JdP Music Building's Cushion Concerts

Rozzy or Tom introduce children and their families to different instruments and how they make music
Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building, St Hilda's College, Cowley Place, Oxford OX4 1DY

December 11, 2017
Introducing tinies to the violin

Oxford is a city with a rich cultural life, and it's no surprise that there's good provision for getting children interested in the arts at an early age. The Cushion Concerts take place monthly in St Hilda's lovely purpose-built concert and practice space, the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, and were begun with the aim of nurturing a love of live performance in the very young, introducing them to a wide variety of instruments and musical styles. Anxious to start priming my 4-year-old and toddler for future musical achievement - or at least enjoyment, I took them along to a concert focusing on the violin, led by Spike Wilson with the pleasingly-named Mr Cello, and featuring violinist Kate Bailey.

The JdP is quite an intimate concert hall, and the atmosphere was warm, peaceful (initially at least) and friendly. Children, and parents, mainly sat at the front of the hall a hair's breadth from the musicians and although the session was well-attended there was plenty of space to hear and see everything, and to get involved. There are separate sessions for under and over 5s, so it was nice to feel we were in the right place - that our toddler wasn't expected to be still and silent and that his older sister could ask piercing questions and dance without inhibition in an informal but exciting setting.

The session began with an interactive cello warm-up; humorously but effectively deconstructing the rhythm of nursery rhymes using fruit, and members of the young audience were soon proudly holding up kiwis and lemons and enjoying familiar tunes. Spike Wilson had a good rapport with the youngsters; his style gentle and engaging, and presently he and Mr Cello played an encouraging refrain 'instrument, instrument are you there' to call in the violin, which was first heard enticingly from through the open door. Wilson and Bailey, both freelance musicians, music teachers, and members of the Oxford-based string Quartet OXUS, explained a little about the violin before kicking off with pretty rousing two-instrument version of 'Winter' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, getting the audience involved with rhythmic foot-stamping. Following this with Massenet's 'Meditation' and an Irish jig, Bailey demonstrated beautifully the scope of her instrument, ranging from controlled and haunting to wild and exciting.

Created by Australian pianist Mark Hooper and now run by Roz Gladstone and Tom Allen, the Cushion Concerts are a unique opportunity for children to experience music of a very high standard in an informal setting and to get up close to good-quality instruments, learning how they work, feel and sound. Sessions are 45 minutes long - not too much for little ones but long enough to get to grips with the subject, have some fun and to hear some fabulous tunes. The organisers and performers are committed to inspiring youngsters, and show a genuine delight at the excitement and sense of involvement that gets the audience on their feet and dancing.

It's no wonder the concerts are popular, as it's a difficult thing to hold the attention of very young children for long enough to introduce them to serious music and this series has the balance right. We found our almost-two year-old was transfixed at the beginning by the unfamiliar sound of the instruments, while the four-year-old most enjoyed dancing to the livelier pieces. We'll definitely be back - coming up in 2018 are Tuba, percussion and folk music concerts.

Programme included:

'Winter' from The Seasons - Vivaldi

'Meditation' from Thaïs - Massenet

Jig 'The Irish Washerwoman' - traditional

'Gigue' from Partita no.3 in E - Bach

Hava Nagila - Hassidic traditional, arr. Igudesman

'Walking in the Air' from The Snowman - Howard Blake

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