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Proms 2009: Prom 13 (Family Prom) – Young Persons Guide \ Benjamin Britten \ BBC Philharmonic

July 26, 2009

family promFor many years now, I’ve steered clear of Royal Albert Hall on Family Prom day. In it’s previous guises as the Blue Peter Prom or last year’s Doctor Who Prom, I’ve remained at home and listened on the radio. I’d probably feel a bit out of place, I’d think. I’d probably get a little worked up by the running around and the kiddies complaining at being in this ridiculous hall staring not at the stage where the people are but up at their parents who dragged them there, looking as if to ask when exactly are we going home Mum? 

I couldn’t avoid it this year. I’d shot some video with some children from the school I used to go to for the BBC Proms website (yes, it was a fee-paying school – I didn’t choose to go there, my parents did) and now those same children were coming to their first Prom to hear the music performed in the hall.

The point of the video was to see how easy it was to introduce children to classical music, to get a handle on what made them tick. 

I learnt two very important things: if you’ve jumped to a conclusion about what you think children will like then you’re probably wrong so you might as well think the opposite AND children are considerably brighter than anyone gives them credit for. Thus you can throw all sorts of weird and wonderful things at them on the basis that if only one out of a class of thirty has an emotional response to it, then you’ve done well. 

Amid the gurgling and the rustling of papers and sweet wrappers of the kind you won’t hear on the Radio 3 broadcast on iPlayer of this morning’s family prom I was reminded of those two big lessons I learnt when I went back to school earlier in the year. 

There’s a great deal of anxiety surrounding children and classical music. What will become of classical music if we don’t reach out to a younger audience as though we’re not connecting with them yet? Some say classical music could well be in crisis. Others reckon we should just throw them in at the deep end and be done with it. Everyone calls for direct action as though children are starved of the music some of the rest of us have grown to love and appreciate as we’ve got older. 

Some of that debate is justified and interesting and vital. A lot of it is white noise, however, white noise which skews the image and promotes the wrong idea. 

Watching from the box and standing in the arena during this morning’s Prom watching children hang on to their parents, I was reminded of one key thing about sharing classical music with the “blighters” Benjamin Britten said were impossible to be “too sophisticated” with.

Just play them the stuff. Have classical music just “be there” in the background. Don’t make a massive thing about it. Don’t make a massive play to court the young audience’s attention. Don’t use words like “fun” or let the exclamation mark key be hit too many times on the keyboard.

Just keep classical music on the radar in the same way you might get them to kick a ball around from time to time. Don’t hit them over the head with it – just invite them into the concert hall from time to time and say “look, here it is, give it a go”.

If those same people come back to classical music in later years, I’ll guarantee they’ll remember the moment of first contact with fondness like I did this morning as I stood and listened to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, recalling a distant memory of me kneeling on the floor of a sports hall listening to a local orchestra hack their way through it. 

That’s what the Family Prom and it’s Family Orchestra did, to my mind. It planted the seed. Now you just need to wait for it to grow a bit to be sure it had it’s effect. Give it 10-15 years. Yes, that’s how long you’ll probably need to wait.

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