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Bubble of the bands

You don't have to come from a musical family or play grade eight piano to become a great musician. Elaine Williams visits the Sage Gateshead, where gifted children are getting the opportunity to fulfil their dreams

Jessica Lamb's name was first out of the hat. Which is how the 10-year-old started playing the spare set of Northumbrian pipes at her primary school.

Jessica, from Greenhaugh first school in Hexham, got the hang of them pretty quickly. But then she's always been musical; the kind of child who sings all the time and can't resist a tinkle if she's in a room with a piano. It runs in the family; her granny plays the accordion and her granddad the banjo. But it wasn't until granny picked up information about a new weekend school for young gifted musicians at the Sage Gateshead that Jessica's parents considered formal music training for their daughter. In fact she sent in her own application, was granted an audition and, to her family's delight, was taken on.

Jessica's life has changed. Every Sunday she makes the 80-mile round trip from her home in Bellingham, in rural Northumberland, to the Sage, the great bubble-like music emporium designed by Norman Foster on the banks of the Tyne. There, as well as being taught pipes one-to-one by the virtuoso Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, she is given lessons in piano, voice, music theory and improvisation. More than that, she's joined a community of young musicians like herself who can live and breathe music and relax in each other's company: "It's great to be with new people who are like me and want a fabulous career in music," she says.

Before the Sage was built and the weekend school established a year ago, talented young musicians from the North-east had to take residential places at the Manchester, London or Scottish conservatoires, or undertake an exhausting round trip to the weekend schools at the Manchester music colleges. And, anyway, it is mostly the children of middle class or musical parents who already have formal musical training who tend to go down that route.

The Sage initiative is open to children who haven't had that family support but who may nevertheless have musical ability; a girl with a pink Perspex recorder, with no musical training whatsoever but, say staff, with the "best musical ear in the school", was taken on when some youngsters with grade eight theory were rejected. The idea is to keep the region's gifted musicians in their communities to create a seed bed for the future; it is also to create a school where the pursuit of technical perfection and the rougher challenge of performing different kinds of music go hand in hand.

Education underpins everything at the Sage. Beneath the pound;70 million glass and steel frame and its concert halls with their world-class acoustics, runs a 25-room music education centre, home of the weekend school. In the heat of summer, when Geordies are out in force on riverside promenades, spilling into the Sage to enjoy professional musicians jamming or performing in its great concourse and cafe with panoramic views of Newcastle, 50 young musicians are being put through their paces in the practice and rehearsal rooms below. The Sage is the new home of the Northern Sinfonia and Folkworks, the north of England folk music development agency; blues, jazz and rock are also on tap and on this Sunday, as on any day, there is music of some sort being played all over the building. Professional musicians who perform at the Sage also give masterclasses to these pupils, who are expected to become proficient in many musical styles.

Joan-Albert Serra ran a music school in Barcelona before taking up his post as head of vocal and instrumental learning. This, he says, is the job he has always sought - one where performance and education run together.

"Sometimes I think music schools forget what they are training musicians for," he says. "When you get that magic moment between the music, player and audience, no one is interested whether the player has achieved distinction at grade eight. Of course, technical proficiency means musicians are better able to express themselves, but getting through a series of exams does not necessarily mean that a musician is able to connect with an audience."

The Sage is hoping to expand its weekend school numbers from 50 to 150.

Bursaries funded by the Department for Education and Skills and the Sage are available to cover the pound;3,000-a-year fees (less for the youngest students) for those in financial need. For more information, contact the Learning and Participation Department, tel 0191 443 4666, email or visit

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