I was working on The Streets in Twickenham a few weeks ago helping produce performances by world class jazz musicians in local businesses and social hubs on the high street – shops, cafes, the library, the church. One of the events was a workshop for toddlers led by tuba player Oren Marshall and violinist Alison Blunt. The toddlers were captivated.
Oren’s tuba had a commanding presence of its own – huge and unwieldy, an unlikely, convoluted musical contraption straight out of Heath Robinson. But it was the way Oren used it that caught the imagination, prowling round the group with it pressed to his lips, gently addressing little ones and parents with breathy animal noises and deep rumbles, putting its enormous flared end against their backs so they could feel the sound through their bodies.
I got talking to Alison Blunt in between workshops. She’s one of these extraordinarily creative spirits who straddles classical and jazz and everything in between and whose interests and collaborations range across all sorts of musical projects.
She also works a lot with early years children and she sees this as a vital and integral part of her musical endeavours. The kids, she told me, are the best teachers. They are never not themselves: when they’re interested they listen, when they’re bored they walk off.
We discovered a shared scepticism for elements of the modern education system, especially its obsession with grades. Alison mentioned Summerhill School, famous for allowing its pupils to choose their own lessons and develop their own boundaries, rather than having them imposed by an adult authority. Its controversial founder, AS Neill, aimed to create a learning environment in which kids could develop greater responsibility for their decisions, and a stronger sense of self-approval.
I love this – as inspiration and as pedagogic aspiration. Self-approval, in this context, is not meant as invincible self-confidence. It is closer, perhaps, to an honest acceptance of who one is – and an acknowledgement that who one is is good.
Angela Neustatter bears this out In her Guardian piece on the 90th anniversary of Summerhill: “To this day even simple maths defeats me, but I have not fulfilled the gloomy predictions of academics…Instead I’ve had a fulfilling career and overwhelmingly, the thing Summerhill gave me is optimism and pleasure in just being.”
Talking about Summerhill to Alison called to mind something John Cage said:
In the United States, everything is done to make people as bad as possible. And the way you do that is the following: If you have forty children, you give them the same book to read. You could have them read forty different books, and that would be beautiful; but instead you give them one book to read, and they must all read the same one. Then they must pass an examination to see which one did the best. That immediately reduces human nature, because the one who does badly begins to think of copying what the one who did well – in other words, stealing… (Conversing with Cage, 1987).
Maybe school is not only meant to teach numeric, linguistic and other thinking skills (all of which are of course vital); or to foster emotional and social aspects of ourselves; or to polish our behaviour. Maybe it is there also to give us a sense that our being in the world is a good and worthwhile thing of itself (regardless of any achievements or lack thereof).
Back in Twickenham in the workshop, the kids took it in turns to come forward and dance and have their spontaneous movements interpreted by Oren on the tuba. It was great to watch. Some of the kids barely moved, some waved their arms suddenly, or were slow and thoughtful, and it was all translated, to an accompaniment of giggles, into tuba noises.
I had to leave in the middle of the fun but returned when Oren and Alison were packing up. Did you see the little girl at the end? Alison asked. I hadn't. She was amazing, Alison said - entirely absorbed by and attentive to the way her body was moving, entirely in the moment.