Learn more about: Odyssey’s education work, with community engagement manager Clara Neather
Updated: Oct 30
In the Caversham room at the Cadogan Hall, the pre-concert buzz is palpable; tables are lined with fruit juice and musical chatter fills the space. The room’s makeup is a mix of school students in their uniforms and musicians in concert black about to go on for the September Odyssey orchestra concert, Astonish me!. Unusually for an orchestral concert, the performers are here to meet their audience before the show, introducing their instruments, chatting about the evening’s music and answering students’ questions on the mystifying historical protocols of orchestras.
This reception before Astonish Me! concert was initiated by Odyssey cellist Clara Neather, who is also the orchestra’s community engagement manager. I meet her over crepes in Brixton Market to discuss the successes and aims of the Odyssey Orchestra’s education work, which has developed alongside its concerts, and find out what Clara loves about Odyssey.
Ellen: How did you first get involved with Odyssey, and what do you enjoy about it?
Clara: I first got involved because I used to play the cello in the LSSO, and loved the idea for Peter Ash’s new orchestra. As someone who did not decide to pursue music professionally, I love playing with Odyssey, because I am still able to perform with a really high-quality orchestra and improve. It is exciting that my orchestral journey can extend beyond school or university.
After the first concert, I got in touch as I wanted to be more involved in the process of establishing the organisation, including developing the website and the orchestra’s education programme.
Ellen: What kind of education work has Odyssey done so far?
Clara: Odyssey is based in South London, so we have targeted state secondary schools in that area. In the run-up to concerts, we go to schools and put on workshops to introduce students to the history and context of the repertoire, and lead musicianship games.
We then invite the students to our concerts for free - in our most recent concert we had over 90 students attend and in last May’s we had 120. Before the Astonish Me! concert, we hosted a drinks reception for the schools, where they met and chatted with players from the orchestra. It was a lovely opportunity for both players to introduce themselves and their instruments, and chat about the imminent performance.
Ellen: How is an Odyssey schools workshop typically structured?
Clara: We start with some introductory clapping games to get everyone thinking musically and bring energy into the room. We then listen to some of the music from the upcoming Odyssey concert, and everyone moves around the space, while Peter Ash - Odyssey’s conductor - explains the story of the music, giving specific points to listen out for, and attaching narrative or relevance to them.
We have focused on what you can think when listening to an orchestral concert, because it can feel that you have to be very serious and focused, whereas you can actually think about anything or nothing! A lot of classical music is linked to a narrative, and it is nice to have that story in your mind before the concert, so that you already have images or characters in your head when you hear the music. For example, in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, we imagined an image of breaking dawn for the opening clarinet sequence.
Ellen: What does each education project aim to achieve?
Clara: The education work aligns with Odyssey’s wider aims for audiences, which is to present orchestral repertoire in an informative, engaging and original format. The education project aims to share knowledge about composers and classical music history in a way that feels relevant and exciting, as well as introduce school students to a genre of live performance they may have not experienced.
The majority of the school students we invite have not seen an orchestral concert, in fact in our January 2023 concert, four-fifths of the pupils who attended via the schools program were attending a live orchestral performance for the first time ever. Odyssey is a great opportunity for them to feel the buzz of a live classical performance - and for free. They are mostly studying music at GCSE or A level, and watching a video of an old orchestra performing can feel quite removed and unrelatable. At Odyssey, there is such an energy in the concert hall, and we are not much older than them, so there is a feeling of possibility and relatability, which is really exciting.
Ellen: Did you get any feedback from the schools who have attended concerts?
Clara: We got great feedback for the Astonish Me! concert! The drinks reception made the orchestra seem closer and there were lots of conversations about different kinds of music that the students enjoyed, as well as curiosity about how an orchestral concert typically works. We had feedback from teachers who said it was very exciting for the young people to be introduced to more unusual instruments up close, such as the oboe and the castanets!
"I enjoyed the atmosphere and how the sound from the orchestra filled out the entire hall. the pieces were beautiful and it was surreal seeing it live for the first time." Student audience member
Looking back to The Last Waltz, when Sebastian Flore performed Rhapsody in Blue, one of the teachers emailed me and said that several of her male students asked to learn the piece. It was unusual and special for them to go to a concert and see a young Black man, who might look like them or their peers, perform a piano concerto.
Ellen: What are the aims for the future of Odyssey’s education work?
Clara: We would love to have 200 students coming to every concert. We also want to develop a team of Odyssey players who can go around schools and perform and lead workshops - perhaps introducing chamber music, like a string quartet or wind quintet. We would also love to develop a long-term relationship with a school, to nurture their young musicians and possibly create a partnership where we are able to use their facilities as a more permanent rehearsal space and we could do workshops and performances with them.
We would also love to introduce a ‘side-by-side’ scheme, where any of the school students who play an instrument can sit in on a rehearsal, and play with Odyssey members. Finally, we are developing an online resource bank for schools to refer to between projects, with information about the repertoire, Odyssey members introducing their instruments, and how to get involved in Odyssey schools projects.
Ellen: Having heard about the work you are doing to inspire the next generation of classical music lovers, it would be great to hear how your journey with music and the cello began?
Clara: I started the cello when I was six at my local music service, which was Lambeth Music Service, and then attended the Centre for Young Musicians. I got involved with a range of music-making at both places, including djembe drumming and gamelan!
I have had the same cello teacher since I was six, which is really lovely, and I now babysit her young kids, which feels very full-circle.
Ellen: Could you share what you are up to alongside playing the cello?
Clara: I am studying for a maths masters at Imperial College London! That is part-time, so I am also involved in a range of education work, including tutoring maths, teaching cello and working for a charity called Stemettes, which helps get girls into STEM subjects.
Every Thursday I also do flamenco dancing! I started when I was eight, took a break when I studied my undergraduate degree in Bristol, and have returned, which is a lot of fun.
If you are a school interested in getting involved with the Odyssey Schools programme, please contact Clara at email@example.com.
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