At 4:30 one Friday morning in April, 33 alarm clocks went off, and 33 musicians rubbed the sleep from their eyes as they made their way to St John’s Waterloo. There, clutching coffees as the sun slowly came up, they boarded a bus that took them to St Teresa’s Primary School in Basildon, Essex. When they arrived, the cameras followed their every move as they prepared to perform, and captured the surprise and joy in the eyes of a class of young children who had never seen an orchestra.
A new TV series called Don’t Stop the Music follows the journey of a class of underprivileged primary school children as they learn about music and form a school orchestra. Many of these children from Essex had never heard of an orchestra, much less seen one live, much less again been able to interact with the musicians in an intimate setting.
James Rhodes, a classical pianist who is known for his groundbreaking work in taking classical music out of stuffy concert halls and onto more accessible platforms, had laid the groundwork the previous week by introducing the children to the concept of an orchestra and teaching them about some of the instruments. Our part in this adventure was to be at the school as the children arrived, and to play powerful music by Mozart and Beethoven as they filed into assembly.
We were instructed to be in full concert dress as the bus arrived at the school so that the camera crew could get interesting shots of us coming off the bus; they got more than they expected as I and my fellow bassist struggled to get our instruments through the narrow doors, with perhaps less grace than you’d want to see in a documentary about professional musicians.
Upon entering the school, everything was in lockdown so that the children would have no idea we were there until the right moment. The assembly hall had blackout paper on all the doors and windows. We had to finish our brief rehearsal 45 minutes before assembly started, and then we had to maintain almost total silence so that arriving children would not hear us. If we wanted to use the bathroom we had to have a team of technical managers scout the hallway to ensure it was clear of children, then rush to the bathroom, and repeat when we were finished. I felt like James Bond, dressed in my dinner suit and rushing around hallways like a spy.
The signal came: the children were ready. Everyone got in their seats and prepared themselves, and suddenly the doors were thrown open and we played. We played the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, that well-known but incredibly powerful piece of music. Although I was concentrating on playing (it’s a tricky little number), I could catch glimpses out of the corner of my eye of the kids’ reactions. One little boy stopped in his tracks with his mouth open. Another approached the conductor’s podium, lost in the moment, and had to be guided back to the line by a teacher. Two girls whispered and pointed. And most just sat there, watching and listening, to this amazing music being created in front of their eyes.
When we were finished, James Rhodes spent some time talking to them, reminding them of what they’d learned the previous week, getting sections of the orchestra to demonstrate their instruments, directing the kids’ attention to the all the parts that make up an orchestra, discussing Beethoven’s life, circumstances and struggles. He told them about us as musicians, and asked how many hours they thought it took to become a professional musician (somewhere between 32 and a billion, apparently). James is an incredibly charismatic person, combining his fantastic expertise with his infectious enthusiasm for the music, talking to the children on their level without talking down to them; this is a balance that is tremendously hard to achieve.
Although the Beethoven is an incredibly powerful piece of music, it is also rather heavy. To end the session, we played Mozart’s buoyant Marriage of Figaro overture. Rather than the awe and silent wonder evoked by the Beethoven, the children’s faces now displayed joy, humour and all the other emotions evoked by such a happy and frivolous piece.
As James wrapped the session up, the children had a chance to come and see us close up. We gave individual demonstrations to small groups of children, interacting with them, telling them a bit about our instruments, showing them some of the weird and wonderful sounds we can create. I showed a young boy named Tyrone what it felt like to hold a double bass and pluck its heavy strings.
When the session was finished, the cameramen filmed the children filing out and us packing up our instruments. As the bus pulled away, all the children were pressed up against the school fence, screaming and waving. It’s rare to see music’s powerful effect on such uninhibited young minds.
As a rule, musicians are people who do not rise early. Performances frequently finish around 10pm, so in order to be on top of our game that late, we rarely rise before 8am. Many of us had other rehearsals that afternoon, or concerts in the evening. It has to be something special to get us out of bed 4 hours before usual, and this event delivered beyond all expectations. It was a chance to leave the concert hall and get right in front of young people. It was a chance to make classical music available to children who had never seen an orchestra. And most of all, it was a chance to touch young lives and hopefully leave them something they’ll treasure their entire lives. I feel privileged to have been part of it, and it’s something I’ll treasure my entire life.
Get a glimpse of the reactions from our young audience in the trailer below. Don’t Stop The Music is a two part series being broadcast on Channel 4, with the first episode shown on Tuesday 9 September at 9.00pm. Find out more about the series here.
Find out more about Mark Lipski here.