Becky West, our Regional Producer - North, reflects on our Music of the Skerne project with Discover Brightwater, Darlington Hippodrome,Durham Music Service and Opera North, and the challenges - and successes - of bringing on new partnerships during this uncertain time.
I first met the Discover Brightwater team back in November 2019. They had picked up the phone to Darlington Hippodrome to ask about possibilities of a music project that involved schools as part of their Heritage Lottery funded environmental programme along the local river Skerne, only to discover our partnership was ideally placed to deliver this. It was immediately clear there was an interesting opportunity to develop a larger-scale creative project drawing inspiration from the local environment and the rich history of the Skerne river and Darlington. Alongside developing a new partnership with Discover Brightwater, it was also a great opportunity to bring onboard a new orchestral partner in the region: Opera North.
Once you scratch the surface of a place, there are seemingly endless starting points to use as creative inspiration. In the case of the river Skerne: from Romans to the birth of the railways, via changes to the natural marshland, innovative livestock practices with the Durham Ox and pollution. We decided early on to give the young people from Haughton Academy a flavour of the history and environmental changes along the river and let them take the lead in developing the themes for their new music. With the expert guidance of music leader/composer Sarah Freestone and songwriter Katie Doherty the young people have explored concepts of then, now, future and how the river’s journey can mirror our lives, while looking at how physical shapes and words can transform into musical phrases.
Our discussions about the past, present and future in the context of the changing environment of the Skerne river developed into some wonderful, thoughtful writing from the young people of Haughton Academy. Their acute awareness of the strange ‘here and now’ we currently find ourselves in has certainly given this project more poignancy as we moved to an online delivery...
~ Sarah Freestone, music leader/composer
As we discussed plans for the creative project, schools and public concerts back in late 2019, little did we know that these would be the first of many planning discussions and project outlines, as the pandemic necessitated reimagining how we could deliver the project and achieve the outcomes we had agreed. Our strong partnership with Darlington Hippodrome and Durham Music Service enabled us to have honest discussions about what we could and couldn’t make work and to have faith that making difficult decisions in spring 2020 around postponement would enable us to deliver it better in the long run.
Each partner has been willing to support the project as it has flexed. They have brought new ideas and understanding to the table to make more of what we can do in current circumstances, which in turn has helped secure additional funding to enable us to adapt to a blended delivery model. The project has moved from premiering the co-created piece at a schools and public concert, to Opera North creating a performance film of the new piece with participants, which Durham Music Service will broadcast to all schools across County Durham & Darlington. The Hippodrome will host an exhibition about the project to accompany the film screening and live performance premiere when Opera North perform their first concert at the Hippodrome later this year.
The commitment of the strong creative team and the orchestra of Opera North has been crucial to getting the creative process underway in January 2021. Their flexibility and adaptability has enabled the team at Haughton Academy to feel supported and take a proactive role in the planning process as we moved from live delivery in school, to digital delivery through the school’s online learning. Working online, with many young people keeping their camera and audio off and contributing through the chat, is a very different creative experience to what happens when you put professional musicians into a classroom but they have contributed a wealth of ideas.
It has been a joy and a privilege to be able to work creatively with young people from Haughton Academy, alongside creative practitioners and musicians from the Orchestra of Opera North and Durham Music Service as part of this partnership project. Despite the restrictions of delivering workshops digitally, the young people have continued to amaze us with their creative imaginations and thoughtful, original ideas, proving that wonderful creative works can be created during times of adversity.
~ Claire Armour, Schools Activity Manager - Opera North
You wouldn’t normally want your first project with a new orchestral partner to present quite as many challenges as this one has! However, this has helped to build an open dialogue between all our partners as we navigate these challenges together and a shared commitment to make sure Opera North’s first performance at the Hippodrome as part of our partnership, successfully re-engages their audience and that we ensure participants get to celebrate their work properly. We are planning a premiere film screening for participants at the Hippodrome, where we hope the creative team can finally get to make some live music with them. Before we get there, we are working together to meet the next challenge: supporting our participants to record their performances as schools navigate the uncertainties of the next half term.