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The Art of Listening Goes Down Under...


Emma, our Creative Learning Officer, explains how they are extending the International Festival's educational arm overseas and challenging perceptions of classical music

Creative Learning Officer Emma Hay on taking the Art of Listening programme to Melbourne, Australia. 

Throughout the year, while the rest of the team is busy planning for the next International Festival, Creative Learning runs a number of workshops and programmes for schools across Edinburgh. Next week, we are going a (big) step further, travelling to Melbourne, Australia to present our Art of Listening programme to teachers, students and other music professionals from Independent Schools Victoria. This is a pretty big deal; the invitation from Independent Schools Victoria speaks loudly of recognition of the quality and value of the International Festival’s education work.

Art of Listening is a two hour recital workshop that the International Festival has been offering to primary school pupils across Edinburgh since the year 2000. In two short hours, we take the pupils from boredom and age-old preconceptions about classical music, through a history of the piano (featuring excerpts from The Simpsons and Pharrell Williams) to Mendelssohn and Britten amongst others and a visual art exercise that allows the pupils to express their experience of listening to classical musical.

Next year, Independent Schools Victoria are hosting an Arts Learning Festival but this year we will lay the foundations for our involvement: we’ll meet students, teachers and other music professionals, visit various venues and share the practices and principals of the workshops with them. We will no doubt learn a lot too.

Listening is hard work. It requires patience, focus and the ability to be aware of distraction when it strikes. We all have moments where we daydream, drift off or allow our minds to wander. Listening to classical music can be hard work too. It can be intense, unfamiliar and overwhelming. It can sound jarring and cluttered and hard to navigate. I can say this from experience and I doubt I’m the only one who would admit that.

When we ask the young people who attend Art of Listening workshops what they think of classical music, we get varied responses: it’s boring and it’s old and it’s not for young people. Sometimes they’ll say it’s relaxing or they’ll identify music from adverts or film scores. Or they’ll confess that they have never heard it.

What the Art of Listening shows its attendees (children, young people and adults alike) is that there is a difference between listening with our minds and experiencing what we hear. Music liberates us from the limitations of language. When we give ourselves the opportunity to listen to music free from intellectual analysis; the complexities in Shostakovich, the melancholy in Mahler, the passion in Puccini and even the beats in Beyoncé allow us to connect with something more authentic inside of ourselves. This is what art can do, why we all have guilty pleasure playlists and why in workshops we ask participants not to tell us or write down their experience of music, but to recreate that in colour on a piece of paper.

21,000 miles to Melbourne and back equates to around 44 hours or 2640 minutes of flying time. Our iPods are charged and ready to go; learning the art of listening takes practice, after all, and our journey is only just beginning…

- Emma Hay 

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