at the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, although the idea seems to have emerged from the Guildhall School in London, and is used in the community cultural development movement to describe community artists. (America has one musical Animateur, at the Philadelphia Orchestra, who is composer Tom Cabaniss.) The term may seem odd or pretentious, but the role will be familiar to readers of this column—it is basically a teaching artist placed in musical leadership. In Great Britain, Animateurs design youth conferences (and often lead, even conduct them); they lead the in-school work and professional development work with teachers; they compose for and with students; they create programs that connect musical ensembles with schools. They take the teaching artist’s skills to its fullest flower. One of them, Paul Rissman, had designed and presented three radically different events (I will describe below) in two days at the conference: a dynamic lecture-demonstration concert for high schoolers, a community performance by 100 ten year olds, and a symphony concert for three-to-five year olds. The thrill for me was to see musicians with highly developed education skills not working quietly in isolated classrooms nor to unprepared groups in cafeterias, as so often happens in the U.S., but to see them elevated to the largest possible stages with their skills—creating, leading, conducting, programs on the mainstage, designing compositional and performance programs in schools, designing active-engagement programs for adults. For so many years in the U.S. I have talked about teaching artists as a hugely underutilized resource; there I witnessed that resource used powerfully and naturally.
Here are some examples of the performances put on display at the conference.
The BBC Scotland Radio Cafe broadcast I referred to above combined two projects. BBC Scotland places a radio studio in a different small town high school each year—Soundtown. They use it for a variety of purposes—from focus groups for political response, to young people creating programming and getting excited about mastering the technology. This day Soundtown presented a live presentation of nine Kelso students with four players from the BBC Scottish Symphony—a performance happening at The City Halls in Glasgow—and a small group of students and faculty back at the radio studio in Kelso High School listening and responding live. The presentation was broadcast live to the nation. It all worked very smoothly, including a surprise rap performance by two of the responding students. These two requested the microphone and did a mouth percussion and verbal rap about the presence of Soundtown in their school—I immediately pictured how tense American teachers would be if students started an unscheduled rap about the school live on national radio. It was beautiful to see how the teachers immediately warmed to the suggestion of a surprise rap performance, and how delighted they were with his gift. The rap was very respectful, playful and positive.
The nine 15 year old student composers had not composed before and worked with composer and Animateur Alasdair Nicolson for a mere three days, during which time with a quartet of BBC Scottish Symphony musicians was present the whole time to help the students try out their ideas. They used Nicolson’s approach to composing, which is well tried and effective. The resulting 2-4 minute compositions were stunningly successful. Imagine— excellent composing is within the three-day reach of a large percentage of Scottish high schoolers, and every piece was more sophisticated than any composition I had ever heard from American high school composition students.
That first night we saw the world premier of Thrie Heids (three heads, three short pieces based on famous heads in history) composed and conducted by Animateur Stephen Deasley—a musically thrilling half hour performed by the new music ensemble The Brewhouse and four guest musicians. It is composed for an ensemble of eleven instruments and four electronic instruments that manipulate the instrument sounds with feedback loops and distortions, designed by tech guru Martin Parker. The sheer force of the sound and enriched by the beauty of the electronic elements would have been thrilling enough. However, the four guest musicians playing the electronic instruments were four severely disabled teenagers. I had never witnessed the like of it—fine musicians from The Brewhouse working as full equals with these four students, fully embraced as well-rehearsed and relaxed partners. The electronic instruments (played by joysticks, or light boxes or means the student’s bodies could manage) allowed the teenagers to make informed musical choices, to improvise within the structure, to make excellent music. I found myself nodding in appreciation as much for the musical ideas introduced by the boy frozen in a wheelchair as by the dashing percussionist behind him. It was breathtaking to see them work so well within the ensemble and to see their musicality freed through the technology. Spirits and ideas that had been locked inside frozen bodies were released to let them add to a first rate performance. And no one in the ensemble thought it was that big a deal—they were more excited about the beauty of the piece than the amazing inclusion of the young players. Deasley told me he purposely did not compose evident solos for the electronic instruments that would have enabled audiences to spot the young people in the lead and aesthetically isolate them from the fabric of the piece—he kept them as a part of the ensemble, which was the nature of the entire piece.
After the performance, we heard from Professor Nigel Hawthorne of Edinburgh University., who dedicates himself to creating new instruments for severely disabled people to free the music in them; he is currently making instruments that can be played by eye movements.
That evening we saw a performance called The Four Seasons. This was a concert of 100 kids (to an audience of families, supporters and the public as well as our conference), 9 and 10 year olds, from two schools who put on a 30 minute piece of their response to the environmental crisis in the light of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Piazzolla's Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. This was the culmination of work led by Animateur Paul Rissman and 12 musicians from the Scottish Ensemble, several of whom worked closely with the students on their composing; and the ensemble played parts of the focal works on the program. Half the kids had choreographed dances to the Vivaldi and Piazzolla works; and the other half had composed their response to the theme and the composers’ ideas. The movement work was clearly their choreography, led by dance teaching artist Rosina Bonsu—highly expressive and wonderfully chaotic, but rich with their own ideas, filled with their metaphors of response to the music and environmental theme. They brought their individual styles to the dance--one girl who clearly takes ballet class managed to put splits, arabesques and posing into her moves as kids all around her were sliding into base, doing kid-friendly smashing into one another in the Spring section. The students’ compositions, which they performed, were far more controlled than the dance; and for general music students, rather than music-focused students (no traditional orchestral instruments among the students, just instruments anyone could play), they were clear in their musical ideas and performed with strict focus and flair. The support and “buy-in” from the schools was extraordinary. Two days before the performance one music teaching artist told the principal her students weren't going to be adequately prepared, asked for, and was given, an entire day off from school with all the kids to rehearse. They believe in art making as serious learning.
The next morning, we saw a Royal Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert for 3 to 5 year olds that was cleverly shaped (by freelance Animateur Paul Rissman who had also been led The Four Seasons Project) to keep the little ones focused throughout Monster Music. He also included a composition-with-story of his own, and the musical selections were fun, short, engaging. The program was not much different than one might see for such an audience in the U.S., but the feel was different: the orchestra musicians were having the time of their lives, laughing, enjoying the kids, going out into the audience whenever they could. I talked to some of the players, who told me this one was typical, that they do a lot of youth performances, and the musicians consider them a delight. Let’s just say that is rarely the view of American orchestras and ensembles.
One conference morning we experienced a 45 minute workshop for teachers that prepares them as partners for the Masterworks series of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which we attended that afternoon. The teacher workshop was very like one in the U.S., but more sophisticated because this was designed for music teachers. Workshop leader Animateur Stephen Deasley had us composing and performing for one another in ensemble, solving complex rhythmic challenges that feature prominently in the one hour concert we saw afternoon for 500 high school music students. The two pieces on the concert program were James MacMillan's The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. That’s right, those subtle, complex modern works, with deep political themes, were the repertoire. Animateur Paul Rissmann created a speedy and cool lecture format, very music-analytic, occasionally participatory, filled with useful and lively visual elements that he had designed. It worked, at least it did for me, opening the pieces for me to grasp them more fully. Picture 500 high schoolers in rapt attention following the structural quirks and subtle rhythmic patterns in MacMillan and Adams. As if that image were not mind-boggling enough—this concert was a kickoff for the students who were about to start a composing project using those two works as inspiration for their own creations.
Late that night at the open bar conference bash, we listened to the music of the Fusion Project of the Glasgow City Halls. This is a small program for the most economically struggling kids in town, what Americans call “at-risk” youth. This project takes great care to create an environment at this upscale downtown performance hall that is youth friendly, driven entirely by the interests of the students, and putting technology at the center. Students work on projects of their own invention, some involved in mixing, others on DJ-ing, some create electronic music, with Animateur Pete Dowling guiding but not teaching. They rely on peer mentors, who basically run all the work with the students, creating a tight group that becomes committed to their projects and the process (and that recruits its own future participants). The results of the music at the evening party was a musically fun and proud mix that made for a great social event. Picture the key social event of an international orchestral conference, and the music responsibility entrusted to the toughest kids in town to shape appropriately while we drank a lot. The teenagers handled it beautifully, creating a lively, appropriate and energized party, that was far richer for their contribution. And they knew it.
As if the current state of musical learning and engagement with professionals weren’t enough, Scotland is poised to make a historic advance. There are a remarkable series of opportunities coming into alignment through which the Scots hope to bring the profile and aspiration of arts learning in schools into a prominence unseen elsewhere.
There is a national dialogue underway led by the government around the concept of “cultural entitlement.” The nation is trying to determine what every Scottish resident should be able to expect in terms of arts and culture. This debate is not received cynically, but rather is prompting government officials and members of the public to agree about long term spending, priorities and goals for the cultural life of the nation, institutionalizing universal access and greater equity, and shaping policies to provide what every resident is entitled to.
Concurrently there is a national Creativity Agenda underway, to find ways the governmental, corporate, social and educational institutions can boost the presence and priority of creativity. Unlike the U.S., where non-arts institutions do not immediately see creativity as a resource of the arts, in Scotland they do see the arts as having something essential to provide.
There is also a new national educational curriculum being designed, called the Curriculum for Excellence. Remarkably, it does not emphasize quantifiable measures of success as its goals, but rather prides itself on being learner-centric, with these four essential capacities as the goals of the curriculum: confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens, and effective contributors. Arts education supporters there are only beginning to realize that these goals place them in a central position of schooling, more than ever before, with an emerging mandate for creativity across the curriculum.
Finally, there is the new National Youth Music Strategy I mentioned above aspires to make both music-making and music-composing essential learning components for every students, and to support every student to learn whatever instrument to whatever level of expertise her interest drives her.
The modest Scots were at pains to point out the ways in which they are less than ideal, the ways in which they have much to accomplish: the partnering between orchestras and schools is not strong; their education training for musicians is no stronger than in the U.S.; their pre-service training in the arts for emerging school teachers does not include much use of the arts; and their understanding of arts-integration is not advanced. Nonetheless, they are doing world-leadership quality work in many areas, and are committed to significant new achievement in the years just ahead.
Personally, I left with two main impressions. First, the mind-bending and heart-expanding experience of actually witnessing the kind of education work by musicians and teaching artists that I have spent decades describing as possible. Second, a determination to find out what happened in that “revolution” in the 1980s in England and Scotland that could lead to a nation of professional musicians and ensembles dedicated to becoming a vibrant, relevant, effective, creative community resource.