Friday 31 December 2010

Music is Our Language

Young musicians from London, Reykjanesbaer and Madrid compose and perform music together thanks to EU funding
By Timothy Jones, Karen Sturlaugsson and Peter Romhany
A tale of three cities
This project was dreamed up in bright sunshine in Madrid, began in a musical sense in a freezing town near Reykjavik and ended ankle deep in snow in London. Music is Our Language is the title of a music project financed through the European Union Socrates-Comenius programme to fund mobility of teachers and students from three schools in the UK, Iceland and Spain between the three countries. Morpeth School, working through the Globetown Action Zone, was the coordinating institution and the partners were my school in Madrid and the Reykjanesbaer Municipal Music School.
The project had three main ingredients: a planning meeting which took place  in Madrid in September 2005, a teachers meeting led by a composer at the Municipal Music School in Reykjanesbaer in November 2006 and a plenary session at Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, London which led into a final performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in February 2007. Additional actions have continued up to February 2008 and more are planned for the future.
Shared experience
The common thread uniting the three music teachers leading this project is our experience of the Guildhall’s Connect Project, directed by Sean Gregory. Morpeth School have run a six week project with the Guildhall each Spring term since 1998 through the Globetown Action Zone, especially focussing on their feeder primary schools. The Madrid school have enjoyed workshops led by Sean Gregory since 2003 co-ordinated by the British Council Arts team in Madrid, and a highlight of this work in progress is a real time group improvisation lead by Sean at the school in Spain connected via a live video link with the EQ Connect group at the University of East London, in March 2004. The relationship between the Reykjanesbaer Municipal Music School and the Guildhall could not be closer, as the composer associated to the project is Sigrun Saevarsdottir-Griffiths, a Guildhall graduate and former pupil of the Reykjanesbaer school.
Our shared experience meant that as teachers we were speaking the same language about our hopes for the project as we met in Madrid to write our bid proposal. Our fundamental goals included involving teachers and our students as composers and making the music part of a wider social and cultural experience.
Kiss the Sky
By the time seven teachers from the three schools met up at the Municipal Music School at Reykjanesbaer fourteen months later, Sigrun had already planned that the concert at which our Comenius group would perform would be based on the music of Jimi Hendrix. The title, Kiss the Sky, is part of the Purple Haze lyric.
Ice breaking and  warm up exercises take on a special meaning on a November morning in a coastal Icelandic town with gale force winds and the constant threat of snow and we soon moved on to establishing two contrasting musical sections as ideas emerged from the group under Sigrun’s guidance. The A section is in 6/ 4 with a piano riff and a contrasting haunting clarinet melody. The B section in 5/ 4 has a driving brass theme. Backing figures were improvised to accompany solo segments and the shape of the piece developed during the day.
Thanks to an Apple ibook we were able to record and copy cd’s of the day’s work and Sigrun set homework for each group, depending on the forces we planned to involve in the piece. Morpeth School would develop the 6/ 4 section and involve a large brass group, featuring a solo trumpet. The Madrid group would involve piano, drums and two violins so the task was to develop the 5/ 4 material, especially featuring the violins. The Reykjanesbaer group was to involve woodwind, brass and electric guitars, so the task was to create new material which would serve as an opening theme featuring, appropriately, the electric guitars as soloists.
It was agreed that on their return home, each teacher would teach their students the tutti segments and work with their students to compose their own sections, ready to fit everything together three months later.
From Brick Lane to the Barbican
For some of the four Spanish and four Icelandic students February 2007 marked their first visit to London and they were given a packed three day programme apart from the concert and rehearsals. The three nation group shared a curry in Brick Lane, visited Covent Garden, shopped at  Chappell’s of Bond Street in Wardour Street, saw sights old and new from St Paul’s to the London Eye, and enjoyed a performance of The Lion King in the West End.
There was a sense of wonder and mutual admiration as each group listened to their colleagues’ compositions in our first combined rehearsal. The fragments which each of us had taken away from the November meeting had blossomed into characteristic pieces, and Sigrun intuitively groomed them to make a coherent whole.
The final performance was part of a concert organised by the Globetown Action Zone with the Guildhall in the conservatoire’s Main Hall. There were two hundred children from four local primary schools who had been coached by Guildhall students and their class teachers under Sigrun’s guidance, all working on the Jimi Hendrix Kiss the Sky theme as well as the Morpeth School band and the small groups of the three Comenius centres. The work produced by the primary groups was original and varied and was performed to a high standard. The Spanish and Icelandic presence added their own ingredients to the wealth of cultural diversity of the children from Tower Hamlets. There were children of many cultures, all speaking the language of music.
Watching the dvd of the concert, it is beyond doubt that the fundamental goals which we set ourselves when writing our bid proposal have been fulfilled. Our students have worked with us as composers, have taken part in a concert in a prestige venue as part of a larger project which touches the lives of hundreds of children every year, and which has involved our students in an experience which has been of untold value to them in the wider social and cultural sense.
In May 2007 fifteen students from Morpeth School spent a week in Madrid where they performed and led workshops at local primary and secondary schools. In February 2008 thirty Morpeth School students, led by Pete Romhany, spent three days in Liverpool with thirty students from the Madrid school. Together they performed for and with students from King David High School and Formby High School, and were given a guided tour of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. These latest visits show that the project has the potential to continue and that it can advance in the future to include more students in each country. High on the list of aims is to enable students from Spain and the UK to take part in the annual wind festival in Iceland which draws more than one thousand young persons.
The EU Comenius funding provides for the mobility of small groups of students during a limited time. From this starting point the relationship between our schools has developed through visits by larger groups financed in other ways, and it is our intention to continue to deepen the relationships established not just between the institutions, but between persons, students and adults. We would like to thank the country administrations responsible for handling the Comenius project, in the UK the British Council, in Iceland the Office of International Education at the University of Iceland, and in Spain the Agencia Nacional Socrates.
The project was planned to last for three years, but ended after the first year for technical reasons.
The Authors:
Peter Romhany, Head of Music at Morpeth School, London
Karen Sturlaugsson, Deputy Principal, Reykjanesbaer Municipal Music School, Reykjanesbaer , Iceland
Timothy Jones

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing opportunity for the teachers and the students! There is lots of interest at the moment (in Australia, at least) in ways of linking music-making sites remotely. However, nothing can beat the opportunity to share music and experiences in real life as well as real time. How wonderful that the three partnering schools have been able to access funding that makes those kind of experiences possible!
    So often, the only groups of young musicians that get to travel with their music are those in Youth Orchestra programs. Some school groups in Australia also have opportunities to share their music interstate or abroad. We are a big land mass, and far away from everywhere else, so this kind of travel is a huge financial undertaking, therefore, it is often out of the question. But it's so important that there be examples out there of what can happen when we push through with ideas that seem out of the question. I love the idea of your students visiting London for the first time, and their visit culminating in a performance of music that they have played such a key role in developing.