Christine Zaba

From flamenco and ballet to hip-hop and jazz, a Manchester project is allowing children to discover the power of their own creativity. Christine Zaba reports.

The Year 6 group at Oswald Road primary school is excited. "We're doing flamenco dancing," volunteers Kate. "It's all about pose and posture," says Josh. "When Helen from the orchestra came in, we learned about rhythm, beats and pulse, and we had a go at reading some music," adds Nathan.

Helen Peller is a bassoonist from Manchester's Halle Orchestra, and she's been visiting Oswald Road as part of a Greater Manchester music action zone project based on Manuel De Falla's ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. One hundred and sixty children from five primary schools will spend this term composing and rehearsing a new piece of music based on the Spanish composer's original. With the help of dance and music professionals, who guide the composition and rehearsal process by leading school workshops for children and Inset days for teachers, the children will perform the piece in Manchester's new state-of-the-art concert venue, the Bridgewater Hall, on March 7. Many of them will never have been there before.

There will be 20 music action zones (not to be confused with the Government's soon-to-be-abolished education action zones) throughout England by April 2002, reaching more than a million children and young people who would otherwise have little or no opportunity to make music. The National Youth Music Foundation is funded by the Arts Council of England national lottery fund, to the tune of pound;30 million in 1999 and a further pound;30 million last year. This money funds, among other projects, the youth music action zones. NYMF plans to establish two action zones in Wales and to investigate the need for similar projects in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

"A music action zone is a complex fabric of activity, ideally run by several organisations that wouldn't normally be working together," says David Sulkin, head of policy at the National Youth Music Foundation. "Though our work is education-sensitive, it's mostly about providing opportunities, expertise and signposting outside school, unlocking individual choices for music that young people want to explore themselves."

It sounds too good to be true, but Manchester is putting it into practice. At Ladybarn primary school, where 57 per cent of children are on free school meals, Year 5 and 6 children are serious and excited about the prospect of performing at a real concert hall. "It'll be good," says Orren, who's recently begun to play the violin with a peripatetic teacher. "Scary," mutters Lauren. The children are thoughtful and knowledgeable. "We're doing the minuet," says Louise. "It's the only part of the whole thing that isn't Spanish. There are three beats to a bar, and with our feet we have to do one-two-three, one-two-three."

"And there might be some new rhythms that we make up," adds Joseph, as they divide into working groups, four to a xylophone, to go over the triads they've been devising.

"This isn't just about music skills," says deputy head Fiona Maguire. "Many of our children have low self-esteem, and a project like this can make a permanent difference. By working towards a polished performance, alongside orchestral musicians, the children gain a real sense of ownership, and their success carries over into other areas of their school life. It's amazing to see it happen."

The project also feeds into staff development. At the Zion Centre in deprived but regenerated Hulme, the dance studio this morning is running an in-depth flamenco session for beginners. Beginner teachers, that is, barefoot and giggling. "This is a really strong dance," announces the specialist, Claire Huish, "and it sounds lovely on the feet. You also need to go 'Hey!' - that Spanish guttural sound. Let's try that now."

"The Halle project works in partnership with teachers," says Fiona Maguire. "The step-by-step pack they've produced to lead us through the process with the children is helpful, and so are the Inset days. At Ladybarn we're going to develop it into a school performance for the end of the summer term, too, and tie it in with our literacy and arts curriculum."

But it doesn't stop there. Diane Morgan, associate producer of Contact Theatre at the University of Manchester, is working to spread the GMMAZ funding over many concerns and partnerships, from dominant culture to street. She sees no conflict between them. "We're a theatre and performance space, and we have a rolling programme of short and long workshops and music schemes designed to reach the 13 to 18 age group, encouraging them to take their own creativity seriously," she explains. "We all want to work together to make arts into a tool to empower young people."

First you have to persuade them to join in, though. "We use youth groups, venues, outreach workers, and the Street Team, which has a van and a driver and takes young people out on to the streets to play music."

There's plenty on offer. From hip-hop to jazz, from young women's DJ-ing to digital media and graffiti art, the Contact agenda is inclusive, exciting - and free. "GMMAZ has allowed us to put into place some key work which we hope will outlive the funding, to engage with and educate other youth agencies, and to forge partnerships with regeneration teams," says Ms Morgan. "We've been able to initiate research - for example, we're looking at ways of supporting British Asian music, and using music in programmes for young offenders.

"Our GMMAZ projects for this year include performing at the upcoming Commonwealth Games, creating musical theatre, and training young animateurs. Music's one of those things that kids all relate to - it's real in their lives like almost nothing else. If you can start from there, the sky's the limit really."

The National Youth Music Foundation: 020 7902 1060

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