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Against the odds

Jon O'Connor recommends two accounts of successful struggle

Ray Charles

By Sharon Bell Mathis; Lee amp; Low pound;4.99distributed by Turnaround; Tel: 020 8829 3000


National Children's Orchestra

By Vivienne Price; pound;10 (plus pound;1.50 pamp;p)

Tel: 01934 820254 Email:

These two inspiring books, one for children about a great musician and the other by a great advocate of children's music, have a special appeal for me.

As a child of 10, the haunting refrain of Ray Charles's "Born to Lose" struck an affinity with me while I was learning grade 1 piano. This biography is a story of winning against the odds. Sharon Bell Mathis writes about Ray Charles's music and his blindness without mawkish sentimentality and sets it against the reality of racism in America.

It is easy to understand why the book gained the Coretta Scott King Author Award as a contribution to non-violent social change. The vigorous black-and-white illustrations by George Ford deserve a mention, suggesting the childhood knocks and raw blues bar-rooms that characterised Charles'

life. It's good to know that Ray himself is still on tour and will be playing Las Vegas this year.

Having also mastered grade 2 violin, I recall inflicting grievous harm on the school orchestra. I therefore enjoyed reading Vivienne Price's celebration of 25 years of the National Children's Orchestra.

As founding director, she writes a feisty account of the birth and growing pains of the NCO. She tells in brisk anecdotal style of those who helped or hindered the crusade to help children make music together.

She narrates an extraordinary journey that takes in Skegness, London's South Bank and the odd scout hall, with as many ups and downs as a violin concerto. Season by season the NCO has grown from a single orchestra in 1978 to five orchestras totally 400 members, split according to age from 7 to 13.

The NCO demands that each orchestra represents the best players in the country for the age group. This led to an appearance at the Children's Royal Variety Performance in 1982 at one end of the scale and more recently a private concert for Tony Blair's staff at Number 10.

In the 1997 Queen's birthday honours list, Vivienne Price was made an MBE in recognition of her services to children's music.

To enjoy their music for yourself, visit the NCO website Jukebox and raise a glass to Vivienne Price, the children and all their supporters over the years.

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