Sounds of change: This show uses orchestral music to teach kids about ecology


Malloy performing at MPO's 2009 Family Fun Day themed 'Symphonic Safari'. — Photos: Dewan Filharmonik Petronas

BEYOND books and online content, music can be a way to teach kids, and Alasdair Malloy knows a thing or two about reaching out to the young without being too instructive about it.

A creative musician who has crossed musical boundaries, Malloy is best known as a presenter for family and children's concerts. He is also a percussionist, glass harmonica player, programme deviser and arranger.

He says music has the power to evoke a response in everyone – we might find ourselves moving in time with the music, tapping our feet or clapping our hands to music with a strong steady beat.

"It can also help produce an atmosphere or a sense of location, and all of these factors are fantastically powerful in opening children’s minds and imaginations," he says.

"I utilise all types of music in my family concerts for that very reason. I choose the pieces and the order in which they are played very carefully indeed, planning how I hope the audience will respond to each piece in turn," he says in an email interview.

Next Saturday, Malloy will be in the city for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra's (MPO) Family Fun Day concert titled Mission Earth, which narrates the story about Earth through the colours of the planet that can be seen from space.

Malloy says the ecology theme is apt, given the current climate crisis.Malloy says the ecology theme is apt, given the current climate crisis.

A look at the Earth

Mission Earth's central theme is ecology and Malloy says given the climate crisis that the world is facing, the timing is apt.

"I think children today are much more aware of the significance of ecology and the importance of looking after our planet than my generation was when we were young," he says.

"It can be quite scary considering the devastating impact that humans have had on our planet and in this concert, I don’t hide that but, hopefully, by celebrating the beauty of our planet through orchestral music, my overall message will be a positive one of hope for the future generation.

Mission Earth takes an unexpected view of Planet Earth – the audience are meant to look at it as if they've come from another planet. As they orbit around the Earth, their mission is to find out what the four colours they can see on the surface, represent.

"Although the audience never actually 'lands' on Earth, music is used to give them the feeling of actually being in the four regions represented by blue, red, white and green. They will discover the wonders of nature on the planet along the way – animal and insect life and the weather – as well as learning about the impact of human activity on all of that," Malloy says.

There is a mix of musical styles represented and the music, which include classical compositions like Josef Strauss’ The Dragonfly, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Mendelsohn’s The Hebrides, helps create a feeling of being in each region.

"There will be some amazing images on a big screen above the musicians to help the audience find out more about each area and there will be several interactive moments too. There is a lot of fun during the concert and a lot to talk about it afterwards," he adds.

The musicians of the MPO will play 'Mission Earth', with Jebat Arjuna Kee as conductor.The musicians of the MPO will play 'Mission Earth', with Jebat Arjuna Kee as conductor.

Crafting music for young audience

Malloy says having worked with young audiences for many years, he found them to be appreciative of carefully chosen music when it is performed and presented in an engaging and entertaining manner.

"The amazing thing about any audience with a high proportion of children is that they respond immediately and enthusiastically to pieces they have enjoyed, but often that applause ends surprisingly quickly. It took me some time to realise that the duration of the applause was not how to measure the reaction; it stopped because they want to hear the next piece," he adds.

When putting together concerts such as these, he says, it is important to include pieces which may be familiar – the recognition factor is very important – but young audiences respond just as well to unfamiliar music if the style and the context is carefully considered.

"I am confident that all of the music in Mission Earth will be effective in helping us imagine seeing the Earth from space and visiting these the specific regions, encountering the life on the planet and experiencing nature,"

Interactive and engaging, Malloy says not all pieces in Mission Earth are there just to be listened to. "There are moments when the audience have to perform certain activities or actions while the music plays to help everyone understand more about the theme, whether it is to do with the beat or pulse, or to do with the mood or style," he says.

Those moments are important because they increase their engagement with the performance. And once the audience has had that moment of physical interaction, they often listen more attentively to the next pieces and this helps in learning about the message of the performance too.

Malloy says young audiences are appreciative of music when it is performed in an engaging and entertaining way.Malloy says young audiences are appreciative of music when it is performed in an engaging and entertaining way.

Early exposure

For his contribution to music and education, Malloy was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of the West of Scotland in 2017. He says exposing young children to music has a host of benefits.

"When you watch an orchestral concert, you do so much more than just listen – it is fascinating to watch the musicians and see their instruments and how they are played. It is intriguing to look at how the players respond to the conductor – the only person on stage who keeps completely silent and yet is responsible for how the music sounds!"

"It is incredible how each piece sounds completely different with the same group of instruments and it is astonishing to discover how each piece makes you feel and think," he says.

Most importantly, in an orchestral concert, he says, all of the pieces are played by real people on real instruments – nothing is electronically amplified or enhanced.

"When you realise that the music performed includes pieces written hundreds of years ago as well as some new compositions, it is also a form of time travel. All this will captivate children's minds and generate an interest in live orchestral music and musical instruments, which I hope stays with them for the rest of their lives," he concludes.

Mission Earth will be performed at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur on May 4. More info: mpo.com.my.

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