Classical, rock and all that jazz

The National Festival of Music for Youth is settling nicely into its Birmingham home and there are exciting times ahead, as Gerald Haigh reports

Next week, Birmingham will host the National Festival of Music for Youth (NFMY) for the second year running. Last year's move from London's South Bank was assumed by many to be a temporary arrangement during the Royal Festival Hall's major renovation, and that was probably the original intention.

The second city's education and music establishment, however, clearly had their own ideas. The world's biggest children's music festival was coming to town, and at the launch gathering in a room in the Symphony Hall early last year there was a glint in the eyes of Birmingham's movers and shakers that clearly said they were not about to let it go away again. Sure enough, all - organisers, teachers, children, audience - were full of praise for the new home, and lunching with me after last year's Festival, NFMY director Larry Westland was euphoric about the attitudes and the pride that he encountered.

"Everyone, from car parking staff and backstage workers to senior management was welcoming and helpful," he said. So, to me at least, it was no real surprise to learn that the NFMY had signed up to stay in Birmingham not just this year, but until 2010. (Larry Westland uses the expression, "For the foreseeable future".) He hasn't run the festival for 36 years on feelings and attitudes alone, however. Accommodating 10,000 children in 300 groups - full symphony orchestras to early years percussion groups - is a huge logistical operation, and Birmingham had to be up to it. The main challenge is to find a range of venues of different sizes and characteristics. Birmingham's Symphony Hall, Europe's leading concert hall, is a worthy centre-piece though. And each of the other venues: Adrian Boult Hall in the Conservatoire, the CBSO Centre, the Birmingham Rep and "Barfly" (the club which will be home to the rock groups) will add its own distinctive atmosphere.

And then there's the surroundings - Chamberlain Square, Centenary Square, the revamped canal area - established outdoor relaxation areas for Brummies and visitors, where musicians will play informal outdoor concerts, making new Birmingham friends.

The NFMY has never stood still, and among this year's changes is the introduction of a new, specialist venue for rock bands - "Barfly". Youth music making in this country has had more than its share of demoralising budget cuts and unhelpful curricular initiatives. That it continues to thrive and grow is a tribute to teachers, tutors, parents and the children themselves. For six days in Birmingham there'll be an unparalleled opportunity for young people to show what they can do musically, and for the rest of us to give support by turning up and cheering. Moving the rock groups to their own specialist venue has made it possible to double the number of jazz ensembles at the festival, and two days will be devoted to them at the Adrian Boult Hall.

Among the school jazz groups travelling to the festival for the first time are Primoviations, a combo of six 14 to 18-year-olds from Fortis Green, London; Session, a quintet from Malbank School and Sixth Form College, Nantwich; and a 20-piece band from Bexley Grammar School made up of pupils from across the school's whole age range of 11 to18. Bexley's musical director, Jeremy Laing, says this group has developed from a conventional chart-playing big band into something much more innovative, drawing on the creativity of the young players themselves. Jeremy encouraged improvisation, asking players to go off in pairs and work things out.

"They came back with some really interesting things," Jeremy says. "The sound's fresh and exciting. They played the big band charts well and it's good discipline, but they seem to have got hold of this really well, creating something refreshing."

Fans of the much-missed 21-piece 1980s co-operative band Loose Tubes will recognise the style, says Jeremy. That's a remark that ought to whet the appetite of a wide range of music lovers, especially those who, like me, have listened to lots of tight and polished big bands over the years, enjoying the music but always faintly hoping for something a bit more risky.

Add some old friends to the mix - returners to the Festival such as Northampton School for Boys Big Band and the Jazz Band from Abraham Darby School Telford - and I'd say we're in for a vintage year for youth jazz.

Gerald Haigh has been associated with the National Festival of Music for Youth since its earliest years, as TES correspondent, regional and national adjudicator and twice as director of a participating group


The National Festival of Music for Youth is sponsored by the NUT and The Times Educational Supplement, as well as John Hornby Skewes, and the Music Industries Association.

Funding also comes from the DfES and Youth Music. Radio station Classic FM is also a media partner.

A non-competitive celebration of youth music, the festival takes place July 10-15 in Birmingham. Each participating group receives a certificate and feedback from the adjudicators who, at their discretion, can also award Outstanding and Highly Commended Performance Awards.

After the festival, 30 groups will be invited to take part in the Schools Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, November 13-15.

The NFMY features two conferences: Changing Tunes, a music education forum; and Singposium, a workshop for choral directors and teachers.

Details of admission, conference attendance, the Schools Proms and next year's Festival at:

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