Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 was originally commissioned for a children's radio program yet unlike the iconic "Peter and the Wolf", this symphony has no story, no characters or even as much as a hint as to what the composer intended his young listeners to imagine while hearing this exceptional work. Fortunately, this total lack of guidance was the perfect blank canvass (literally in our case) to help local primary school students connect to classical music. With the help of a fellow orchestra colleague, we were able to connect to students in a multitude of different ways, all of which culminated in the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of the full symphony and the creation of the Prokofiev "Children's Art Gallery" at the Durban City Hall.
Knowing that we wanted to introduce as much of the full work as possible during the hour long presentation, we selected both short themes and full movements in our agenda for the students. Normally educational programs involve our entire orchestra so with just two presenters, we started with the very basics: what is music? We wrote down word associations like colors, shapes and emotions on the board. We attempted to delve deeper than the typical first responses of "happy" and "sad" as our aim was to teach specific classical music listening skills if they were going to make it through an entire symphony concert the next week.
Before we even played a note of the actual symphony, we turned the tables on the students and had them create music for us to play. I was particularly excited about introducing some basic graphic notation and improv concepts to them. While they drew simple lines and shapes on the board, we "played" the music through our own interpretations on oboe and cello. The students connected with the idea of this new sound being our own personal creation and there was no wrong interpretation (though they could visually follow our musical choices which were not held hostage by a set tonality). With the presence of lines and shapes that coincidentally looked like certain extended technique indications, it was fantastic to introduce flutter tongue and other techniques to the students (and of course, a few "low A's"!).
Finally, it was time to get to the Prokofiev. We isolated two main and contrasting themes from the first movement. After listening via a cd player, they broke up into small groups and came up with short story ideas inspired by the theme. There was everything from kids at a playground and ballet to a mouse sneaking into a kitchen and mountain ranges.
Up until this point, the students were working from their desks. For the next part, we got them up out of their seats and into the action of the second movement, a waltz. This humorous music is a great example of excellent orchestration choices and the students learned to identify these musical attempts at humor through our three "characters"; free waltz/dance, interrupting/pounding and mischief/jester. Each time one of these "characters" appeared, we would all do the body movement we associated with each (so much easier to demonstrate in front of kids than adults...). We could go beyond simply identifying a free waltz feel to the music by adding elements of growth and decline through the height and width of the body gestures.
As the third movement is quite calm and nostalgic, it was time for the students to tackle their blank sheets of paper in order to create a drawing inspired by the symphony. As we let the third and fourth movements play, we noticed a whole range of methods taking place. Some students immediately began creating very specific nature scenes while others choice to listen and create abstract art. My favorite was a student who literally drew to the phrasing of the music.
We would see the finished creations only on the day of the concert as they were mounted in make-shift gallery walls in the Durban City Hall. Musicians and audience members alike stood and absorbed the incredible range of creativity. Interestingly, most students picked up on the slight ominous quality to Prokofiev's symphony. Most students showed this stark contrast in mood in some way, though I really enjoyed the drawing that included both the sinister "Friday the 13th" half with the contrasting "Thursday the 12th" half. Our concert days include a dress rehearsal which is open to the public. Both schools, despite one being on a holiday, attended the rehearsal and saw their creations first-hand. They were all eager to tell us which one belonged to who and what their picture meant. A considerable number of students returned that evening to attend the full concert with their parents.
It was inspiring to see that even young students were able to grasp more than just a movement of Mozart and in fact tackled an entire symphony (and a 20th century one at that, imagine that...). There is something rewarding about being able to engage with a group of people, whatever age, who have not been corrupted yet as to the labels that are so often associated with this "more modern music" by parents and others. Whether it is Beethoven or Boulez, it is all new to these students and without some basic methods of interpreting and grasping this type of music, students and audience members alike too easily gloss over anything they do not already know. The experience left me with the pleasant image of these primary school students showing their parents how they learned to listen to a symphony.