Music in Schools: Launcelot School Composition Project (Autumn Lewisham 2023)

The Carnival of the Animals was the theme for the Company’s Launcelot School project held in winter 2023. Delivered by Company Young Artists Jack Holton and Inis Oírr Asano with the support of volunteer, Carl Jackson, the project introduced 20 Year 5s to the joy of creating their own music. Jack tells us more.

“As the saying goes, even the best laid plans go awry. However, thanks to a brilliant lesson plan from musician and participation advisor, Catriona McDermid, we managed to deliver a fantastic project despite unexpected hiccups such as train strikes.

I joined the project a week in with the aim of helping the Year 5s develop their musicianship in a fun way. While my career as a Baritone means I now sing on stages all over the world – I’m currently rehearsing with Opera North – I have a lot of experience working with children.

Before music college, I worked in a nursery serving the Anglo-Romani community. I’ve also performed in orphanages in Romania and Bulgaria, with refugees for a humanitarian music-theatre company, and engaged in participation work for Longborough Festival Opera. Leading a Musicians’ Company music-in-schools project or any kind of education project is the most natural thing for me.

The Carnival of the Animals – the theme of our project – takes its name from a musical suite by Camille Saint-Saëns but that’s where the similarities end. Animals are traditionally a great way to engage children, and, in this instance, we set about using them to create narratives. Instead of describing an elephant simply as big with flappy ears, the pupils were introduced to the idea of building a story around the elephant that could be accompanied by music.

Initially we used the elephant and the music and words provided by Cat to help them grasp the concept. We then invited the children to choose the animals they would like to build a narrative and music around.

To keep it democratic, we asked each child to choose two animals. We had two Year 5 groups and the first animal both groups democratically elected was the snake. To make the narrative descriptive, each pupil contributed words and phrases to describe the snake, such as slither and rattle, which then formed part of the story.

Several weeks down the line the groups were asked to choose another animal. Initially the children suggested lion, cheetah and lizard, then about a third of the way round one pupil – and then every child thereon – humorously said blobfish. An animal I’d never heard of, but which one girl knew inside out!

The children came up with adjectives and descriptive phrases for a blobfish, such as puffy and likes to eat sand. The second group chose a Gecko, an easier animal to work around. This, along with the snake, lent itself to sounds that could be turned into rhythms and treated as musical cells.

Once we had these little cells we began to repeat or develop them, adding voice, body percussion and traditional percussion, such as drums. As the children were familiar with percussion instruments, there wasn’t the usual chaos (I liken it to an ‘80s football riot!) that often comes from introducing percussion for the first time. They came up with some fantastic body percussion ideas too.

I then helped them combine elements, taking parts created by the children to form some cool rhythms. Inis Oírr (pronounced Aneesha) then stepped in as she had some brilliant ideas on creating melodies. She translated the words and sounds the children had created into unusual melodies that brilliantly conveyed the essence of the character.

There was one week where the train strike affected our plans, and it looked as though I’d be on my own. As I come from a jazz background, I decided to combine the animal theme of snakes with learning some samba polyrythms. This led to creating soundscapes that both groups could do together.

This was a fun project made even better by having a really engaged bunch of pupils, the support of Inis Oírr, whose melody work blew me away, and a brilliant volunteer. Carl is a former music teacher at a private school, a professional organist and fantastic musician. Having him in the room was lovely as you could ask him anything and always get a useful answer.”

Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company