Case study: Mutual Mentoring – ‘Clock Onto Safety’ for the CBSO.

“Clock Onto Safety” was born out of a collaboration between DBS Law, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Birmingham City Council.

changing cultures director, Nikky Smedley, was commissioned as librettist and director to work with Cath Arlidge (CBSO Violinist and Presenter) to create an engaging show to help young children learn how to cross the road safely. Vicky Arlidge was to compose original music – but the challenge for Nikky and Cath was not only how to pull together Law, Road Safety and child-friendly classical music (!) but how to pull off the feat of making a primarily auditory experience visually stimulating, without compromising the quality of the music, or the theatre.

One of our skills is learning on our feet and adapting proven methodologies and communication practices to working environments that are new to us.

Cath is the 2013 Royal Philharmonic Society and the Association of British Orchestras Salomon prizewinner, for her outstanding contribution to music in the UK. In her 23 years in the CBSO she has always been at the forefront of innovative practice, devising numerous ways to engage new audiences with classical music. (www.catherinearlidge.co.uk). Despite her worldwide reputation in theatre and television, Nikky’s experience of working with orchestral musicians, at the time, could be counted on the thumb of one hand – but she brought a wealth of stagecraft and knowledge around how to engage a young audience.

What happened between them was more than just a straightforward collaboration, as they had to learn from each other’s skill set pdq in order to gain the respect, the faith and the required enthusiastic buy-in from the musician team. With an incredibly short preparation and rehearsal period, they had to fully understand the two worlds in order to successfully bring them together. It felt like – and indeed it was – Mutual Mentoring.

It cannot be overstated what a BIG DEAL it was to ask these musicians – at the top of their game, working for a major world class orchestra – to move around the performance area. Think about it, ordinarily this NEVER happens . . . or it didn’t used to . . .

When asked to analyse the success of the project, Cath and Nikky suggest the following key factors:

  • The Dual Voice: in some circumstances, it was essential to have Nikky’s external voice – the expert from a different field – and in others, Cath’s internal knowledge and familiarity with the nuances of communicating with musicians were more appropriate. Together this created a powerful combination.
  • Giving Status: during the very first session with the musicians, Cath and Nikky took time to explain the philosophy, the thinking, the context and the reasoning – not just behind this specific piece but in creating and delivering work for children in general. It was important that everyone realised how seriously this work was being taken, even though the final product was to be very light and fun.
  • The Structure: in creating a piece with an incredibly simple concept and an episodic structure, it was easy for everyone to get their heads round the whole, “show” – so that the shift from performing a series of pieces of music to presenting an entire theatrical experience could happen as smoothly as possible.
  • Being Fearless: for Cath in particular, who was to present the show, it was important that nothing was asked of the musicians that she herself was not prepared to do – her willingness to embrace and throw herself into Nikky’s requests for ever-increasing silliness and humour, really led the musicians to do the same.
  • The Safety Net: habitually, orchestral musicians have a very short amount of rehearsal time, and they tend to be, by nature and nurture, perfectionists – their work is not generally conducted in the spirit of experimentation – it was a huge leap during rehearsals to consider that if a particular idea didn’t work, that was okay, we could try something else. To engender this modus operandi, it was essential to create an atmosphere that was safe, playful and non-judgemental.

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In 2013 “Clock Onto Safety” won a Regional  Jaguar Land Rover Business Champions for Arts and Business Award and in 2014 won a ‘Big Tick’  National Award for Corporate Responsibility.

We all hope that “Clock Onto Safety” goes on to become a treasured annual event in the CBSO calendar.

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