RPO at the Aquarium

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© Sea Life London Aquarium

Hannah Nepil reports on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s education project with Sea Life Aquarium London. RPO resound collaborates with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Joseph Clarke School for blind and partially-sighted children.

I’m surrounded by sea creatures: sea-turtles, stingrays, even penguins. Directly below the transparent surface on which I’m standing, several sharks are patiently waiting for my floor to give way. As I turn the corner, I encounter something similarly sinister: the growl of a bassoon.

Because it’s here – in London’s Sealife Aquarium – that RPO resound, the Orchestra’s education programme, is carrying out its latest project. Over the last month, a group of blind and partially sighted children from Joseph Clarke special school have been creating original music inspired by the movements and characteristics of the creatures in the Aquarium. Using touch as an alternative to sight, the participants began the course by passing around plastic and stuffed models of sea creatures, which then shaped their responses. ‘We’d ask them what does this fish feel like? What do you think it looks like? Then we took that further to describe the personalities of particular types of fish,’ explains Fraser Gordon, one of the RPO’s bassoonists. The results were woven into a narrative involving both words and music that culminated in a fishy court case, featuring a group of Lion Fish magistrates.

Not only did the project allow the participants to express their ideas musically, but the music, in turn, helped to inform their impressions of marine life. ‘When the music was loud, I assumed the fish was scary. But when it was quiet, I thought it was probably friendly,’ says eighteen-year-old Maharun. Some of her reactions were quite violent: ‘If you talk about fish it makes your stomach come up to your chin – like going on a ride at a fair.’

Members of the RPO were on hand to lend support, along with James Risdon, a recorder player from the Royal National Institute of Blind People. During a break, he shows me his score: it is written in musical Braille, which he learnt as a child, while attending a special school for the blind. ‘Music written in Braille uses a system of cells which are combinations of six dots,’ he explains, ‘each combination could represent both pitch and rhythm.’ Although, he says, it’s a ‘very concise system,’ it does present some complications: reading the music, for example, is a problem when both hands are used to play the instrument, meaning that scores need to be memorised quickly.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many children on the course have remarkably good memories. ‘Some of them have been coaching us,’ says Gordon with a smile. Their imaginations, he tells me, are also well-developed. ‘On meeting the sharks and rays, my group came up with a very nervous sound world that crescendo-ed into a massive surprise, while some of the other groups were much more mellow and floaty.’ I wonder aloud if a group of sighted children – who could see the grim reality of a shark with their own eyes – would have such a varied response. Gordon doesn’t think so: ‘I think it would all end up sounding like Jaws’.

Click here to view our YouTube video of the project.

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About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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