Marin Alsop and Sheku Kanneh Mason go to the top of the class

Rob Adediran, director of London Music Masters, on how major names in classical music are inspiring school kids in London. 

It matters to a nine year old when a superstar visits their classroom – the impact on children and young people can be electrifying. Of course the concert hall experience is important, but if Maxim Vengerov visits to your school and congratulates you on your violin playing, it really means something.

At London Music Masters (LMM) we welcome artists at many stages of their careers into our partner schools. Spread across London, these state primary schools serve the 1,300 students we teach each week, and we witness visiting artists creating meaningful encounters with these young people.

For some it comes naturally. Recently conductor Marin Alsop spent the morning at Ashmole Primary School in Lambeth. Her charisma dazzled our orchestra of 10 and 11 year olds, and her gentle encouragement and innate good humour coaxed our teenage maestri into taking charge of the ensemble with hitherto untapped confidence.

Marin said of her experience: “There is no greater joy for me than being able to share the gift of music with young people. Seeing their confidence grow; their self-esteem heighten; their skills improve and their teamwork flourish is absolutely inspiring.”

Marin Alsop © Mariona Vilarós
Marin Alsop © Mariona Vilarós

That day Marin went the extra mile, arranging her schedule around the school’s to accommodate the young musicians. That’s not always the case though, and often we adults ask the children to do the hard work. Taking them out of their comfort zone, they are forced to engage with new sound worlds in alien environments.

This flies in the face of a key principle of education: not to overload the senses of the learner when teaching something new. Asking a class of nine year olds to engage with a symphonic work – whilst seated in plush velvet seats, in a 2,000 seater auditorium, lined with beech panelling, with 1,000 overhead lights focusing on 100 musicians on a stage 20 metres away – is something of a tall order! Of greater concern, however, is the unconscious way that these kinds of experiences can reinforce an ‘otherness’ about classical music with subtle, and occasionally overt, cues that reinforce classical music’s exclusive credentials.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who has achieved pop-star like status thanks to his ability to cross musical and cultural boundaries, spent half a day at Prior Weston Primary School, our partner school in Islington. The busiest 19 year old in classical music, his presence in the school conveyed to the children and parents that they were important and worth his time and effort.

This is an incredibly powerful message for communities who have been kept at arm’s length from the classical music world in part due to the effects of ‘otherness’.

Feelings of otherness can arise through the lack of visible diversity on stage, the institutional nature, conspicuous wealth or religious symbolism of performance venues, the rules and expectations around attending performances and sometimes an active desire to preserve – or reserve – experiences for an elite.

I suspect that large sections of society simply don’t want to engage with a culture that will make them feel awkward or uncertain and they opt with their feet. But that morning, everyone was included and it created something special. Totally at ease in their environment, the children were inquisitive, funny, noisy, perceptive – and even a little bit anarchic! I am sure that when they do go to a 2,000 seater concert hall complete with beech panelling to see Sheku perform they will feel like insiders, because he visited them first.

Said Sheku: “I’m so happy to be involved with LMM because the work that I’ve seen them do is something that I really, really believe in – to see young children really enjoying music and learning their instrument from a very young age, which I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do.”

Sheku Kanneh-Mason © Carolin Denz
Sheku Kanneh-Mason © Carolin Denz

Sheku – state-school educated and just a few years older than the students himself – is very relaxed in this context. But artists can feel anxious about crossing the threshold of an inner-city primary school. We can reduce that anxiety by highlighting the benefits of the kind of encounter where power is shared and where the artist is a beneficiary as well as an inspiration.

Research we carried out in 2016 with the Royal College of Music suggests that artists gain hugely from participating in music engagement projects structured in this way. And, as they do, they may find themselves agreeing with Marin Alsop that there is no greater joy than sharing the gift of music with young people.