The first thing you notice at the entrance to Chetham's school in Manchester is a poster for the summer concert. But you have to look at least twice to realise it is advertising a school event. This is no natty rendition of children's artwork, no hastily photocopied crowd puller. It's a sparse and beautifully produced poster featuring a close-up of the Dutch conductor Jac Van Steen and a tongue-twisting programme that includes a Shostakovich cello concerto and "Stabat Mater" by Poulenc. If this isn't enough to convince you something different is going on here, then the venue - Manchester's 2,400-seat Bridgewater Hall - might. And the ticket prices certainly will: a seat for this annual occasion can set you back pound;13.
It's hardly your average school concert, but then Chetham's symphony orchestra is not your average school ensemble; it features 90 of our most exciting young musicians, the pick of the talent from the largest of the five specialist music schools in the UK. And they have something of a reputation. Ticket sales for the event are distinctly allegro, due partly to the high profile the school has enjoyed following its success in this year's BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.
Not only did 12-year-old violin virtuoso Jennifer Pike become the youngest winner of the title, but she beat two other former Chetham's pupils in the final, and succeeded another "Chets" prodigy - cellist Guy Johnston.
Chetham's is dedicated to musical excellence. To stand beneath the timbered vaults of the 15th-century baronial hall and listen to a young string quartet go through its paces is to be transported to a world far from the bustling life of Manchester's Deansgate just a few yards away. But sometimes the school seems much like any other. At break, a kick-around is taking place in the yard; the goalie is in trouble for letting in a weak shot. "Football in the playground - how normal can you get?" says Chetham's development officer, Adrian Horn. It sounds as well-practised a line as the opening bars of the concert pieces. The school stresses its "normality", but such concepts are relative. Chetham's has no sports teams, for instance. "Partly lack of time," says Mr Horn. "Partly fear of injury."
Today the "normal" demands of GCSEs take centre stage. The sound of pianists and percussionists at practice has been replaced by an exam week hush. But, again, the school's examination results are far from ordinary. Chetham's has 280 pupils aged eight to 18, each of whom has been selected solely on musical talent; there are no academic criteria. On top of that, a third of the timetabled day is dedicated to music. And yet, last year, Chetham's topped the exam league tables for co-educational independent boarding schools.
"Musical talent and intelligence are closely linked," believes Dr Jeremy Pike, head of composition and father of Jennifer. "It's not always obvious - I've taught pupils who have been geniuses at writing and reading music, but who struggled with dyslexia or learning difficulties. But they always have a brightness, a cleverness. The discipline of music helps, too, and the competitive edge."
Ah, yes. The competitive edge. Two hundred and eighty pupils sharing the same school and ambition is surely a recipe for resentment and back-biting. While it's good for the school when someone like Jennifer Pike hits the headlines, it must be hard for some youthful egos. "We've worked hard to tone down the element of competition," says Stephen Threlfall, director of music. "We want students to appreciate each other's talents - and I think mostly they do."
Talent-spotting is part of Mr Threlfall's job; he's in charge of Chetham's selection process. Hopeful students are judged not on their achievements to date or technical competence, but on potential. "We get it right most of the time," says Mr Threlfall, "but not always. You can't necessarily tell how good an eight-year-old will be in five or six years' time. Or if someone arrives at 16 having been badly taught, it's a rush. But we nearly always get there.
"In fact, perhaps, we do too good a job. It can be hard for our students to maintain the same pace of progress after they leave. There's always a danger they'll go off the boil slightly."
The responsibility for keeping things bubbling usually falls to one of the UK's four main music colleges. Chetham's headteacher, Claire Moreland, says about 85 per cent of her sixth-form leavers go on to these "conservatoires", with the Royal Northern College of Music the most popular choice. Ms Moreland is less sure how many of her pupils forge a successful career in music, but confidently asserts that it is "an ever-growing majority".
Of course, they don't all become famous soloists, and even making a living as an ensemble player can be a struggle. But the priority at Chetham's is to create a range of opportunities for students. Stephen Threlfall points out that careers with the nation's big orchestras are increasingly "shaky", so students are made aware of other ways of making money from their talents - session playing with pop groups, education work in schools, recording for film or television. Some pupils develop an interest in composing and conducting; some settle for accountancy or law.
The school itself has diversified in recent years, admitting a growing number of jazz-based musicians, and even a couple of accordion players. "We're open to anyone who has the talent," says Adrian Horn. "Though we draw the line at rock and pop."
The fact that Chetham's - an independent school with annual fees in excess of pound;20,000 - can genuinely claim to be "open to anyone" is thanks to the Department for Education and Skills' Music and Dance scheme. Chetham's is one of eight schools (all in England) that participate in the scheme, under which families with an annual income below pound;9,800 pay nothing, and only those earning in excess of pound;119,000 pay the full amount.
According to the school bursar, Cyril Barratt, the scheme ensures a good mix of pupils. "About 80 per cent of students come here from state schools, not from other independents," he says. "Only a third of our parents earn significantly more than the national average." Before the scheme was introduced, back in the mid-Eighties, the social profile at Chetham's was very different, with those from less wealthy families dependent on bursaries or grants from their local authorities.
Now that the DfES foots most of the bill, it also insists on approving the budget so, unlike most independent schools, Chetham's cannot set its own fees. Twenty thousand pounds a year may sound a lot, but excellence doesn't come cheap. Every pupil receives at least two hours of one-to-one tuition each week. The school has more than 80 full-time staff, but if all the instrument tutors are included, it has more teachers on its books than pupils.
"We struggle to make ends meet," says Mr Barratt. "We've only been a specialist music school since 1969, so there are few historic endowments. And fund-raising can be difficult when most of your alumni are musicians. They tend not to be rich."
But benefactors can come from an unlikely source - the school organ, for example, was funded by the local brewery, Boddingtons. And the school has more assets than most when it comes to plugging financial shortfalls. The collection of Grade I listed buildings, originally established as an orphanage, is a popular film set and conference venue.
The school hall suffered structural damage when the IRA bombed Manchester in 1996, but things could have been a lot worse. "The windows and roof came in," says Mr Barratt. "A meeting of about 150 new pupils and parents had just dispersed when the bomb went off. We shudder to think of the injury toll if the explosion had been 10 minutes earlier."
Aside from its historic setting, the school's other asset is of course its young musicians. They are available to play at dinners and business functions - at a price. Getting performance experience, even of the corporate kind, is crucial to the development of budding musicians. The tight finances make organising the kind of tours that many independent schools take for granted difficult. But there are plenty of opportunities closer to home.
A young flautist practising alone in one of the rehearsal rooms is preparing to give a recital for other members of the school. If you've wondered how Jennifer Pike had the ice-cold nerve to perform in front of a live television audience of more than four million, here is the answer - the Chetham's lunchtime concert. It's a daily ritual that gives every pupil the chance to perform solo in front of the most demanding audience of all. "Playing at home is always hardest," says Mr Threlfall. "If you can play in front of your friends, you can play anywhere."
And, of course, practice makes perfect. The Chetham's CD playing in the school office sounds - to my highly untrained ear - indistinguishable from a professional recording. "Don't worry," says Mr Threlfall. "People who know a bit about music sometimes make the same mistake."
Mr Threlfall has persuaded a long line of professionals from the arts world to visit Chetham's to run master classes or participate in projects. They include his own brother, the actor David Threlfall, who a couple of years ago took the role of narrator in a Chetham's performance of William Walton's Henry V. "Well worth hearing," he says.
Now in his seventh year with Chetham's, Mr Threlfall made his name first as principal cellist with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, then as a conductor. He seems not to mind that his teaching career limits the number of professional engagements he can take on. And why should he? He has highly motivated pupils, some of Europe's most respected instrumental tutors at his side, and a working environment in which music always comes first. It sounds the perfect job.
"Possibly," he smiles. "When I took this post, a friend said to me, 'You do realise you'll have to teach people who are more talented than you?' And he's right, of course."
The other schools participating in the DfES Music and Dance scheme are: Arts educational school, Hertfordshire; Elmhurst, Surrey; Hammond school, Cheshire; Purcell school, Hertfordshire; Royal Ballet school, London; Wells cathedral school, Somerset; Yehudi Menuhin school, Surrey. For further information about the scheme go to www.dfes.gov.ukmdspart.shtml
First held in 1978, the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition takes place every two years and is open to anyone under the age of 19 - providing they hold a Grade 8 certificate in their chosen instrument.
This time last year, Jennifer Pike (above) was one of 600 hopefuls taking part in the local heats. She needed 10 months and another three rounds of competition to make it to the final at London's Barbican in May, where her performance of the notoriously difficult Mendelssohn violin concerto made her the youngest-ever champion.
"It was an incredible night," says Jennifer. "I forgot about the TV cameras and the judges, and just tried to enjoy it."
The violin she used that night - a Stradivarius valued at pound;2 million - was loaned to her by the Royal Academy of Music. "I only got it three weeks before. It took a lot of practice to get used to it, but once I did it was like a new best friend."
Jennifer started playing the violin at the age of five and has been at Chetham's since 1998. "Everyone was so supportive after I won," she says. "Being at a specialist music school means you never feel like an outsider."
She also believes the high academic standards at Chetham's have helped her musical development. "The creativity you learn in art and English - that all feeds into your playing."
On the other hand, she admits to being unsure how long she will stay at Chetham's. Her father, Jeremy Pike, insists that winning the BBC competition is "a step" in his daughter's development - and Jennifer admits that she "likes to set goals". In particular, she hopes to study abroad at some point. "I got a travel grant as part of my Young Musicians prize, though I've not decided what to do with it yet." But she already has her own website and agent - and there are plans for a CD.
"There's no rush, but I don't believe in just seeing what happens; you have to make things happen to be successful."
Adam Walker Fourteen-year-old flautist Adam Walker is the perfect example of Chetham's policy of choosing raw talent ahead of well-practised competence. When he auditioned, he'd been playing the flute for about four months. "A friend of my mum found a flute under the bed. I took to it straight away." His primary school teacher took one listen and suggested a professional tutor, who suggested Chetham's.
Five years later, Adam has just become the youngest winner of the British Flute Society Performance Plus Competition. "It was great - but the plan now is to give competitions a rest and just work on my technique for a year or two."
He says the environment at Chetham's is "quite pressured" but stimulating. "Music is a big part of my life, but it isn't my whole life. I always remind myself that if I ever stop enjoying it, I can walk away."
Guy Johnston Now 21, former Chetham's star Guy Johnston is an example of how winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year can launch a successful career. His victory in 2000 was certainly dramatic - he had to stop, then restart his performance of Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No 1" after one of his strings snapped. Since then, Guy has had his own recital tour, played at many international festivals, opened the Proms, and played with the BBC Symphony and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras.
On top of that, he's currently in the second year of a four-year course at the Eastman School of Music, New York State in the US. All of which gives Jennifer Pike some idea of what to expect.