CREATING MUSICAL STORIES
Music Education Project 2018-present
We often have conversations with members of the public who, on hearing that we’re musicians, say something along the lines of “oh, that’s cool - I was never any good at it at school, though, and don’t know anything about classical…”
In primary schools, any musical engagement often (though not always) involves playing instruments or singing. Although this kind of participation is vital, it doesn’t always lend itself to developing a really strong idea of why: in the end, what’s the point of plucking strings, hitting percussion instruments, and making pitches with your voice?
Jumping into participation is great, but it has a disadvantage, which is that it makes it more likely that quieter students, or those to whom the ‘doing’ bit doesn’t come so easily, will be less involved. In some cases they might even switch off entirely. This means that if, for whatever reason, a child doesn’t take to it straight away, they might start to assume that music only belongs to ‘musically talented’ people. This belief is often embedded at a really early age, and can have a lasting impact on how people see their relationship with music, as we saw above. It’s partly responsible for the negativity about classical (‘complicated’) music, along with the idea that ‘you need to know loads about it’ to enjoy it. We don’t think this is true; with a few simple tricks, it can be enjoyed by anybody, irrespective of background, experience or knowledge. But if you didn’t like it much at school, because you ‘weren’t any good at it’, you’ll feel it doesn’t belong to you, and that’s really significant barrier.
In this project, then, we focused squarely on the “why”. The idea was to generate a strong positive motivation and sense of ownership, things that will form the basis of rewarding involvement with music in the future. In the academic year 2018-19 we brought this approach to East Cornwall, working with over 150 primary-age pupils (KS2) in 10 different schools
The project is about helping all pupils - not just ‘musically talented’ ones - to find their own ways of listening imaginatively. We give them permission to have vivid responses when listening to live classical music, and then help them find ways of expressing those responses: feelings, ideas, characters, and so on. In the process, students also start to build an intuitive understanding, without jargon or needless technicalities, and - more importantly - generate a real affinity with this music.
We do this by creating musical stories.
Between November 2018 and June 2019, we made three trips to these schools in East Cornwall. In each of the tours, the quartet worked with the same KS2 classes; this meant that each session built on the last, and we also got to know the pupils and teachers. We performed in assemblies at each of the schools in every trip, and received possibly our best ever reception on one return visit! Overall, we worked intensively with around 150 children ages 8-11, and reached over 1000 school pupils in total.
In the workshops we encouraged pupils to listen really imaginatively - and we weren’t disappointed on that score - but we also demanded that their ideas always be deeply connected to, and derived from, the musical content. Splitting the piece into bite-size chunks, we progressed through it in a two-step process each time. First came perception and description of the sound(s); second, this understanding was mapped onto the building blocks of stories - characters, emotions, landscapes, actions and so on. Putting these constituent parts together generated coherent, easy-to-follow narratives, with coherent and intelligible mappings between sound and story. This non-arbitrary relationship absolutely critical for building a connection between musical perception and the imagination.
St Cleer Primary
St Martin’s Primary
Writing one story as a whole class meant that each pupil was generating ideas and responses as an individual, at the same time as listening to and working with those of others. The final group story, which was roughly drawn on a flip-chart by a teacher for ease of memory, was in a sense less important than the process of getting each individual to listen deeply, and access their own responses. We emphasised throughout the sessions that, whether or not these made it into the group story, everyone’s ideas were still an entirely valid way of responding to the music! The group story simply helps to structure this process, more like imaginative scaffolding than a ‘correct answer’. But it also helps to build other skills, especially in teamwork and concentration.
You can see in this video, of a story by the Y3 and Y4 classes of Pensilva Primary, just how responsive the pupils were to the music, and how they were able first to understand it, and then to express feelings and ideas that came out of what they had heard.
Stories are far from the only way to engage with music. But they do make for an excellent container for all of the different kinds of things music can do for us, and tying all of these possibilities into an intelligible whole. Musical stories can contain everything from landscapes to emotions, action scenes to new camera angles. They aren’t always expressed in words - or externalised at all. Crucially, they belong to whoever is writing them. Everyone experiences music differently, and that is something to embrace, not to police. Our aim is ultimately to help people develop an affinity with, and a love for, this kind of music - a relationship that does not start with simplistic sound-bites and lazy assumptions, but with the amazing possibilities inherent in listening to music.
The Florian Quartet received funding from Arts Council England, Kings College London, Cornwall County Council, The Norman Family Charitable Trust and FEAST Cornwall to deliver this project in 2018-19. Thanks to all funders, staff and students who made it a success!