This year we are hosting our first Spitalfields Music Trainee Music Leader, Alice Phelps. The year-long scheme allows emerging music leaders to develop practice first-hand in the planning and delivery of learning and participation projects, as well as receiving mentoring from an experienced industry professional. This forms part of our commitment to developing a diverse talent pipeline for the sector. We specifically recruited for a trainee leader from the North of England; an area in which we have made a commitment to developing orchestral provision through our recently appointed Regional Producer.
Alice will be blogging about her experiences over the course of the year and starts by giving her thoughts on her first project placement...
I’m a Manchester-based musician and I am thrilled to be the first Spitalfields Music trainee music leader to work in partnership with Orchestras Live. Over the next year I’ll be observing, supporting and working with a variety of orchestral projects in the north of England. I’ll learn from some of the best music leaders in the country as they deliver inspiring and creative workshops to different communities whilst bringing them into direct contact with professional orchestras. I’ll use these blogs as an opportunity to share a little of my experiences on these projects, and track my journey and development as a trainee on this scheme.
The autumn term is flying by, and already my first project with Orchestras Live has come to an end! This was a collaborative composition project with the Darlington String Orchestra (DSO), led by Sarah Freestone and supported by members of the London Mozart Players (LMP). The Darlington String Orchestra comprises about 40 young people aged between 9 and 17, playing from grade 1 to 6. The group is brilliantly led by Katie Hibbard and Becky Howard from Durham Music Service, who arrange much of the repertoire for the ensemble themselves, to accommodate the wide range of abilities. In three, two hour long weekly sessions, Sarah’s aim was to get the group creating and performing a composition based around idea of a ‘serenade’, with the project culminating in the DSO premiering their work onstage at the Darlington Hippodrome at the beginning of London Mozart Players’ concert, which included in its programme both Elgar and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Serenade for Strings’.
From the very start of the first session Sarah got the group creating new material, leading warm-ups that had them making up rhythms using body percussion, and challenging their ensemble skills with activities that encouraged bold and dynamic playing! It was great to observe her gain the attention and trust of the group, and by the end of the first session she had gathered and notated a number of musical phrases devised by members of the ensemble, and pulled them together into a short piece which would make up one movement of the composition.
Over the next two sessions, Sarah helped the group devise several more movements to their ‘serenade’, all done entirely by ear. She used raags and compound rhythms from Indian classical music as spring boards for musical ideas, as well as a simple chord progression from The Lark Ascending, another piece from the LMP’s concert programme. Sarah also incorporated some unusual movement and staging elements, which were particularly exciting for the two young violinists who had to walk out on stage alone to begin the piece! It was fun to watch how Sarah facilitated the composition process with such limited contact time. She sustained a balance between being directive and collaborative, always making sure the group had a sense of creative ownership over the material they were composing.
Unlike brass and woodwind, young string players hardly ever have opportunities to improvise, play by ear or from memory, and some of the young musicians found this new way of working really quite challenging. Sarah was always encouraging and building confidence, whilst also pushing them out of their comfort zone and enabling them to engage with quite complex musical and rhythmic ideas. Observing Sarah’s delivery made me realise that in my own workshops I am sometimes too concerned with activities being accessible, rather than interesting, and this has come at cost to the quality and complexity of the musical outcomes. Sarah was so enabling in her treatment of the group, and they responded to her confidence in their abilities in kind, which was wonderful to see.
A quartet from the London Mozart Players joined us for the final workshop and for the day of the performance. It was really interesting to see how different they were from Sarah in the way they interacted with the young players. While Sarah’s exuberant approach encouraged the group to perform with much more expression and creative freedom, the LMP players were rather more formal, and very exacting in their expectations of the young musicians’ intonation and technique. I think having the mix of these contrasting forces was what ultimately made the project such a success. The presence of professional orchestral musicians had a profound effect on the group, the quality of their sound-making really blossomed in the latter half of the project, and the feedback I got from the young musicians was really enthusiastic.
The final performance of the ‘Serenade’ was a truly exhilarating experience for the DSO. After a full afternoon rehearsing onstage in the beautiful Darlington Hippodrome, the youth orchestra returned for the evening concert and presented their piece to a packed out theatre. They were absolutely buzzing when they came off stage, which made sitting quietly in the stalls quite difficult! However, watching the LMP concert after their own performance was a very impressive experience for them, with one young violinist saying (of the soloist in The Lark Ascending) "I can’t believe I was standing exactly where she was standing!"
This was the first collaborative composition project I have ever worked on, so I came in not knowing what to expect, and came away with tons of new ideas for creative music-making, some of which I have already started implementing in my own workshops. Watching Sarah deliver this project has, for the first time, shown me the next level of creative practice to aspire to, and I am really looking forward to seeing different music leaders in action on future projects with Orchestras Live.