Collaborations between arts organizations, universities, and local public school districts have at times been wildly successful and mutually beneficial. College students often find enriching rewards in working with younger pupils, and the latter benefit immensely from being mentored by their senior. Likewise, arts organizations such as symphony orchestras that go into the schools with relevant programming can open the eyes, ears, and minds of students for whom symphonic music is new or until then restricted to recordings.
Every now and then, an arts organization comes up with a collaboration project so creative and exciting, that students lives are literally changed by the footprint it leaves behind. These programs hit that sweet spot where everyone benefits and thoroughly enjoys the ride. Other school districts and arts organizations would do well to take note of these exceptional collaborations, and take inspiration from them to develop their own.
One such program has occurred in the UK, where the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has collaborated with Acland Burghley School in northern London. The orchestra took up residency in the school, and collaborated with students to choreograph an original dance to Rameau’s “Danse des Sauvages” from Les Indes Galantes.
The students worked with orchestra members to choreograph, direct and record the music video. The project was an excellent fit for the orchestra, which operates with the mission of challenging traditions and bringing fresh perspectives and relevancies to standard symphonic fare. Young people enjoy a fresh take on classical music, and given the freedom to create alongside Rameau’s music firmly footed in Baroque dance tradition, they produced marvelous and exciting work. In the words of the orchestra’s chief executive, “young hearts and minds can connect instantly with music if you don’t erect barriers. The OAE had only moved into the school at the beginning of September, and just three weeks later we had a room full of extremely talented students dancing to Rameau.”
I have found that students respond especially well to music that features prominent percussion, so using drumming as a launching pad sparked the needed creativity and enthusiasm. The dance selected for the project has a strong and distinctive rhythmic pulse which inspired the choreography and incorporating drumming into that choreography. Students did not follow choreography by adults. Instead, after learning about the music, students engaged in discussion and debate with the musicians through a process of true collaboration. As the orchestra members gained the trust of the students, and the students realized that they would truly be allowed to bring their own creativity to the choreography, the students became increasingly willing to healthily disagree, only adapting from the orchestra what sat well with them.
There is a creative spirit in nearly everyone that, when given the opportunity, joyfully surges to the surface. Too often, highly structured and restricted learning activities do not allow the true creative student of learners to activate. While structure is often wise and necessary early in an instructional sequence, especially when an unfamiliar concept is being taught, once the foundation has been laid, understanding, the application of what was learned to a new situation, must be gained. Preparing students for a creative task, and then letting them go, as the OAE did here, is an optimal learning environment for understanding to be gained, and exciting artistic works to be created.
Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, commented, “This pioneering initiative places music at the heart of the school, giving every child an opportunity to discover and express their own creativity in their daily lives. It also gives the Orchestra an excellent rehearsal space and a deeper root in the Camden community with which it has already built a strong relationship. This imaginative partnership takes collaboration between professional artists and the public education system into new and exciting territory in which creativity has a part to play in all aspects of the curriculum.”
Sir Nicholas has made some very important points. First, children need to be allowed to use and develop their creativity. This is how we as humans discover and own who we are. People are naturally creative, and become impaired when natural creativity is restricted. Of course, some boundaries are always necessary, but often they are too severe. This project demonstrates a healthy blend of structured learning and released creativity.
Another important takeaway is that organizations such as symphony orchestras need to be an active part of their community. They need to come out of the concert hall and into the community, even beyond giving programs in schools. A good example of this is the concerts the New York Philharmonic has given outdoors in Central Park in New York City. Free concerts for people who live within walking distance or a short train ride to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but who have never been to a symphony concert.
In Hartford, Connecticut, a composer was commissioned to write a work for orchestra members to play from various locations in the city. The orchestra began by walking out of the concert hall during the daytime, and in small groups playing partly improvised, partly notated music as they strolled down the sidewalks. It was all timed so that gradually the musicians strolled back toward the concert hall, and convened on the stage to play the end of the work together. The orchestra then played a couple of other works before the event concluded.
When the current pandemic is ended, arts organizations will have a rare opportunity to embrace their communities; people who are starved for social interaction and the experience that live music, dance, and theater provide. The OAE’s project in Northern London, with all of its success, is an apt reminder and needed inspiration of what people need from their arts community. Please take the time to watch the video that this project created. Then, if you have further questions about the project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org