Superstar violinist Nicola Benedetti provides a “big bang” for children at her inaugural Benedetti Sessions writes Ken Walton
If you’re in Largs this week, and hear the heavenly sounds of a string ensemble emanating from a local church, what you’ll be witnessing is a form of divine inspiration. Not, in this case, from some great deity in the sky, but resulting directly from the transformative musical evangelism of superstar violinist – and now impassioned pedagogue – Nicola Benedetti.
For inside that church will be a handful of very young children who, having fully immersed themselves in last weekend’s inaugural Benedetti Sessions at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, came home buzzing, begging their parents to help them continue meeting in order to enjoy more of the kind of ensemble playing that so fired them up in Glasgow.
The Largs parents obliged and found a venue for their children to meet and rehearse after school, starting this week. If you multiply that effect over the 450 youngsters who attended the Glasgow event, there’s every likelihood the same self-motivated phenomenon is replicating itself in other communities around Scotland.
What is so heartening, explains Largs parent Jane Church, is that one of their local number, a 10-year-old, was on the verge of giving up his instrument. “There’s no stopping him now,” she says. “They’ve got so much more than just music out of this: friendship, discipline, fun, achievement and the drive to make even more music.” And by the way, the music they were consumed by was Bartók.
It’s true that this inaugural Benedetti Session – repeated in London over the weekend, before heading to Dundee in March – was a roaring success. I sensed for myself the tangible atmosphere of positivity, creativity and fearlessness that reaped musical results way beyond anyone’s expectations, even Benedetti’s.
“There were a whole lot of reasons why that happened,” Benedetti believes. “But the most important one – and what I was most nervous about given we had no direct control over it – was the level of preparation which practically every single child bought into. We took a gamble, preparing them via online material, through videos on YouTube and password-protected private video link, by encouraging them to get together in groups beforehand, backed up by emails from me offering continuous advice and encouragement.”
That it paid off big time was self-evident from the astonishing standards achieved. I witnessed the start of an Advanced Orchestra rehearsal where ranks of seated kids – some so young their feet dangled above the floor – sat in focused anticipation as they gathered their thoughts, a silence broken only by the sweeping upbeat from Venezuelan conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa and an opening chord of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro so intense, so driven by self-belief, you could have sworn it belonged to a professional orchestra.
So what exactly are the Benedetti Sessions, and what makes them any different from other such initiatives? For a start, they’re not just for kids. Besides a core ensemble experience of Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Orchestras, Benedetti’s hand-picked team of leading instrumentalists, theorists and well-being experts also gave specialist string and primary school teachers, attending under the banner of continuing professional development, a break from the tick-box predictability and jargon-speak typical of such inservice events.
“Advocacy is central to our ambitions,” says Benedetti. “So is the ability to convene and create collaboration. These can’t happen without me calling upon the best music educators who are already out there doing what they are doing. So I view this as a chance to shine a light on the work they are already doing by creating these extremely intense, deeply symbolic weekends. They’re not meant to be business as usual. These weekends are like high intensity and high inspiration and expose what the best in music education could look like.”
This was about bringing music alive, setting the highest bar, seeing performance as a holistic skill embracing poise, risk, ambition, emotion and the confidence to address an audience spontaneously, intellectually and personably. The weekend’s performances were instant proof that, when the stimulus is right, when teachers are given the latitude to follow their own instincts, there’s no limit to the heights that can be achieved. Benedetti herself insists on nothing less. “We sat those kids down for two and a half hours initially and told them: yes, we expect you to be prepared; we expect you to be concentrated; we want you to play well and be ambitious for yourself and others.
“But we do not want you to be fearful; we’re not going to constantly stop you in your tracks and say don’t do this, don’t do that. We’re going to try and inspire a sense of physical movement, of breathing, of trust; that music is much like your intuition, your highest forms of intelligence. If you can tap into the best of that, and the best of music, everything about you becomes a better version of yourself.”
Those wrestling with falling attainment in schools, especially literacy and numeracy, and with the unresolved crisis facing instrumental tuition in our state system, should take note. Implicit within these Benedetti Sessions is a clear message that complacency has no place in developing the true potential of young people; that to aim high is neither unachievable nor elitist; that an environment which allows educators to think out of the box releases an adrenaline rush that is infectious, compulsive and addictive.
But that requires “a multi-pronged attack” by all concerned, argues Benedetti. “One-off experiences like this are powerful in that they create a big bang in a sometimes stagnant environment. Our issue at the moment is that there is a stagnation in politics generally and in social progression, where all we do is try to preserve.”
What we witnessed in Glasgow last weekend was a visceral hunger for aspiration and achievement. John Swinney, Scotland’s education minister, must have sensed it too when he attended. Among the children involved, 81 per cent came from state sector schools across 30 of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas. Like those from Largs, they will have gone home fired up to the hilt. Their expectations have been raised. Who would dare to dash them now?
The next Benedetti Sessions run from 6-8 March at the Caird Hall, Dundee. For more information see www.benedettifoundation.org