Cork Pops Orchestra: using monkey business to teach kids music

Schools Concert Series organiser Gerry Kelly in gorilla suit. Picture: Larry Cummins

This week, Cork City Hall will resound to schoolchildren discovering the beauty of classical music and the instruments that create it.

Gerry Kelly and Evelyn Grant have been presenting the Schools Concert Series for young people for 20 years.

Classroom resources or teachers’ notes, and a CD, are provided so that children can be introduced to the programme or enjoy it again afterwards and discuss it. Kelly and Grant also have a website where teachers and parents can access the music and follow links to YouTube illustrations.

For example, Leroy Anderson’s piece, The Waltzing Cat, on this year’s programme, is linked to a delightful cartoon on YouTube featuring Tom and Jerry. Likewise, Offenbach’s CanCan, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf. That’s where the much-loved cello-playing gorilla made his first appearance many years ago. Children suspicious of a classical concert are enchanted to see a gorilla onstage and are immediately receptive.

“The whole idea is to make it more than a concept,” says Gerry Kelly. “A lot of primary teachers don’t take music as part of their training course, but they have to deliver it to the class, so our classroom notes and CD were addressing that issue. Now, because of the way the internet has expanded into everyone’s lives, we have put up links to YouTube and this is great for parents, because they can find it for the kids to watch.” At the concerts, there is a huge screen behind the orchestra, so the youngsters can see even more. “We have Chris Hurley, from Cork Film Centre, who is a musician himself, and he will zoom in on the clarinet, for example, so the kids can see the difference between that and the oboe.”

Music is great in the classroom, says Kelly, but children should be brought to a concert to really experience it. “What we’re trying to do is arouse the curiosity in the child, so they start to explore the whole world of music.” Music played on the car radio is compressed. “Live performance isn’t compressed and it’s absolutely crucial to understanding and loving music.”

People often approach him, he says, saying they want their children to learn music, but don’t know what instrument would be best. “I say ‘bring them to a concert and the child will intuitively know’. I have four kids professional musicians, but not one of them is playing the instrument they started with. Jean plays the harp and there is no tradition of that in either of our families. Stephen is a percussionist, Eoghan plays the trombone, and Fiona, who is on tour with Sir James Galway right now, is a flautist. They all started on violin, cello, all sorts of things, until they found the instrument that truly suited their personality.”

It’s vital to introduce children early to live classical music, he says. Later on, they may grow suspicious, feel it’s not for them. And that, says Kelly, excludes them from a wonderful experience.

He might have been climbing into that gorilla suit for decades, but Kelly can’t wait for the concerts to begin. “All of the musicians love doing them, because it’s like feeding little birds. They’re all so up for it and what we get back in the way of response is just stunning.”

nSchools Concert Series 2013, City Hall, Cork Primary schools, Nov 6, 12 noon, Nov 7, 10am and 12 noon. Post-primary schools, Nov 8, 10am and 12 noon. Website: www.corkpops.ie


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