Schools Putting the class in classical

Children in the audience at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra schools concert 2019. Photo: Nico Keenan

Cheree Beet thought she knew her students. The Year 3/4 level coordinator from Wattle View Primary School knew that her kids love their digital tech and their sport, but she didn’t expect them to prove such enthusiastic fans of classical music. All it took was an excursion to see the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform one of its school concerts.

“Students were coming out of the concert and saying, ‘Oh my god, it was so nice to actually hear real music!’” Cheree says. “So many of them have never been exposed to that kind of music before. None of them had ever really seen brass instruments or grand pianos. It was something they really connected with. That surprised me, as I worried it would go the other way.”

The hour-long concert isn’t your typical orchestral performance – the lights stay on so students can see the players clearly, with a big screen presenting close ups. A giant puppet of a snake weaves its way throughout, linking the pieces into a narrative, while a MC explains each piece of music.

Cheree’s school attended the concert as part of MSO’s Ignite initiative, designed to help a more diverse range of schools get involved with the orchestra’s long-running schools program. The initiative has been piloted successfully across the past two years and is set to be formalised in 2020. MSO’s director of community and engagement, John Nolan, says the orchestra wants to break down the barriers, such as cost, that have prevented some schools from signing up. In the process, he hopes to shift misconceptions that classical music is only for a privileged elite.

“I suppose by the time you’re an adult, you’ve had time to learn all these incorrect ideas about how elite and difficult classical music is. But those ideas haven’t occurred to kids.”

“It’s for everybody,” John says. “People forget this music is already everywhere in our lives. It’s in every film we go see, it’s around us all the time. People are already engaging with it, we just want them to engage more.”

Music and performing arts teacher Sarah Butler, whose school also took part in the pilot, says the resistance to classical music is more likely to come from parents than children.

“I think the parents possibly had the idea that the kids wouldn’t be in to it – but they were!” Sarah says. “The Year 1/2s just see music as music. You can throw jazz at them, pop at them, the Beatles at them and it’s all just music.”

MSO has long been aware that early exposure is crucial to a student’s engagement with classical music – hence the popularity of its Jams For Juniors series for under-fives, the first in a series of programs designed to guide a listener from babyhood to (ideally) MSO subscriber.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra schools concert 2019. Photo: Nico Keenan

“I suppose by the time you’re an adult, you’ve had time to learn all these incorrect ideas about how elite and difficult classical music is,” John says. “But those ideas haven’t occurred to kids. If you’re a little kid and you go to these amazing, colossal concert halls and there’s a huge army of people onstage making this immense sound, of course that’s exciting! How could it not be?”

Sarah says she started her kids off by making use of the teacher resources provided by MSO, before three musicians came out to run a workshop with the cohort. For her young students, seeing real instruments and performers up close and to even get a chance to audition as a conductor was a powerful experience.

“I can play them YouTube clips or CDs, but it’s not the same as seeing a violin in front of you. Since the program ran, we’ve had three kids take up violin and one take up cello. I actually got calls from a couple of very cautious parents saying, ‘My eight-year-old wants to take up the violin, how do I stop her?” With a bit of convincing, they’re giving it a go.”

MSO Schools conductor Tianyi Lu (L) and presenter Thea Rossen (R) with the concert snake. Photo: Nico Keenan

Without the financial support of the Ignite program, it’s unlikely this spike in enthusiasm for string instruments would have been possible, Sarah says.

Alongside a strong focus on Beethoven, in recognition of his 250th birthday, the 2020 MSO schools program will see the relaunch of the popular MSO Learn app as an easily accessible microsite and a new ‘curriculum concert’, designed to help VCE students deconstruct pieces of music they are studying.
Both Sarah and Cheree say they would leap at the chance to take part again.

“What I really loved was the connection that the students made between an orchestra and the classroom,” Cheree says. “A couple of the kids came back and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got your conductor, who is like your teacher, and the orchestra is the students who are following instruction.’ That was really interesting!”

Find out more at msolearn.com.au

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