CLIENT PERSPECTIVES: St Mary’s Music School has adapted its lessons over past months, but as Rob Hall, single reeds teacher, musician and composer, writes for TES, there is no compromise on creativity.
Musicians are a resourceful lot. They will always find ways to express themselves, even in the most dire or challenging circumstances. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a concentration camp for the few instruments at his disposal; Django Reinhardt mastered jazz guitar despite having to negotiate the fretboard with only two fingers on his left hand. Resourcefulness is a key component of the musicians’ survival kit and lockdown has been an incredibly creative time.
When the pandemic hit, St Mary’s Music School had the particular challenge of delivering as near normal an experience as possible, both academically and musically, at a time of year that is notable not just for assessments, but also for live performance. Lunchtime concerts and recital prizes are a major part of a summer term and the aim was to find ways to give the pupils a taste of that experience.
With my class of junior instrumentalists (9-13 year-olds), the conundrum was how to work as an ensemble. The School’s use of both Teams and Zoom was invaluable and I had been able to build significant engagement through listening projects, which was the spur to initiate something new.
Music For About 14 Musicians is a piece I wrote for the ensemble which they had been ready to perform, having been introduced to Steve Reich’s classic minimalist work Music for 18 Musicians. It features multiple violins, pianos, and assorted winds individually recorded by the pupils in their homes, and then collated into a final video which merges photographic art by Susheila Jamieson with the pupils’ performance videos. Her perceptive work provides a sympathetic visual accompaniment to the music which has created something quite unique for pupils to share.
In the process, the pupils became session musicians. They were learning to adapt and be creative in new ways, musically and visually, and they rose to the challenge. The final production, now on YouTube, has allowed them to connect with a much wider audience and develop musically.
To my mind, much of the success of St Mary’s Music School’s approach to instrumental music and composition is down to the encouragement given to pupils to develop their own stylistic interests, with the particular specialisms of its teachers being closely matched to help foster that musical passion. This creates variety within the school community, cross-genre respect, and widens the scope for performance possibilities.
I like to look for opportunities and collaborations beyond the school gate, believing it important for pupils to have experiences both in and out of school, learn from other professionals and encounter situations they might not have imagined. With Music For About 14 Musicians, although it wasn’t possible for the pupils to meet the visual artist, music and video editors in the usual sense, they were able to play their part in a creative process and experience the results.
Every musician needs to be able to undertake work that may be outside of their scope. I also teach improvisation which, as much as it is a means of expression, is also a life skill, and lockdown has given us, as teachers, the means to pass on these lessons of resourcefulness, adaptability and innovation.
For me, too, the experience has called for new methods. I’m going to continue many of the digital elements in my teaching, using online learning tools and video tutorials in combination with real time tuition. It has also brought into focus how regular recording is an invaluable exercise for musicians for self-reflection, performance skills and confidence building.
The pandemic has presented some unusual challenges but it has also given us creative opportunity.
- The 5-minute Music For About 14 Musicians, alongside Susheila Jamieson’s distinctive artwork, can be viewed via St Mary’s Music School’s YouTube Channel