Live classical music experience for Scotland’s under-twos

Starcatchers and Scotland’s National Orchestra tour a theatrical live music experience for little ones aged 0-24 months

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Scotland’s little ones under 24 months will have the opportunity to engage with a tailor-made live theatre and classical music experience in venues across the country from the end of April.

Starcatchers, an organisation which specialises in performances and creativity for babies, toddlers and young children, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) have devised a new classical music experience for babies under 24 months.   Co-created by Starcatchers Associate Artist Hazel Darwin-Edwards and Musician and Composer Abigail Sinar, Hup combines live classical music, with a heart warming storyline in a performance for babies, toddlers and their carers.

In this new theatrical performance a trio of musicians will perform an original score composed by Abigail Sinar, intertwined with a non-verbal narrative presented by Hazel Darwin-Edwards, which will take the audience on a journey in pursuit of the story’s lead character, a very inquisitive raccoon.

The setting for the music-led story is a forest (designed by Theatre Designer Karen Tennent) with the audience seated on set, drawing them into the story and breaking away from traditional ways of enjoying both theatre and classical music.

“From the moment we walked in there was a sense of calm.  We loved how the children could get close to the musicians and feel the connection with the music.”  Nursery practitioner

The concept for Hup was inspired by the delivery of the Arts and Business Scotland People Award-winning Nickum residency project, piloted by Starcatchers and the RSNO in 2013/14 and supported by TOTAL E&P UK Limited and Vibrant Aberdeen.

During the Nickum project, Hazel and Abigail worked in two childcare settings in Aberdeen for six months, with babies aged 0-24 months. Through this process they simultaneously developed a classical score and a new play for babies.  The original work toured nurseries in Aberdeen in 2013/14.

With funding secured from Creative Scotland in 2014, the original work was developed, with fresh input from established director Xana Marwick and learning taken from the initial mini-tour.

The original music, composed by Abigail Sinar and recorded by the RSNO, will be given to audience members as a free memento.

Starcatchers’ Chief Executive Rhona Matheson said:  “Starcatchers’ work is focused on producing high quality arts experiences for the very young. Research proves that engaging in creative activity such as drama and music in the first few years of life helps significantly in a child’s mental and social development, so we are delighted to be working with the RSNO on this unique project.  This could be a baby’s first experience of live theatre, music and creativity and we are committed to it being a positive one.”

RSNO Director of Learning and Engagement Jenn Adams: “In October 2012 the RSNO launched its initiative to provide every child born in Scotland with a recording of music, Astar, to help them learn, rest and play. This was the first step in our goal to engage with the very youngest of audiences. Furthermore, we have been committed to provide increased access to our musicians for young audience members and their families and guardians, and since last year have partnered with experts in the field, Starcatchers, to devise a tailor-made programme for those aged between 0-24 months, Hup. Piloted in Aberdeen in March last year, we are delighted to be announcing the roll-out of Hup to many areas across Scotland. We are looking forward to welcoming our eager young music-lovers to one of our performances over the coming months.”

A view from inside the bear suit

I am a viola player in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra so what on earth am I doing on a cold March morning, standing on the very blustery Beach Boulevard in Aberdeen, dressed head to toe in a big furry bear suit?!

Well, six other RSNO musicians and I are in Aberdeen to present our under 5s chamber music concerts to over 400 nursery and primary school children at the Beach Ballroom as part of the Learning Through the Arts Festival organised by Aberdeen Arts.

These concerts were first devised five years ago for one of the orchestra’s Out and About weeks – a unique week in our year where we take up residency in a particular area of Scotland (usually one that we don’t visit as much as we’d like to) and try to reach out to as much of the community as we can.  Quite often we find ourselves in small groups which is exactly how this group was born.

The group is made up of a flute, violin, clarinet, bassoon, double bass and percussion although part of its success lies in its flexibility – we can swap instruments in and out – a French horn instead of a clarinet, or a cello instead of a bassoon for instance, giving the audience a broad representation of instruments of the orchestra.  We play orchestral music ‘reduced’ to suit the instrumentation of the group.

This particular show is a Teddy Bears Picnic and I am the presenter – Big Bear.  The rest of the band are musical bears except for the double bass player who is an elephant and has lost their way and quite literally bumped into a sleuth of bears on their way to a picnic.  Children love three things: silliness, stories and songs and I try to incorporate all of these which is why I am dressed like this for a start!  I read the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears accompanied by the incredible music of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (trust me, it really works) and I get chased by bees during Vaughan Williams' The Wasps Overture.  Then I sweat a thousand calories dancing to The Sailors Hornpipe, encouraging the children to do the same.  It's silly, it's fun but it exposes these impressionable minds to some of the most fantastic music ever written and to sounds they have probably never heard before.

I've been thinking a lot about connections recently.  As musicians, connecting with people is essentially what we do.  In the concert halls across Scotland, week after week, people are touched by our music – that very raw emotion within us that no one can see is exposed by that music and we make that connection without uttering a single word.  It doesn't necessarily have to be an uplifting experience but it definitely enriches our soul.

It saddened me to learn the other day that there are children in Scotland who arrive at school unable to recognise even their own name – no one has made that primal connection with them that we all so desperately need to thrive in this world.  I'm not saying that our concerts are going to change that but music has a profound effect on people, even at a very young age.

So, what's in it for us musicians?  Well, for me, I have a lot of creative input into this venture and it makes a big change from my day job of playing "mm, cha, cha" (which I love, don’t get me wrong!).  It's a challenge figuring how to make the shows engaging but informative at the same time.  We play without conductor so the band have the challenge of staying together by themselves – a good way of sharpening one's aural and visual tools.  But, most of all, I think we have fun too – who wouldn't in a hall full of 3- and 4-year-olds, completely free of any inhibitions, having a really good time, and being as cute as only they can be?

As I see over 3000 nursery children visiting the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow this week to hear the full RSNO perform its Teddy Bears Easter Picnic, I really hope that this groups builds on its success so far. Music is so important at every stage of our development but none more so than in those early years.  All I can say is "watch this space!"