Music at the Zoo
In 2008 a piece of music was needed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of a small West London Primary school. I wanted to write a musical story that would feature the immediate environment of the school, people the children knew, and the children themselves. It would blur the borders between truth & fantasy, and would enable every child in the school to perform with adult orchestral musicians. I thought three friends from Ealing Chamber Music Club might volunteer, however, seven offered. The number of volunteers, like the idea itself, has grown every year since.
Wind dragon was about a kite, which could be brought to life as a music loving dragon, to help children care for the environment. This story has to be completely re-written for every school in which it is performed, 3 so far, one of them with a sequel in which the local MP played a role.
Then I wrote ‘Rainbow Island’, in which all the children have to be divided into three groups, as members of red, yellow & blue villages in a fantasy about a storm which brings the villagers together, & teaches them to co-operate. This was the work in which I discovered how good children as young as 7 are at singing 3 part counterpoint, if each part is a separate song, and how much they love doing so.
March 2013 marked the 8th of these events – ‘Zoo Tales’ in Berrymede Junior School, Acton,
Most of the children are Muslim, there are many languages spoken, and the children LOVE music. The school hall is not big enough for all the children, plus an 18 member adult orchestra, plus parents, so the only solution was two entirely separate performances – years 3 & 4 in the morning, years 5 & 6 in the afternoon. The adult volunteers from Ealing Chamber Music Club & Ealing Symphony orchestra agreed to play all day.
Berrymede has a large recorder orchestra, as all children learn. Year 4 played descants for their performance, and 47 children played descants, trebles & tenors for the Upper school performance. There was also a percussion group for each performance. Everybody learned all the songs, and they were the most difficult songs I have ever written for a whole school to sing. One required the boys to hold one tune, while the girls sang another, and there were others in 3 parts. When I realized how short the Spring term was this year, I thought ‘This time I’ve gone too far!’, but the kids hurled themselves at the task, sometimes with more enthusiasm than finesse. Some classes only get music for half of each term, but they still managed to learn all the songs in time, aided by weekly whole school sing-alongs after Half Term.
We made nearly 400 animal masks – templates were photocopied,& the children coloured them. Lions, Orang Utans etc. had to have woollen hair. We chose actors & mime artists for the lower school, & readers for the upper school, and gradually everything fell into place. The adult musicians only got one rehearsal, which went amazingly well, in spite of my conducting. The children learned their songs & instrumental parts to backing tracks I’d made of the adult orchestra parts.
The biggest problem was working out how to seat everyone. For each of the performances the classes were divided into 3 groups, & each group needed to be close to each other, but the recorder orchestras also needed to be together. Then there were the main characters to be considered, & for the song in which the boys sang one tune & the girls the other – they just had to sit mixed up, but miraculously managed the song perfectly well.
The performances were stunning – better than I’d dared hope, & even in their favourite song, ‘Bears like to Boogie’, in 3 part counterpoint, they avoided the temptation to shout, so all the parts could be heard. It was very exciting, & children & adults were as high as kites afterwards. Questionnaires completed this term revealed how much they’d learned.
This work has follow up stories, and we have plans for some literacy and creative writing activities for this term. ‘Zoo Tales’ has taken up most of my life for most of a year, and it was pretty intensive towards the end, but it was worth every sleepless night.
If any other school or group of schools would like to perform one of my musical stories, I’d be happy to supply score, scripts, lyrics, rehearsal CDs, and related artwork. The ideal solution would be if a Music Service could offer orchestral musicians for the performance. Alternatively music students might help. The best one to start with would be Rainbow Island.