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Let’s start a Toddler’s Orchestra – the idea landed out of the blue in the Pacitti Company offices sometime in Summer 2017 and made everyone who heard it laugh, ‘imagine that’, before realising it would probably happen in the next room, probably during office hours.

Harnessing the creative potential of the youngest among us had been on the Pacitti Company agenda since long before the SPILL 2016 Programme brought the organised chaos of Messy Play, the magical streetwalking animism of Beastie and the Live Art parlour games of Playing Up to Ipswich.

With Toddlers’ Orchestra we felt we were onto a winner. The chaos. The noise. The strategic audience development potential. Plus the expansion of the programme at the Think Tank in 2017 would allow us to carry over the festival momentum and bring our littlest SPILL goers into the home venue.

Early in the Toddlers’ Orchestra project development we employed the services of Ipswich based dance artist and highly experienced workshop facilitator Anna Rowe, whose guidance, leadership and arsenal of multicoloured clickers, clackers and whistles were invaluable. Sound artist Frazer Merrick soon joined us too bringing with him an array of expensive looking electronic musical gadgets and, importantly, the will to allow toddlers to use them.

The production meetings were hilarious. Ideas bounced around the table like the twang thud sounds from Anna’s homemade balloon skin drums. Nevertheless, we definitively wanted to make sure that the environment we were setting up in the three Toddlers Orchestra workshops had serious intentions:

We wanted to encourage creative learning through experimentation with unusual instruments - it couldn’t be crash-bang wallop-see- you-later. Young minds could be fully engaged and stimulated by new sonic experiences and for that we needed proper structures, a variety of instruments and clear instructions.

We wanted to make sure we didn’t isolate individuals - we needed a diverse offer that allowed for all personality types to explore noise at their own pitch and tempo. This led to the development of a two-space approach, one room for noisy play and another for quiet crafting – an important distinction that was appreciated by grown-ups and toddlers alike.

We wanted toddlers to interact creatively with their grown-ups. This was key to the success of the workshops. They’d be a forum for intergenerational play – the grown-ups had to bring the noise (and the Sellotape) too.

And finally, we wanted to record the sessions with a view to giving the cacophonous outcomes to sound artists as raw material, potentially for a commissioned project for SPILL 2018.

So we had aims, we had a team and we had a plan. Now all we needed were some toddlers. We went live with the marketing in Summer and promptly sold out. Ipswich wanted a Toddler’s Orchestra too it seemed. Now we were really excited.

The doors of the first session opened and, for the first time ever at the Think Tank, buggies flooded in. Anna, Frazer, Robert and I buzzed about making big friendly welcoming gestures at bemused young faces. We had a plan: muster, welcome, do the housekeeping announcements, then calmly parade next door into the White Room for a quiet briefing in the middle of a floor lined with instruments; noisemakers from colanders to cake tins, from synthesisers to a strung up mobile festooned with spanners ready for whacking.

In hindsight, our only mistake was to underestimate the excitement of the toddlers. Forget your briefing mate, they knew exactly why they were here and literally upon entry the noise level hit maximum, staying that way for the whole hour. 

Our well-intentioned plans to have quiet moments and sharing time in the middle of the room were subsumed by the joyous clanging of spanners, the atonal whacking of the sacrificial guitar and the interstellar drone of a two-year-old sprawling across the maxed-out synthesiser keys. Everyone was having fun, All around us young eyes were lighting up as the possibilities of the next noisemaker were thrashed beyond their limits to the accompanying “what have I unleashed?” smiles of the grownups. Adjusting our plans in the moment and noting the need for a more controlled dynamic next time, the team indulged in the cacophony and the Toddlers Orchestra was born.

Metal, Wood and Wind, Belch and Twang. Over the three workshops we improved each time. Special guest musicians were called in for demonstrations. Group exercises that celebrated listening, collaboration and focussed attention all worked their charms. Watching a whole group of little people interact with a souped-up Theremin pedal is possibly the highlight of my year, A lot of fun was had. A lot of bottle top clackers were made. At the end of the sessions toddlers didn’t want to leave the space and had to be coaxed out of the room by their grownups with promises of returning (and of biscuits, football, lunch, toys, etc).

We took this as a job well done.

Steve Goatman - Pacitti Company Associate Producer