The són team enjoyed a morning as guests at an education project of the Cheltenham Festival last week. We watched James Mayhew weave his wondrous work with two classes of Yr3 children at Lakeside Primary. We also performed as James painted, providing some live music for each session. Out of interest, James has written his own warm words about són‘s visit to the Cheltenham Festival here.

Basing his workshops around two masterworks from the first set of BBC Ten Pieces – Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain, and Stravinsky’s Firebird – James showed he was the consummate story-teller: involving and utterly captivating. He held the attention of the youngsters, at the same time as bringing a tear to the eye of the grown-ups in the room. And that was just his telling of the story – the music, and James’s painting, were yet to come.

What strikes us about James isn’t simply that he’s a technically brilliant, vibrantly colourful and vivid artist. Of course, he’s exactly those things and that’s why he’s loved and respected across the country. But what makes him utterly unique is how he shapes the unfolding painting, pacing it to perfection along with the contours of the music. He times every little nuance, just as a ballet dancer or opera singer would do on stage. Each new musical paragraph is met with a change of tempo from James, as he paints with renewed vigour, or calmed pace, as befits the musical journey. He not only accelerates and crescendos with the music, but depicts the characters entering and leaving the drama – often on one sheet of paper, board or canvas. Quite incredible.

We witnessed two classes, each held in rapt attention – to both James and the stories, the art AND the music – for over 90 minutes each. Our live music-making was only a small contribution to this event. Yet it adds an additional element to the day, allowing the youngsters to see real, living, breathing musicians. And of course, every doorway to the senses is a valid way for these children to connect with the power of music. It doesn’t matter whether they’re touched by the sound of the violin, by the wash of colours on canvas, or by the feel of their own pastel crayon on paper – or by all of these things. What matters is that they’ve noticed, they’ve paid attention, and they’ve experienced.

They may become artists, painters or illustrators. They may become story-tellers. And they may become musicians. Perhaps most importantly of all, if they already sing or play an instrument, they might just begin to build bridges in their imaginations between what they learn on their violin or clarinet, and the music and art they experienced that day. And that’s where the magic lies!

Possibly the most poignant story of the day wasn’t actually told by James at all. It was told by one of the teachers, following the final session. She explained that she’d just seen a particular youngster, one who has real difficulties opening up, suddenly produce work filled with real character, exuberance and colour. As enthralling as James’s stories are, this is the kind of story we must keep telling each other, as artists, musicians and educators.

Don’t forget James’s own blog about the day which you can read here – and you can book tickets to James’s Pictures at an Exhibition, part of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival of Music here. Plus, there are collaborations between James and són are in the pipeline for next academic year, so keep an eye open!

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