Understanding younger audiences: reflection 

Understanding Younger Audiences was collaboration between City of London School for Girls (CLSG) and Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD). I worked with Professor John Sloboda and Dr Karen Wise. 

Background

I approached Professor John Sloboda soon after joining City of London School for Girls (CLSG) with a view of making connections between CLSG and Guildhall School (GSMD). As expressed in the Memorandum of Understanding, ‘the overall strategic case for tangible collaboration between the two organisations rests on their co-location within the Barbican Estate, their joint commitment to the education of the gifted, and their championing of the arts (particularly the performing arts) as the hallmark of a civilised society and an educated citizenry’. This co-location within the same estate was the impetus for the contact but I additionally saw this as a vehicle for my pursuit of authenticity in how we would approach the teaching of Music at CLSG. This Authenticity would be achieved through working with aspiring professionals to encourage my students to engage particularly with Western art music, the musical rhetoric that was increasingly criticised in recent music education debates as it is seen as disconnected from the musical tastes preferred by students. A desire to ensure Western art music remained a vibrant part of the curriculum is of paramount importance. Additionally, I caught an article by John Gilhooly (Wigmore Hall) lamenting the decline in audiences for song cycles and considered how certain genres could slip through the classroom, and could easily be neglected when creating school-based music curriculums. I saw this as a challenge. My work in the classroom coupled with my work with Pro Corda, Royal Opera House Education and NMC Recordings led me to foster the opinion that pupils respond well to ambitious musical choices made by the teacher, and if I were to foster a genuine engagement with Western art music by my students I would need to make the engagement not only ambitious but visceral.

An initial meeting with John was helpful in shaping my thinking and to devise a pilot project that could initiate a collaboration without a complex commitment from either party. This pilot project was to investigate the performance-audience relations in a school context by a chamber ensemble from GSMD working with a group of Year 10 students in 6 sessions during a school term culminating in a concert at the school curated by the students, the process and outcomes being documented/evaluated through collaborative research jointly owned by the two organisations.

I saw this as an opportunity to trial an approach to creating authentic classroom experiences as an enhancement to the curriculum, in addition to understanding how younger students form relationships with Classical music and particularly the string quartet/chamber music genre. GSMD saw this an opportunity to provide a professionally relevant extra-curricular enhancement to a student group, and to investigate this as an innnovative route to deepening performers’ understanding of, and connection to their younger audiences in the context of their ongoing professional development.

It was felt the ideal conditions for this pilot were to take place in the autumn term of 2016, and I was able to commit the necessary resources and managerial authority. The Understanding Audiences Programme at GSMD committed the staffing resources to jointly plan and execute the documentation and evaluation component of the project, and the Acting Head of Chamber Music, Matthew Jones, agreed to work with the parties to identify and recruit a suitable student group for the project. The selected group was a piano quartet comprising one postgraduate student and three undergraduates. The group met with me and John to be introduced to the project so they could make a decision to be involved. A small remuneration was offered for their participation.

Session 1

The group of CLSG girls were given very little information about the project prior to the first session. I am familiar with how students of secondary school age have preconceptions about ‘Classical Music’ and it was important to me that they would be able to approach this project with as few preconceptions as possible. They were told that they would devise a concert with a group of musicians from GSMD and the first session was an opportunity for them to meet the group. The Piano Quartet performed two movements from the Walton Piano Quartet as their introduction and the response from the girls was extremely positive. They were noticeably impressed by the playing but most obviously by the youth of the players. During a discussion that followed the performance, where the girls were encouraged to facilitate a conversation with the players to learn more about them, one girl commented on the relatability of the players and how she expected them to be much older. The questions veered quickly away from the music and became more about the players’ backgrounds. The conversation was plentiful. It was agreed by the players that at the second session they would ‘jam’ with the CLSG girls and they should all have their instruments ready to do so.

Session 2

The Piano Quartet seemingly had forgotten their proposal of a ‘jam’ and had prepared to show the CLSG girls their rehearsal process by playing through some Brahms they had recently started to work on. The Brahms had less of an impact on the girls; likely because this was not as veraciously varied in character and mood as the Walton, and the group were not communicating the Brahms with the same competence as the Walton at this stage of their rehearsal. The girls were invited to join in at the mid-way point and all played through the slow movement of the Brahms.

Session 3

I encouraged the GSMD group to demonstrate a selection of repertoire that the CLSG girls could select, and put in an order of their choice, for the programme for the concert planned for session 6 of the project. The pianist from the GSMD group had additionally prepared a Gershwin arrangement for piano quartet. It was impressive to see the girls were taking increasing ownership and my own interjections were increasingly minimal.

Session 4

This was planned as the session to explore the space. This needed more input from me but I prevented too much interference and opted for statements such as ‘what would be even braver in your choice of seating?’ to encourage greater departure from convention. The girls moved chairs to different locations and experiments with the piano quartet being placed further apart from each other. This dislocation revealed ensemble issues that I hoped the girls would have noticed bu the opportunity to discuss how the placement of the players is vital to the success of the ensemble’s performance was missed.

Session 5

Planned as the dress-rehearsal, this session required the CLSG girls to prepare the running order and walk the piano quartet through the concert that would be happening in the next session. The girls were prepared in a minimal way, working out the logistics and the shape of the concert occasionally in an improvised fashion but there was an obvious enjoyment in the process. Most striking was their use of iPads: they were communicating with each other via iMessage rather than verbally so it appeared they were not observing the rehearsal when they were actively commenting with each other.

Session 6

Due to examinations the concert needed to be moved from the original venue to the Main Hall (a spacious venue with a larger piano) and the girls and players adapted to the new venue with ease. The CLSG girls brought a selection of snacks and had the ensemble seated in the middle of the space with the audience arranged in a circle around the ensemble. The girls had produced a minimal programme, and the concert was introduced noting that the aim of the project was to ‘challenge conventions of classical music’, noting that there was a stigma attached to this music by them and their peers. Between items the audience were asked to stand and move three seats to their left, a novel way to deal with the fidgeting the girls had mentioned in a previous session. This change of seating also provided the audience with a new perspective on the players. The audience was small but it was noted that the group of girls that attended were close friends of the organising girls. Some staff attended, commenting that they liked the movement between items in the programme. I had an informal conversation at the end of the concert with the those members of the audience who were willing to stay and the players.

Outcomes

• The project helped to bring together a group of girls who had just started their GCSE Music course and were a diverse group of musicians; some were very able, some were less experienced and some identified as having no interest in classical music. It was clear that the girl who expressed no interest in classical music was engaged by the opportunity to work with live musicians.

• The relatability of the group was of vital importance. The girls were able to connect with ease in conversation and to players too were able to relate well with the girls.

• The format, over six sessions, seemed sufficient time for the CLSG girls and GSMD group to make meaningful connections.

• The GSMD group increasingly saw the project as a ‘gig’. Whether or not this

• There were positive audience reactions to the moving-round-3-seats arrangement. Reasons given for this were: 1. it was great to be so close to performers and see what they were doing. One staff member really appreciated being right behind the pianist to see the muscularity of his playing and the involvement of his whole body, and to be able to see the music over his shoulder. 2. It helped wake up the (audience member’s) body, prevented discomfort from sitting, and beat the urge to fidget. People avoided the seats right behind the piano – there were more seats than audience members so this was possible.

• There were only a few audience members who were not part of the project – a few staff and a handful of students. The students seemed to be mainly close friends of the project participants. 

• I reflected that the girls had not been especially radical or explored the creative possibilities in quite the way I had hoped, but had been rather conventional, and had seemed to me to just ‘want to get things done’. I wondered whether this was a symptom of them having so many opportunities already that this one didn’t seem so special. I discussed this with Karen Wise how this would be different in a different school, with a different group of young people (e.g. those who don’t play instruments, for example). I can see there is scope to create a team of students from a variety of City schools to curate a concert.

• it was interesting that the girl who gave the introduction to the concert told the audience that the project had been about breaking down their prejudices against classical music, which was felt had not been stated in that way when it was introduced to the girls at the outset.

• It was discussed how engaged the GSMD quartet was with the project, in terms of their own development, or whether they just saw it as another ‘gig’ – and something they were doing for the school and/or girls rather than a collaborative process.

• The organising girls gained confidence about how to talk about the music and to engage with the players. They all gained an insight into the curation process, albeit a superficial one, but nonetheless it increased their confidence in attending a classical music event.

Missed opportunities

• There was scope for the girls and players to devise original material that would have made the concert a deeper collaboration between the two groups. The Gershwin was very much music that the pianist connected with well, but it was not known by the girls and as such the impact was diminished. An arrangement of a melody known to the girls would have been of greater value in fostering ownership of the music.

• The technology to document the first session failed and as such it would be important for subsequent sessions to ensure any recording equipment is functioning well.

Next steps

• Would it be worth repeating this project involving a group of students drawn from several City schools?

• How to move this from being a ‘gig’ for the GSMD group and to a learning opportunity for both parties? Should a remuneration be offered or not?

• How to encourage greater ambition and/or creativity in the approach by both parties so the result generates meaningful insight into how the interaction between the players and a younger audience could facilitate increased engagement with classical music in the classroom but also outside of the classroom.

 

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