As the doors opened to communities across market towns the length and breadth of Essex and Suffolk during October half-term week; many children, babies, parents and carers sat on the colourful mats, cushions and chairs to settle down for the “Mission to Launch” performances by the City of London Sinfonia as part of their Lullaby Concert Series.
The professional orchestra went straight into playing Copland’s Rodeo giving a sense of build up to a great adventure as the music was fast, energetic, bright and often riotous. Some children appeared to be amazed with what they were actually witnessing; a large group of grown-ups with weird and wonderful randomly shaped toys making incredible noise. Some liked to dance, some just sat there open mouthed and a few even covered up their ears!
The main presenter Claire Henry who was dressed up as an astronaut and I walked up on the stage greeted everyone when the music finished. We sang a hello song with waving hand actions to warm up our audience and get them involved. I was introduced to everyone as a ‘Shining Signing Star’ and that I would have something special to show them later.
Claire explained to everyone that her mission was to launch her rocket but there was a small problem – the rocket had no power and that she required help from the audience to launch into space. She showed us her bright red rocket that was inactively standing on the floor. As we got our thinking caps on during ‘Largo’ from the New World Symphony no.9 by Dvorak, I was impressed to see children sitting and listening still in quiet contemplation. The method of asking young children to ‘think’ was an effective way of inviting and involving them on the mission. While many grown-ups’ initial thoughts from hearing the largo symphony was the Hovis bread television advert back in 1973 (the feedback wall messages implied so!) I was actually surprised to learn by looking up on google that the Commander Neil Armstrong took this very music to listen to when travelling up to the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. I imagined for Armstrong that this piece gave him a sense of feeling propelled into the total unknown for the first time.
The music gave our astronaut Claire an idea to help launch the rocket into space called “Rocket Jobs”. There were four jobs and a tune to go with each one.
“Pumper pumps and peddlers pedal, blowers blow and clappers clap!”
Peddlers peddle was the rotating triplet motion from the string players as she introduced the string family – the violins, viola, cello and double bass, showing their range of pitches, long bow strokes, and pizzicato. Claire got on the large exercise bike to effectively change tempo with their hands peddling about! The strings went on to play Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ indicating a hot balmy summer music with such virtuosity and vigour, leaving young people a mind blowing impression of what string instruments are capable of. We all reacted with excitement and doing actions of thunderstorms, the crazy rapid roaring runs using our fingers.
It was lovely that the four members of the woodwind family were there, the flute, oboe/cor angalis, clarinet and bassoon. The players showed how sounds were made from using their mouths, and the different types of reeds, the closing and opening holes from their instruments, as well as injecting their personalities, such as the flute playing the shooting stars, and the clarinet being cheeky by hiding from view then appearing as a surprise! I think the bassoon left an impression how a simple looking long tube can produce a really low, deep sound.
The woodwinds had the pumper’s job to lift the rocket into space. Claire had an upright bicycle pump where you lift and push down the handle. This was a very effective and visual way of demonstrating the rise and fall in pitch. This also allowed the children to have a go and hearing up rise and down for low sounds.
I had a British Sign Language interpreter Tina Douglas present during the whole week of the tour – it was for both my benefit and for anyone in the audience if they wanted access to sign language. As I am mainly a lip-reader, there were times when the presenter turned her back or when an audience member threw in a question/answer that I didn’t catch or hear. As she was positioned opposite of me on the side of the stage, it was always nice for me to turn my eyes over to her, keeping myself on track.
Now the audiences were in for Philip Glass’ ‘Icarus at the Edge of time’, a piece composed in 2010 was a première at The World Science festival based on a story book by Brian Greene about a boy going up in space exploring the black hole. The continuous rolling triplets matched the words forever-forever-forever which Claire repeated and whispered until the music started.
After Phillip Glass and the black hole, a Shiny Signing Star appeared – myself! The astronaut had always wanted to speak to me and asked what I was going to do today. I replied that I was going to play the starriest tune in the sky, and chosen the harp and the delicate tingling wind chimes to accompany me. It was my improvisation in a minor key using semiquaver runs while the harp kept the melody of twinkle little star going. I was also a bit of a forgetful star too, and children showed me the pitch to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle little Star’ by using their hands to show the rise and fall in pitch. As there were so many babies and toddlers, it piqued their interest and I think it was nice just once in the programme for the children to have something familiar they know very well and to hear the orchestra perform much to their delight.
Holst’s Jupiter was then performed which featured quite a lot of the brass parts as Claire introduced the French horn and the trumpet as ‘blowers’. We held up a spinning sandcastle windmill and made children blow at it to set the spinning wheels off to provide “lift” for the rocket.
In each venue we had a young guest from the area that was part of receiving instrumental lessons from Essex Music Services to perform Borodin’s ‘Polovtisan Dances’ with orchestra. The attractive Polovtisan dances had bright tone colours, graceful melodic lines and energetic rhythms creating a general feeling of enthusiasm about the preparations for the rocket launch. For young people to have the chance to perform with the orchestra is a real confidence boost. It reminded me of when I was invited to perform Handel’s Water Music as well as Jesu’s Joy of Mans Desiring by Bach with the Russian Symphony Orchestra at the Great Hall in St Petersburg, Moscow at 16 years old. It was a turning point in my life; I decided that I was going to have a career in music, profoundly deaf or not. I returned to the very stage 8 years later playing an exciting, exhilarating full blown concerto by Franz Danzi, in D minor opus.2 which featured on BBC’s See Hear series.
The young guest visit tied in nicely with the introduction to the Essex Music services team who offered an excellent hands on Q and A session after the concert where the young children and families went “backstage” and tried out different instruments to get an experience, under the supervision of orchestra members and hopefully they would feel inspired to sign up for some instrumental lessons.
Now, the final job for the ‘clappers’ was where we used our clapping hands and the percussionist drumming its stick. The faster we clapped the more we felt that the rocket was approaching lift off. At the very last part of the programme the astronaut pulled all the rocket jobs in together – the peddlers, pumpers, blowers and clappers, getting everyone to do all their parts along with the orchestra going crazy, building up a loud noise with such intensity one could imagine the ground was shaking imminent to lift off, then suddenly, it was time to belt up and count down from ten to blast off and up and away the rocket went! The Orchestra performed the fanfare to Richard Strauss’s tone poem ‘The Sunrise’ (Also Sprach Zarathustra) the music feels akin to an out of body experience, so dramatic and glorious. ‘The Sunrise’ was also used as the theme tune for the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. It felt like a strong glorious ending to the whole Mission to launch performance.
What a week! I mainly learned from being involved is presentation skills from Claire – what makes it work and how to go about it. This is going to come helpful in one of my new projects – Audiovisability where I bring classical and modern music to an audio-visual experience where sign language/live captions is used to reach out new audiences.
Claire is a very experienced presenter who is in her 9th year doing Lullaby concerts. She has created a story-telling experience linking the orchestral music to the narrative seamlessly. I went with her visiting many of the local communities in libraries, small theatre spaces and nurseries in the Essex and Suffolk areas prior to the actual concerts. This allowed Orchestras Live to promote the event, hand out flyers, stickers, and engage with the community as well as giving Claire herself a chance to have a dry run of the music programme.
Although there were very few sign language users or deaf children coming to the concert that week, this can be improved by Orchestras Live making visits to schools that have a unit for deaf children, or even at deaf schools. On future publicity releases a sign language interpreter access logo should be displayed and to market the events more keenly with agencies/organisations for deaf children. Many people do not understand deafness, and the fact that hearing loss very wildly vary from having mild deafness to profound hearing loss, glue ear and even auditory processing disorder in hearing children. With exposure, it’s up to the children themselves to react to music and decide about world of music for themselves. My son Harry who is deaf too got full access to the concert as he made use of full visibility and the hands on session afterwards. He really enjoyed himself. Although my hearing loss is profound and that I wear hearing aids in both ears, I am a professional musician today because growing up with music and my parents took me and my brothers to many live musical events which I thought was magical.
I also personally gained a deeper insight to the planning and learning involved from being involved with Britain’s foremost chamber orchestra and I hope to be involved again, as well as supporting better involvement for those with hearing loss. On the whole they introduced children to the world of orchestral music without modifying any orchestral music, the selections of pieces were varied with mixture of drama, from lively and fast, to slow and dramatic. A lot of the music has been used in mainstream films which also certainly was interesting for the older members of the audience too. I look forward to being involved with them again in the future.
All images by Paul Coghlin
British Sign Language interpreter Tina Holmes www.thisbsl.co.uk