Hannah Nepil speaks to RPO musicians who worked with children from across Newham in preparation for their ever-popular Under the Stars concert, organised by RPO resound and Every Child a Musician
The Olympic flame was already dying down when I found myself by the Stratford stadium a few weeks ago. But just around the corner, an ensemble of twenty-eight school pupils were re-enacting the season’s highlights for themselves – in musical form. ‘We orchestrated the hundred metre sprint,’ says Brian Thomson, principal trumpet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, ‘which resulted in the children going mental on their instruments for 9.63 seconds. We’ve also done synchronised swimming, diving, dressage and trampolining.’
As a key figure in the Orchestra’s education programme, RPO Resound, Thomson had spent the week guiding the group of Year 6 instrumentalists through Under the Stars, an annual composition workshop that culminated, on Sunday 26th August, in a large-scale performance.
And he’d clearly done a good job. When I arrived at the rehearsal, I was struck by the air of rapt attention. Small wonder: for one thing each participant had been handpicked from Every Child a Musician, a scheme which gives all Year 5 children in Newham the opportunity to learn an instrument for two years at no cost to themselves. For another, Thomson knew how to hold his audience’s attention. Faced with an assortment of instruments ranging from guitars to flutes, he encouraged the children to devise their own riffs, taking inspiration from the Olympics. Each orchestral section chose an athlete and used the name as a rhythmic cue, ‘so we had Bradley Wiggins in the strings and Victoria Pendleton in the brass,’ Thomson explains. Then they played the result, accompanied by members of the RPO and the RPCO. Although disagreements could have arisen, according to Thomson, the process was democratic: ‘I haven’t seen any fights yet,’ he assures me.
The benefits? For many, the workshop was a chance to explore their instrument in an informal environment: ‘When you cover a new piece of technique in a lesson it can be more intimidating,’ says RPO viola player Laura Holt, ‘but if you just chuck it in when there‘s no pressure, then you really grasp it.’ What’s more, they had fun. ‘One of them came up to me in the break and said, “Miss, it’s mayhem time for fifteen minutes!”’ says Holt. ‘Being creative keeps them going.’