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Fun of learning a merry dance

The Celtic Connections festival, starting January 25, unites entertainment and education, Kenny Mathieson reports

The Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow has established itself as one of a handful of major Celtic and folk music events in the world. This year is the 10th anniversary and as part of the celebration the education programme, run by Nancy Nicolson, will feature 10 free concerts at the Royal Concert Hall for Glasgow schoolchildren.

The schools concerts have proved very successful. Tickets are provided on application and the uptake has risen steadily since the project was launched in 1998. Evaluation forms returned by schools last year were overwhelmingly positive and approved both the entertainment and educational aspects of the concerts.

Each concert is tailored to a specific age range, from nursery to upper secondary, and many include participation by the children. This year the concerts feature artists such as Fiddlers Bid from Shetland, Myllarit from Russia, Calisaig, Malinky and Croft No 5 from Scotland and a programme devoted to Robert Burns with singer Gill Bowman.

The centrepiece of the programme is a school performance of a new commission, Brian McNeill's "Baltic Tae Byzantium". McNeill is an acclaimed singer, fiddler, composer, songwriter and novelist, as well as director of the traditional music programme at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The new work is a follow-up to his much praised "Back o' the North Wind".

The concerts are supported by a series of workshops during the festival, but the education programme also includes year-round projects in schools, in which musicians work in six-week blocks in a range of subjects.

Ms Nicolson is something of a zealot when it comes to taking traditional song into the classroom and gives short shrift to the idea that all she and her tutors are teaching is music.

"People talk of it in terms of teaching music to children but it's much more than that," she insists. "It's about giving them a broad and rich taste of the nature of life and communication in a way that songs are uniquely able to do.

"The social and sociable context in which it occurs is more important than the specific subject. For me, song is the most important thing we teach because it contains language, knowledge, information and lessons and little tales the children can pick up.

"It irritates me when people say they will learn history from the songs. Of course they will, but there is much more to be had from them than simple factual history.

"We cover many important aspects of the curriculum which are quite hard to deliver in other ways, like teaching Scots language in context," she continues. "The children learn about listening and talking, which is central in the 5-14 curriculum, and they learn about things like taking a role and putting themselves into somebody else's shoes, and about making moral judgments.

"We are really supplying a concentrated literature course for people who maybe have trouble reading.

"Our work is all curriculum-related but it is also about the children enjoying themselves. There is far too little joy in the classroom now. That's not the fault of teachers but it is the reality and we can address it in a constructive way."

The education project is funded by the Scottish Arts Council's National Lottery fund and has strong support from the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Social inclusion is central to Ms Nicholson's remit, both in involving schools in areas where resources are scarce and in bringing together groups of children from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

She was a primary school teacher for 23 years as well as a singer and loves the classroom work. She has assembled a team of tutors who are prepared to take on the challenges wholeheartedly. Their subjects include song, song-writing, step dance and a combined arts package which involves instrumental tuition in whistle, fiddle or bodhran in tandem with song and visual arts.

"I always tell the tutors that a big part of their job is to communicate with the kids, just on the level of speaking to them, as if we were visitors to their house. A lot of teachers are more prepared to take on singing or dancing with the class after we have gone.

"We will be working with some special schools using the combined music and visual arts approach in the spring term. I emphasise to teachers we are covering creativity and problem solving and communication, as well as music.

"Our most successful projects are in primary schools, because they have the flexibility within their day to entertain wandering minstrels coming in, for instance. Secondary schools would love to do more, but their stricter timetabling makes it more difficult."

Celtic Connections, from January 25-February 2. For information on the education programme, contact Nancy Nicolson, tel 0141 353 8021

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