The Open Orchestra Project: All Together Now!

Picture credit: Simon Jay Price
Picture credit: Simon Jay Price

Drake Music, the Royal College of Music, the Tri-Borough Music Hub & the BBC Symphony Orchestra joined together in a special inclusive and interactive ‘Open Orchestra’ concert earlier today featuring 80 pupils from special and primary schools at St Paul’s Church in West London.

Crying at work is an unusual thing I find. Set against the off-white desks and dispassionate grey carpeting of a standard-looking office, such outward displays of inner heartache are amplified might even be rather callously described as ‘newsworthy’.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in the office when I noticed the tears rolling down my cheek. I was in the relatively ‘safe’ environment of a large church in Hammersmith, West London sat directly behind a mayor and his wife and surrounded on nearly all sides by primary school children, their attention squarely on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and 80 other children who had taken up their position in the transept up ahead. With all of their eyes fixed on the sights up ahead, they wouldn’t have been aware of me snivelling when the orchestra started to play.

I hadn’t been prepared for the experience of seeing a multitude of special and primary school children performing a work they’d created. I had been spectacularly caught off guard.

St Paul’s Church had been buzzing with gurgling excitement when I stepped in through the door. Children in their school uniform, some in high visibility vests sat neatly on rows of chairs. BBC Symphony Orchestra staff dressed in equally highly visible blue t-shirts circled with clipboards and pens, as production staff busied themselves at the mixing desks, sending instructions over their headsets to cameramen positioned behind their tripods. Above the audience, attached to the pillars, TV screens relayed live images from the orchestra positioned in front of the altar and the children assembled at the front.

To all intents and purposes this was an education outreach concert, I thought to myself. Lots of jolly children excited by the prospect of a day away from the usual grind of school. This was however, as far as the conventions went. Silence didn’t pass over the rest of the (considerable) audience as the conductor walked to the podium. Instead the natural excitement of the room – a mix of chatter and momentarily uncontrolled outbursts – was permitted to take priority. It was as though some benign invisible force was saying: be yourselves; celebrate; enjoy.

The sight of so many primary schoolers all smartly turned out for this special and bewildering treat was enough to turn even the coldest of hearts to jelly. But those with learning disabilities who were both attending and participating, also displayed a kind of raw enthusiasm that was as touching as it was a salutary lesson. Fresh-faced, open and attentive, none of them – like me – was prepared for the wall of sound emanating from the band playing the first movement of Jonathan Dove’s Airport Scenes.

Sound bounced around the hard interior of St Paul’s Church, the effect on my ears reminiscent of the crisp, new and improved listening experience I had after I’d had the wax removed from my ears a few years back on holiday. Dove’s music in such a live environment made for an electrifying listen, in turn prompting an unexpectedly visceral reaction amongst the young and enthusiastic listeners.

I became aware of the excited reactions of those in the audience with special needs. Comparatively free of the usual conventions driven by etiquette, the claps and squeals revealed a joy of the kind I haven’t experienced in a concert ever – not even in America where they stand to applaud the tuning of the orchestra. Here was proof (as far as I could see) of sound – a terrific wash of sound being poured from on top of us – having a direct and unencumbered emotional response.

BBC SOL-2215
Picture credit: Simon Jay Price

This experience was heightened even more when the children of the Open Orchestra project – the joint initiative between Drake Music, the RCM, Tri-Borough Music Hub and BBC Symphony Orchestra – aided by mentors, coaches, teachers and musicians and lead by Drake Music’s Gawain Hewitt performed their work Flight. Here, children with learning disabilities collaborated with primary school children in a work combining improvised soundscapes and physical movement in a breathtaking improvisation. At no point in time did I think, ‘this is a kids concert and I’d rather be listening to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’. The professional band at the back in their multi-coloured t-shirts were a sideshow, and rightly so.

As an audience member it was observing the powerful effects of sound on children which was the most moving – hence the first moment I felt a tear rolling down my cheek. Imagine how I felt when the BBC Symph then started on the finale Sibelius 5 and those damn swans started swooping across the sky.

I’m left with a number of thoughts.

First, I’m reminded of the way in which sound waves prompt others to react almost uncontrollably and this is a truly enlightening thing to witness in others (friends of mine who work with Drake Music have described sessions where they have experienced similar moments – when participants previously reticent in joining in have a flash of recognition as a result of sound).

Second, convention dulls our sensitivity to Music’s inherent beauty. And third, this was the most powerful of partnerships to witness on a Wednesday lunchtime in the middle of Hammersmith. Perhaps it is something peculiar to a Londoner’s experience, but every now and again one needs to be jolted out of the daily urban experience and into something entirely different. The effect is incredibly therapeutic.

This was more than therapy. It was humbling. A much-needed opportunity for personal recalibration. An opportunity to get an insight into my own personalised sequel to the novel of my life: How I Fell For Classical Music? The chance to witness – unwittingly – the educative, restorative and enabling effects of music-making in a venue which reflected music all around wasn’t just an opportunity to regress to my own childhood and recall a similar experience when I first witnessed a full-size orchestra play, but also to experience the reflected thrill observing people unencumbered by etiquette, their joy laid bare for all to see. An infectious environment which reaffirms my own sense of self and continues to fuel my interest in this subject area.

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