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!"