• Chamber Tots at Wigmore Hall


Minor chords

Wigmore Hall is shaping future generations of musicians and music lovers through its Chamber Tots programme. The Marylebone Journal toddled along to join in with the fun

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Sophia Spring 

These are no ordinary prams. Exiting the Wigmore Hall in convoy, they belong to the youngest classical music fans in London. The Chamber Tots session for ages one to two-year-olds has just ended. One cherub waves an index finger from side to side like a conductor directing an orchestra, studies it for a moment and then shoves it up her nose.

As the babies depart, the next attendees are gathering. Aged between three and five, these guys are veterans of the chamber music scene compared to the babies. And they make much more noise.

John Webb, the Chamber Tots workshop leader, has laid out an arsenal of tambourines, blocks, beaters and shakers and encourages the children to pick up and play the percussion instruments. They need little encouragement.

Musical accompaniment is being provided by the Zeitgeist Ensemble, a talented trio featuring Valerie Albrecht on viola, Isabel Thompson on clarinet and Maria Levandovskaya on piano. Isabel introduces the group to her instrument. She tells the children that it’s called a clarinet and that she gets a sound by blowing down it. Isabel plays a catchy melody while the toddlers keep the beat.

Crowd pleasers
To introduce the group to the piano, Maria plays the ultimate crowd pleaser: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The toddlers just can’t help but sing along—and neither can several mums. “And how do I play the piano?” asks Maria. “Do you use your fingers?” asks a young fella, who should never answer a question with a question. “Yes, and what else do I use?” A shout of “Your feet.”

Correct, and so Maria gets a young volunteer to press the pedals while she tickles the ivories. “Do you want Maria to play a slow or fast tune?” John asks the group. The answer is unanimous. And to everybody’s great joy, Maria plays Flight of the Bumblebee at lightning speed. The kids are mesmerised by her fingers dancing across the keys.

John announces that we must embark on a musical journey. We are heading into a forest. It’s an imaginary forest, so we won’t be needing coats. We are barely into the forest when along come some frogs. The Zeitgeist Ensemble plays a suitably amphibious ditty, while John and the children “froggy jump” all over the mat. And soon we bump into crickets, who are also partial to a damn good jump.


Hot pursuit
“Everybody stand up, please,” shouts John. “We are going to turn into a forest of trees. Make yourselves really small. We are little seedlings who are going to grow and grow with the music.” Cue Valerie, Isabel and Maria. The piece begins gently and gradually builds. Very slowly everyone sprouts from a seedling into a plant, into a bush, and finally into a tree. Well, almost everyone. One toddler is off round the room at quite a gallop with mum in hot pursuit.

John then drops a bombshell. “One day a very naughty animal came riding into the forest on a motorbike. And his name is Little Rabbit Foo Foo.” There are gasps from the mums. The kids handle the news far better. And as if by magic, John is wearing a rabbit hand puppet, which is holding an inflatable hammer. Little Rabbit Foo Foo clearly has mischief in mind.

The trio launches into the perfect soundtrack for a desperado biker rabbit, tearing through the forest waving a large hammer. John begins to sing: “Little Rabbit Foo Foo, riding through the forest, scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.” The furry rabbit hand puppet then starts indiscriminately whacking the mice on the head.

The good fairy
“Down came the good fairy,” cries John. “Who is going to be the good fairy?” Every single girl and boy thrusts a hand skywards. A good fairy is chosen. The little girl dons a tinsel bonnet and happily performs a twirl. But the good fairy isn’t down here for the fun of it. Quite the contrary. She gives the naughty rabbit a right royal telling off about his attitude.

The game is up for Little Rabbit Foo Foo. The trio plays some magical music and the condemned is turned into a goonie. “So Little Rabbit Foo Foo never caused chaos in the forest again,” says John. The end. Our narrator receives a warm round of applause for delivering such a ripping yarn.

The remainder of the session will take place up in the main auditorium. The Zeitgeist Ensemble leads the charge upstairs. The three musicians relish playing to such a young audience. “It’s a bit distracting, but actually that makes it fun. It’s a good challenge,” says Isabel. “What I like about children is that they’re very honest,” adds Valerie. “And they react to the music much more directly than maybe a 50-year-old audience would.”

Wigmore Hall’s learning programme focusses on children of all ages, whether it’s through Chamber Tots, family concerts, workshops and concerts for schools, free tickets through its Chamber Zone initiative, or Young Producers, where each year a group of 20 young people programme and produce their own concert here.

Musical legacy
And it reaches far beyond these walls. Chamber Tots in the Community takes place in nurseries, children’s centres and reception classes across London and also helps to develop the skills and confidence of teachers and staff, ensuring a musical legacy after the project has finished.

We head inside the main auditorium. This is what classical music heaven looks like. The hall is breath-taking, with its small raised stage, majestic cupola and one of the best acoustics for classical music in Europe. And the plush red seats are most comfy.

Maria sits behind a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. Isabel clutches her clarinet, while Valerie carefully tunes her viola. John recaptures the children’s attention with interactive rhythmic play. “Wiggle your fingers, tap your head, tap your knee, clap your hands,” he sings. “One big clap, ready.” Those famous acoustics even make a bunch of toddler clapping sound incredible.

Musical trance
The Ensemble then launches into Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano by Jean Francaix. The children stare up in a musical trance. Even the ones eating raisins. The musical piece ends to thunderous applause from both young and old.

Karen Sauve, whose accent is a vibrant mix of Scottish and French-Canadian, is here with three-year-old son Duncan. So why classical music and why Chamber Tots? “Everyone had said that classical music helps the brain to develop better. And rather than having an instrument imposed on him to get into whatever senior school, this way it’s more organic. Chamber Tots introduces you to every instrument.”

“Mummy, I want to go for lunch,” pipes up Duncan, who is hiding behind her. This future superstar of the classical music world doesn’t like to speak to the press—and certainly not on an empty stomach.