27th Mar 2015

An ECO outreach adventure at Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts (by Stephen Penrose)

The ECO was recently invited to open the celebration of the 40th year of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts. In addition to the two sold-out concerts by the full orchestra, the ECO sent an advance team of musicians to work with multiple school orchestras to prepare two pieces (Tchaikovsky’s “Slavonic March” and Purcell’s “Suite from Abdelazar”, both in special arrangements by ECO Education and Outreach Coordinator - and bass player - Paul Sherman) for the opening ceremony, where an outdoor performance by some 250 young musicians was planned.

Because of my interest in music education, I asked to be allowed to observe the advance team’s outreach in the participating schools. The team included six members of the ECO, representing a diversity of experience - Paul Sherman (double bass), Jonathan Barritt (viola), Phil Harmer (oboe), Tim Lowe (cello), Kaija Lukas (violin), and John Mills (violin) - and they were faced with a similar diversity of challenges as not all the school orchestras were equally prepared and engaged.

Observing the team members, all world-class musicians, was an education in itself - they were invariably constructive, patient and ready to do whatever was necessary, including repairing non-functioning instruments, to help their young students. They adjusted their games remarkably successfully to the quality of the individual student musicians - some very talented, some beginners - despite the difficulty of giving individual attention in large, only two-hour-long practice sessions at each school. Also impressive was that the ECO team functioned very much as a team - at different times each contributed thoughts and suggestions to improve the overall quality of the music, while at the same time keeping focus on their respective student sections.

The noontime official opening performance by the combined student orchestras, was to take place on the front steps of the City Hall, so issues of wind and weather loomed large as well as the sheer logistics of mobilising so many students, placing the large brass and wind sections for reasonable balance, seating the cellists, and securing music stands and sheet music. A brief rehearsal mid-morning, under cloudy skies, proved both necessary and productive. At noon the Governor and various dignitaries arrived, and they were treated to a wonderful experience in a performance by young musicians representing all segments of Bermuda. The Governor later described the music he had heard as one of the most moving experiences of his life, and singled out the ECO outreach team for particular praise and thanks.

Challenging and successful as the student performance was, it was not the whole of the ECO’s outreach effort during the Bermuda trip. The team also gave two performances of their own, each to audiences of about 300 elementary-age students. Based on the educational books and program around “Billy’s Band”, the 55-minute shows were designed to introduce younger children both to the different instruments and to musical concepts like tempo and key. Rather than having the children sit silent, the program engaged them directly in clapping, singing along, and even “conducting” the musicians. Once again, each of the ECO team members was called upon for an individual contribution, and each proved adept at bringing laughter and applause from their young audiences.

Perhaps the most meaningful comment on the ECO’s outreach in Bermuda came from the father of one of the student musicians, a cellist, who said that his daughter had come home “flying high” with a new appreciation of how beautiful classical music could be, and newly committed to make it a continuing part of her life.