By Susan Elkin
Friday, 6 April 2012
This week The Peacock Theatre, part of the Sadler’s Wells complex near London’s Angel underground station, soared to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent, evocative, tuneful Sleeping Beauty music – one of his three great ballets.
But no ordinary production, this. My First Sleeping Beauty is for family audiences from age three. It is the first in a series of My first … ballets performed by ENB2, a new touring company featuring graduating dancers from English National Ballet School. After this week in central London it tours until 3 June to Birmingham, York, Wimbledon, Crawley, Bromley, High Wycombe and Manchester.
Created with young attention spans in mind, My First Sleeping Beauty is choreographed and designed by dancer and choreographer Matthew Hart. The dancers wear the sumptuous Georgiadis costumes from the Company’s full production of The Sleeping Beauty and elements of the original sets are used. But the story and choreography have been scaled down.
What interests me particularly about this is that it will expose hundreds of children to the sound of classical music and I bet many will come out with Tchaikovsky’s waltz tunes rattling around in their fertile young heads.
Throughout the Far East, Western classical music is acknowledged to be the finest possible basis for any other musical genre that students might get involved with later. Witness the months British Associated Board and Trinity music examiners spend examining students in Hong Kong, for example, every year. Look at the number of Japanese and Korean players in every symphony orchestra almost wherever you go in the world.
So why don’t British people generally expose children to a varied diet of classical music? It isn’t ‘posh’ or ‘elitist’ and it should be part of every child’s everyday experience. Yes, we all know they benefit from actively participating in it too, but here I’m concerned with their simply hearing it as a starting point. That, after all, is easy to do and costs almost nothing.
Visiting a north Kent primary school recently, I was assailed by the inimitable strains of the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony as I crossed the playground and couldn’t initially think where it was coming from. When I reached Reception I realised that it was being played over loudspeakers in corridors as background music throughout the school. ‘We have a number of pieces that we play regularly so that classical music is a continuous presence’ said the headteacher, showing me the board in the hall which informs any passing child what the current piece is.
Such a simple idea. Why don’t more schools do it? Individual teachers could simply have classical music playing in their classrooms too. As with so much else that’s valuable in education, this is something they might not discover without help so adults have to build it into children’s lives consciously. Youngsters will discover many forms of very accessible modern popular music readily enough for themselves. Education should be about extension and opening new doors – the ones which might otherwise remain shut.
Not only is there a cultural value in widening the focus of children’s appreciation of the arts, but since American researchers Francis Rauscher and Gordon Shaw demonstrated in the late 1990s that classical music can improve performance in other curricular areas, the so-called ‘Mozart effect,’ has been experimented with in some quarters. But I don’t see much evidence of adults simply playing classical music in the hearing of children and, perhaps, talking to them about it.
For many years, I led secondary school assemblies and would often make listening to a piece of classical music the focus of the assembly. I’d play them a minute or two of the Siegfried Idyll and tell them the story of Wagner writing it as a gift for his wife and how the musicians played it outside her bedroom window. Or the opening of the second movement of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony and tell them about the composer’s homesickness while he was in America – as well as sharing a joke with them about a certain TV advertisement for bread. Or we’d listen to ‘Halleluiah’ from Messiah and discuss about George II’s (fabled?) reaction to it. The possibilities are endless.
A friend who has a three year old had the slow movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony playing. Felicity was drawing at the kitchen table. We were all chatting and paying little attention. When the CD had finished, Felicity began to sing to herself: ‘Bye Baby Bunting’ and, yes, it’s more or less the same tune as the big theme in that Beethoven, but it took an unconsciously receptive three year old to pick it up. None of us had ever noticed or made the connection.
So can we find ways, please, of making sure that more children hear more classical music – not to the exclusion of other genres of course. But it should be a key, perhaps dominant, part of the mix and too often, in Britain at least, it isn’t.
My First Sleeping Beauty could be a good starting point. Failing that – because tickets aren’t cheap – it costs nothing to switch on Radio 3 or Classic FM.