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Singapore Babes

John Robert Brown

Seats for all four performances were sold out within twenty-four hours of the start of booking. The demand for tickets was incredible. These are tickets being sold in July, for concerts that won't take place until mid-December. There are no famous soloists or star names. Admittedly, the youthful and excellent Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is to be playing, but what really created this prodigious enthusiasm was the novel concept of Babies Proms.

A concert programme aimed at children of seven and under, the Singapore Babies Proms began in 2002. Pregnant mothers and infants were welcomed, as well as youngsters. Tickets were required only for children aged two and above. These Proms were such a success that the idea was repeated in 2003, to even greater acclaim. Babies Proms now seem likely to be a regular part of the Singapore concert season.

By chance I was in Singapore, at the Victoria Hall where these concerts are to take place, when the booking for the December 2004 concerts opened. On the first day, Jenny Ting, Education and Outreach Executive, casually mentioned to me that there was a frenzy over ticket sales. Later, many emails and phone calls arrived from parents who had failed to get tickets, expressing their disappointment and desperation.

Eager to know how four relatively modest classical music concerts could sell out a 900-seat venue so quickly, I requested more information. By way of an answer, Jenny gave me a privately made DVD of last year's concert, to see for myself.

The Singapore Babies Proms are planned specifically for very young children. Concerts take place in the daytime, at 10.30 am and 12.00 noon on two consecutive days. Thirty minutes before the start of the music, as mums and offspring find their seats in the balloon-decorated hall, a clown entertains them with balloon sculpturing. Twenty minutes storytelling then follows, from 'The Musical Adventures with Maestrosaurus', an educational storybook specially produced by Jenny Ting's department. Cleverly, there is also a five-minute concert etiquette presentation immediately before the music begins. Now there's an idea that could be used elsewhere.

Then the concert starts. At fifty-five minutes, the musical programme is brief. There is much clapping, jumping, marching and shouting - by the children, of course. The musicians' traditional white tie-and-tails are left behind. Wisely, formal wear is deemed inappropriate not only because of the time of day but because of the easy-going atmosphere. Tee shirts are worn by the orchestra members, different colours for different sections.

The man in charge of the music in the hall is maestro Peter Moore. Describing him as 'conductor' of the proms is to understate his role. He is master of ceremonies, teacher, conductor, entertainer and 'uncle' to the children. Moore graduated from Trinity College, London, on bassoon and piano. He played with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for nine years, and is now a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and Musical Director of the Western Australian Youth Orchestra Association, based in Perth. In Australia he has conducted various youth music projects. For his service to youth music in Australia he was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). Peter Moore has substantial experience of introducing Babies Proms in Australia.

In last year's Singapore Babies Proms, Moore introduced the various orchestral sections, allowing one section to play, then another, then combined them to play again. Children were allowed - encouraged, even - to stand on the auditorium floor in front of the stage, to dance or march up and down, and to clap accurately through breaks in a cha-cha. At one point, all of the children were invited onto the stage, to stand in and around the orchestra, next to the brave and tolerant orchestral players. Four lucky youngsters were even allowed to conduct, giving the SSO an opportunity to show how carefully they follow a baton, even when it is wielded by an excited six-year-old.

When toddlers were offered the chance to hit a bass drum, or strike a marimba, it was noticeable that they nearly always did so with gentleness and sensitivity. Brutality comes with maturity, it seems, for some of the parents exhorted their offspring to deliver a brutal thwack to the instrument in question, with an attitude of: 'Go on, give it one!' I wonder, should mums and dads be kept off the stage, to prevent them from inciting their babies to barbarity? Perhaps so, but what a challenge to customer relations that would be.

"Our musicians have to be really understanding," says Jenny Ting. "We are the first people to do such concerts at such a high interaction level. Children are really staring in your face. Of course, some of them will try to touch the instruments. So our musicians have been really nice all this while. For some reason, the musicians are all having fun too, so we are lucky."

In this concert, children heard excerpts from Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite, Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk, marches by Strauss and Sousa, and Rossini's Overture to William Tell. The programme, script and announcement were meticulously prepared, and delivered in a sincere, interactive and playful manner. Peter Moore is brilliant.

It's clear why these concerts have been so successful. The Babies' Proms are an idea that will be exported, I'm sure.

This article was first published in Winds magazine. Used by permission.
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