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There have been so many studies over the past few decades about just how important music is in personal development and learning at all ages, not just young children. So when, in late 2017, Flinders Quartet began curating our mini Shostakovich string quartet cycle in preparation for performance in the 2019 concert season, it became evident that this was a program just perfect for teenagers. Living through a gripping and controlling Stalinist regime, the music of Shostakovich explodes with the themes of anguish, oppression, creative oppression, war, persecution and sarcasm. His fifteen string quartets have “teenagers” written all over them.

Quite often, secondary school students are overlooked when it comes to these unique programs. But we know that these students are capable of incredible feats given half a chance, so we knocked on the door of Footscray City College (FCC) and were quite relieved and grateful when Paul Dooley thought this crazy idea was worth pursuing: 

Give the students the chance to respond to the music of Shostakovich with their chosen art form.

Following extensive preparation and development throughout 2018 and 2019, we spent a week with the students of FCC in late August 2019. In a rather ambitious move, we decided to engage dance, drama, art and visual communications. (The music students were a no brainer - we knew we already had them hooked.)

Visual Communication students created poster based on Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. Dance students (with the help of past student Maxine) choreographed an incredible dance incorporating solo and ensemble elements. The drama students investigated verbatim theatre relating to the Dresden Bombings and then created their own monologues as well as exploring a Japanese form of movement emerging from post Hiroshima - buto.

The relationship between Kandinsky and Shostakovich is fairly well established so the year 8 students created art inspired by Kandinsky whilst listening to his 11th string quartet. Taking this one step further, the VCE students took up the challenge of creating an art work live as a piece of theatre in itself to his fifth string quartet. 

The culminating one hour performance was certainly one of my highlights from 20 years working in a string quartet. It was so heartwarming to witness these future artists honing their craft and being part of something that was truly collaborative, not just tokenistic. There were even students in charge of the lighting and projections, handling the whole production like professionals.

It really felt like we just opened the door to what is possible between a string quartet and these talented teenagers. The good news is, we don’t think this will be a one off, there is too much potential and so much more fun to be had.

For us, it was a week of firsts. Our first time improvising with the improvisors’ collective (thanks guys - you rock!) our first time with dancers, and our first time with visual artists. In particular, our little Finnish folk song with the string students was a favourite moment for us.

This email from an audience member sums up the entire experience - thanks so much FCC, you have all found a place in the hearts of FQ.

Just a short note to say how much I enjoyed last Friday’s performance collaboration between Footscray students and the Flinders String Quartet. It was one of those memorable occasions that make you feel good, not only about what kids are capable of when they are exposed to new experiences - Shostakovich no less,  but what state schools can achieve when teachers themselves are open to taking on such experiences. I thought the rapport between the kids and the quartet members was so evident throughout, and especially in the ‘curtain call’. I’d imagine the same was true when the program was ‘workshopped' throughout the week.

State schools are, indeed, great schools!


Terry Hayes