A Focus on Listening
Posted on 16th June 2015 at 14:00
In a recent interview by The Scotsman, world-renowned violinist, Nicola Benedetti, passionately criticised the suggestion that children should not be exposed to classical music.
Benedetti is a great advocate of music education. In 2010, she became Sistema Scotland’s official musical ‘Big Sister’ for the Big Noise project, as well as creating The Benedetti Sessions, giving hundreds of aspiring young string players the opportunity to rehearse, undertake and observe masterclasses, culminating in a performance with the violinist.
She is an also an ambassador for the BBC 10 Pieces project, an initiative for schools led by BBC Learning and the BBC Performing Groups, focusing on classical music and creativity. The project centres on 20 pieces; 10 for primary and 10 for secondary school ages; covering the spectrum of western classical music from the Baroque period to contemporary works, with a heavy weighting towards 20th Century music.
Benedetti argued that since, if children were given the option either to play a video game or study mathematics, the majority would choose the video game, deciding against teaching them to listen to classical symphonies because they don’t seem interested or it is considered difficult is a nonsense. MWC’s Maria Thomas explains why this is a subject close to her own heart.
"Should we be encouraging young people to listen to whole symphonies or even whole operas? Interestingly, neither the primary nor the secondary 10 Pieces include a full symphony, concerto or other complete large-scale work. Individual movements are included, but not full works. Perhaps the chosen pieces are meant as an introduction to classical music, allowing listeners to explore the rest of the works themselves, or maybe, as the proposed lesson plans suggest, the individual movements are designed as a starting point for inspiration for creativity, I don’t know.
Learning to concentrate on listening to a whole symphony or opera is not an easy task, particularly when the work is new to you. I often enjoy listening to works I have studied or played more than those that I am discovering for the first time. I am more familiar with the themes, the structure, the instrumentation and how the material is developed..
I was lucky enough to have been brought up as a regular concert and opera-goer, being encouraged to learn about the pieces before attending performances and having the chance to listen to recordings before hearing the live performance. Even so, when I hear a new piece, I can imagine how daunting or incomprehensible the idea of listening to a symphony must be, particularly for someone who has not had that opportunity. With no one to make recommendations of what to listen to or explain things about the music such as what to listen out for and the context that the composer was working in, where do you start?
So maybe the single movement decision by the BBC makes sense. Research suggests that with increasing access to new technology, young people are not able to concentrate for long periods, and the popularity of the single movement performance has been popularised by the huge success of Classic FM. However, when I worked at the Royal Opera House one of my favourite memories is of hearing the rapturous applause and cheering following a schools performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.
I believe it comes down to what we feel is important. Getting the young to listen to any classical music will open their ears to music, art and experiences that are new to them, and will develop other skills such as listening, analytical thinking and concentration.
Research has shown that listening to music can help the brain, but that research also highlighted that familiarity with the music was important.
Another question worth considering is where the responsibility should lie in getting young people to listen to classical music. Should it be done in the home, at school or both?
For parents who do not have experience of classical music, the idea of introducing their children to a symphony orchestra concert or recital is completely alien. Trying to research music can be challenging; programme notes, both online and in concert programmes can vary from excellent to incomprehensible, or be aimed at the very knowledgeable.
In schools it is increasingly difficult to introduce classical music into the classroom. Many primary schools do not have music specialists and both primary and secondary schools have music specialists who do not have a Classical music background. It was widely researched as long ago as 1997 that many primary school teachers feel negatively towards introducing classical music in their teaching as they lack confidence in their own knowledge of the subject.
I don’t have the answers. I’m just glad that the BBC 10 Pieces is making access to Classical Music easier for young people, and that other fantastic outreach projects by organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Warwick University and the Sage are reaching out to their local communities and offering them the chance to explore Classical Music both with families and schools.
It was wonderful to share this enthusiasm for introducing young people to Classical Music and the wider arts at the brilliant Ahead For Culture conference, run by the ROHBridge Project, on 12th June 2015 at the Royal Opera House. The morning was hosted by Kirsty Wark who shared her early experiences of the Arts, and featured many inspiring speakers. Sir Anthony Seldon stressed the importance of introducing young people to the Arts in ways that help them to understand and engage with their experiences, Nii Sackey highlighted the fact that young people have their own answers about how they want to engage with the Arts, and Susan Coles gave a motivational call to action encouraging us all to push for the Arts to continue to be a key part of every young person’s education.
The afternoon sessions of workshops got everyone talking and sharing their experiences, before a fabulous performance by Next Generation Youth Theatre. The day was rounded off with an emotional reminder from Camila Batmanghelidhj CBE, founder of Kids Company, of some of the challenges today’s young people bring to their Arts experiences, and how experiences need to adapt to the needs of each young person."
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