Hard work pays off

Michael Burnett

Michael Burnett looks forward to next month's Schools Proms

Performing in the Albert Hall will be a new experience for us", says 14-year-old James Snowdon. "There'll be different staging and atmosphere. And a different audience."

James is relaxing after playing the part of the minstrel in the musical Jimmy Squarefoot Disappears, recently staged at Nottingham Playhouse by Landau Forte Youth Theatre. But he, and the rest of the cast, are already anticipating the difficulties they'll face when they take the piece to London next month.

For an excerpt from the musical is to feature in Music for Youth's Schools Proms, one of more than 30 performances, spread over three nights, which will showcase some of the best of the country's youthful musical talent.

So what goes into the making of a schools prom appearance? "A lot of very, very hard work for a start", says Squarefoot cast member Joanna Meads. "We had rehearsal every night". The second requirement is success at the National Festival of Music for Youth. "The theme of our piece is prejudice", says Sarah Holme, who played Jimmy's wheelchair-bound girlfriend. "And we didn't think we'd win an award at the festival because it's such a serious theme".

But they did: the outstanding performance award for music theatre. And, to judge by the Nottingham production, the adjudicators were right to single out this talented company. For their performance conveyed Squarefoot's universally significant message with such verve and humour that it didn't feel like preaching at all.

Landau Forte City Technology College opened in Derby 1992 with the aim of catering for secondary pupils of all abilities. Squarefoot was conceived by the college's performing arts co-ordinator, Tony Coffey, and mounted at the Playhouse in support of the Royal School for the Deaf. "The deaf is only one community that society disables," says Coffey. "But our production had a signed commentary and programmes in braille so that all of our audience could have the maximum performing arts experience."

I asked Coffey about entry to the theatre group. "We don't have auditions", he said. "Any pupil can join, although commitment, energy and creativity are needed. And Music for Youth has provided a series of launching pads for the group's success."

Landau Forte Youth Theatre will feature on the third night of the proms. Music for Youth came up again in conversation with Joy Barter who is bringing 80 children from Manor County Infants School, Barking, to participate on the first night. "The organisation has helped us raise the standard of music making in the school, and given our six and seven-year-olds the opportunity of performing in important venues," she said.

How did Manor Infants make the breakthrough? "We went in for Music for Youth's regional auditions and didn't get anywhere. Then we went up to the South Bank Festival and watched what other schools were doing. And then we had another go. In fact, I really believe that if you want to do it, you can. Although having a good team of colleagues and the support of parents is important."

Manor Infants' production is based on the theme of Noah and the ark, and includes a composition by the children which portrays the flood. Isn't it difficult adapting a school production to the needs of a prom? "We're having a problem getting the piece down from 11 minutes to seven, which is the time we're allowed in the programme," Barter says. "And the size of the Albert Hall will shock some of the children. But they'll have plenty of support from the audience. We've got two coach-loads of parents and teachers going to cheer them on."

Ben Gale plays marimba in the Berkshire Youth Percussion and Marimba Ensemble and has just started at the Royal Northern College of Music. "I hope to become a session musician after college," he says, "So that I can play gigs in all kinds of music like orchestral, jazz and Latin American." All these styles feature in the repertoire of the ensemble under its director Andy Leask. But their virtuosic performance of El Cumbanchero, by Rafael Hernandez, seems certain to prove a highlight of the second night of the proms. "It's based on Latin American mambo rhythms," says Leask. "And, to get everyone in the group playing together at such a fast tempo calls for tremendous rhythmic accuracy. "

Landau Forte Youth Theatre, Manor County Infants and Berkshire Youth Percussion are just three of the groups, ensembles, orchestras, choirs and bands involving more than 1,000 performers which will, this year, help to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Schools Proms. These young musicians come from all kinds of backgrounds and schools, and have been motivated by teachers who have given freely of their skills and time. Join the celebrations.

The Schools Proms are at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on November 6, 7 and 8 at 7.30 p.m. Tickets 0171 589 8212. Music for Youth 0181870 9624.

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