Archives for March 2018

What happens when you put an orchestra into a failing school?

Imagine a school in a high-rise housing estate with a reputation for poverty, crime and where most of the pupils can barely speak the native language. If you had to find a way of cutting truancy, the high drop-out rate, the appalling exam results and the despair of the wider community, what would you do?

In an age where music is being shifted off the timetable at an alarming rate and learning a musical instrument is only for the rich, a musical solution might surprise you. Eleven years ago, when Bremen East Comprehensive School in Tenever, northern Germany, had a reputation for fighting, aggression and graffiti, it was suggested that one of Europe’s best-known orchestras – the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – should be moved into the school for rehearsals.

Disaster, you might think; but you’d be wrong. Certainly, the suggestion initially caught both parties off guard. Although the teachers were already hard-pressed to find enough time for learning and the musicians dreaded the prospect of unruly noise and a violent atmosphere, a series of projects was devised to bring the two factions together, including class visits and talks by musicians and the promise of help with an annual opera which was to be written and performed by the students.

Once the orchestra had moved into the school, pupils were given the freedom not only to listen to rehearsals, but also to sit between the professional musicians as they played. This brought them close to the harmonising effects of music and helped them to calm down and find gentler ways to express themselves so that they became more ‘sound’. The students were also encouraged to talk with the musicians and share their stories, broadening perspectives, demonstrating new possibilities, breaking down social barriers and opening young minds to otherwise undreamed of opportunities. Furthermore, as had already been proven by research, the music helped pupils to improve their reading and comprehension, language development, IQ scores and creative skills.

The result of this extraordinary collaboration was that truancy was dramatically cut, drop-out rates fell to less than 1%, exam results improved enormously and the atmosphere of the wider community was transformed. Indeed, the school became so popular that students from all over Bremen, even the wealthiest parts, queued up to join. The experience even benefitted the orchestra because it was discovered that children sitting amongst the instruments improved not only the musicians’ concentration, but also inspired them to make more beautiful sounds.

So let’s bring music on a grand scale into schools and mix people from different educational and social backgrounds together. Let singing and playing, listening and enjoying, sharing and expressing in choirs, orchestras and bands help every pupil from every country to become an inspired member of the community so that we can all learn how to live harmoniously together.

Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?

Wishing you a happy and joyous Easter, Love Laurelle

The Joy of Making Music, Animal-Style

It seems that we could all do with a little more happiness and calm these days. Animals seem to be less keyed up than we are and perhaps we could take a note out of their books…

Music making is seen as a human activity. However, animals also make music and not just using their own natural sounds. Mozart may have transcribed the melody of his pet starling in a diary; Beethoven may have included representations of real birds in his Pastoral Symphony, and whale songs may have been recorded for meditation purposes, but it seems that animals’ musical abilities go far beyond this.

Elephants, for example, can actually play instruments, especially gongs, drums and even harmonicas which they sometimes blow into their own ears using the flexibility like fingers at the ends of their trunks.

In 2000, Richard Lair, aka Professor Elephant, set up the Thai Elephant Orchestra along with Soldier, an accomplished musician and composer and professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. Together they built 22 giant instruments in a metal workshop, all designed to be operated with the elephant’s trunk or with a stick held in the trunk. Since then, they have gone on to prove that elephants can not only distinguish basic melodies but also set up original rhythms. Interestingly, elephants prefer their music well-tuned. They learn where the sweet spot is on the instrument without being taught and avoid dissonance wherever possible.

The Orchestra has now recorded several albums some of which are improvised and the only cues given to the elephants are when to start and stop playing. Others melodies are renditions of traditional Thai melodies using five note scales. When a (human) orchestra in New York performed an arrangement of one of the elephants’ own compositions, asking the audience who they thought the composer was, the answers came back with names such as John Cage, Dvorak and Charles Ives.

Elephants aren’t the only ones to perform original music. I once had a dog who would sing ecstatically to the harmonica, displaying a quite extraordinary vocal range. Peter Gabriel performed an impressive duet with a bonobo, a pygmy chimpanzee, playing a keyboard. Chimpanzees can play hand-bells and certain monkeys will form choirs and sing together. Philosopher David Rothenberg set up a duet between his flute and a white-crested laughing thrush and captive zebra finches have been known to sing when asked.

In all cases, music making seems to calm the animals and make them happy so perhaps we should consider taking a leaf out of their book by creating a little more harmony. The more of us that get together and make music, the happier and more relaxed we will all be. Our pets will enjoy it too and, you never know, they might even join in…

Happy March!

Love Laurelle