Searching for a tuneful chord on a concertina along with 20 pupils aged 9 to 11 is an interesting experience, especially when none of them has ever played the instrument before. Discord rules for a few moments, but then stops. Soon those children who were creating a sound like braying beasts are all playing the same serene note. By the end of the session, they are accompanying a song.
Learning to play the concertina is one of a range of workshops offered on the school visits programme at the Sage Gateshead, which pitches itself as the international home for music and musical discovery. Designed by Norman Foster, the Sage nestles like a huge shiny slug on the banks of the Tyne, perched on more than 1,000 sunken stilts to make sure it doesn't slither into the river. It has become as famous a landmark in the north as the London Eye is in the south. One of its features is that the roof doesn't touch the concert halls, so rain can't disturb the listeners. In the basement is the education division, 26 rooms dedicated to the advancement of music for all ages.
"Education was not an add-on," says Sue Finn, school visits co-ordinator.
"The schools programme existed before the building. Learning and participation has always been given equal importance to concert playing."
Since it opened in December 2004, Sage has hosted 180 schools in its visits programme, not including groups attending concerts in the three concert halls. Last summer, more than 4,500 pupils from 90 schools took part in a sea shanty singing day, and the centre is now planning this summer's singing day, which will feature songs from six centuries.
The programme offers workshops for groups of about 30 pupils on anything from penny whistles to African drumming. They also get a tour of the building and workshops; so long as the halls are free, they are taken into all of them. Hall One seats 1,700, Hall Two is smaller and is believed to be the only 10-sided concert hall in the world, while the Northern Rock Hall is a tall, square building. There is also a library, open to all members of Gateshead libraries.
The group sampling the delights of the concertina is particularly able, coming from a cluster of schools under Hartlepool's gifted and talent project. All either play an instrument or sing in a choir. The tutor, Emily Ball, does not assume any musical knowledge or baffle them with jargon. But she does expect them to move quickly from squeezing an awful noise out of the instrument to playing notes that will accompany a song she teaches them. The concertina workshop is not usually for such a young group, but their teachers wanted something challenging. They got it.
"We can cater for all abilities here," says Sue. "I wouldn't recommend concertinas for every class, but there are a whole range of workshops on offer." These include percussion, clogs and Ceilidh dancing, didgeridoo and drumming, d-jing and rapping, samba, jazz, world music, gumboot dancing, rock and pop, Djembe and more. The Sage has extensive collections of instruments but is restricted in the number of pupils it can take at any one time. The plan for this year is to run at 70 per cent capacity, which means only 240 schools can visit.
A vast area is catered for - "from Berwick to Barrow to Billingham," says Sarah Kekus, head of the schools programme, which includes regional work.
Getting a place on the programme could soon take long-term planning, and visits may be rationed to one per school per year, but for now there are still opportunities for workshops on all varieties of music. But they may be a little noisy.
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The Sage Gateshead St Mary's Square, Gateshead Quay, Gateshead NE8 2JR Tel: 0191 443 4587 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org