As any international artist knows, concert schedules are often tight, giving little time from stage to plane. It was no different one evening last November at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. No sooner had the conductor brought the final rousing chorus to an end, and a packed house was on its feet, cheering and applauding, than half of the artists were rushed out of the hall to catch their flight home. There were tears, hugs, and autographs but the performers had to be hurried on to the waiting bus as the ecstatic audience waved them off.
What made this event exceptional was that these musicians were primary school children from the London borough of Lambeth and Dublin, who had met for the first time two days earlier. For the Londoners it was the second leg of a tour that had already taken in the Royal Festival Hall the previous week.
The performance in the Irish capital was the culmination of the first stage of a year-long music, ICT and citizenship project linking four schools in London and Dublin - St Stephen's C of E primary school in Vauxhall is partnered with Scoil Chaitriona, and St Andrew's C of E primary in Stockwell is partnered with City Quay school.
The project is part of the East West Schools Programme, set up after the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Funded by the British Council and its Irish equivalent, Leargas Exchange Bureau, it promotes links between schools in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. But the collaboration goes beyond the schools; it has developed partnerships between the education arms of the National Concert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, as well as between Lambeth education action zone and its Irish counterpart, the Dublin primary school initiative.
Professional development for musicians and teachers was incorporated from the start. Education programmes are more established in UK orchestras, so the National Concert Hall was keen to give its players experience of working with primary age musicians.
At the same time, teachers in the four schools learned about producing group compositions. Using the music of Bartok as a starting point (his work was performed at the RFH and NCH last autumn) the children worked on percussion pieces and made raps.
The task of bringing these strands together fell to composer Tim Steiner. A musician with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Tim had experience of working with schools and musicians. As 11-year-old Steven says: "Tim is like a miracle worker. He worked with four schools at once (70 pupils) and in less than two hours he put together a performance lasting 45 minutes. We had a chance to perform with people we'd only met the day before."
But the children had been sending emails, letters and videos to each other over the previous weeks. "Dear Ada, are you coming over to Dublin? Send me an email. I want you to send me over a picture of yourself. Did you like my picture? That was taken in my bedroom. I have two birds, and my fish died last week. My teacher's name is Ms Kirwan. From Natasha."
"Dear Marietta, how are you today? My name is Joy and I'm 11. I am in a primary school called City Quay. When we are out in the yard we play skipping and chasing. I have four brothers and one sister, my ma's name is Veronica and my dad is Tony. Dublin is a lovely place. Can you send me a photo of yourself?"
"Dear Nigel, I got your email. You follow Man Utd. I'm happy with that! That pool that you saw me in, it was mine! My ma won the lotto! Ah no! I was on holidays. That's it! See ya! From Paul B."
Corresponding is a crucial part of the exchange. Every new packet of letters and photos or emails and attachments is eagerly awaited in each school. The children were paired up to encourage friendships, and the Lambeth children travelling to Dublin looked forward to meeting their pen pals.
"From the letters she sent me I tried to get a picture in my head of what she looked like," says 10-year-old Shekila about her pen pal. "But she looked, in a nice way, very different to what I'd expected. I expected her to like the things I like but to be a very different person to me. Her personality was very friendly; she was very kind. She's a really nice pen pal to have."
The first meeting between each partner school was a daunting but exciting encounter. Richard, 10, had been anxious on arriving at City Quay school. "When I first went into the school I felt really shy so I covered my name badge up, but then I thought, just forget it, I'll move my hand and meet my pen pal. He came up and we started talking. He was called Richard, too. He asked how I felt about coming to Dublin and about my family and we started to become closer. Then he took me to look around the school and I made friends with more Irish children."
Over the three days in Dublin, the pupils spent time in their partner classes getting to know each other and finding out about differences and similarities in their schools. They listened to traditional Irish storytelling, watched Irish dancing performed by the Dublin pupils, visited the Irish Museum of Modern Art and rehearsed together. It was an intensive experience for pupils and teachers, taking in dormitory living, air travel and meals out, all as important as the music and the new friends.
Eleven-year-old Troy sums up what he gained from the trip. "I got new friends in another country and I've got a lot of confidence as I've performed in front of a lot of people now, so I've built my courage up to the maximum."
Marlowe, 10, says: "Working with the Irish children was great because they worked well with us, and Tim's work helped us get on together. We got more friends from playing music together."
The Dublin pupils are due to visit London in May. But Richard wants them "right here, right now". He may be able to see his Dublin friends sooner than he expected, as the next stage of the project is to set up web conferencing facilities in the partner schools. It won't be the same as standing next to each other singing and dancing, but it will be another way for these groups of young people from opposite sides of the Irish Sea to stay in touch, "exchange notes" and learn new skills.
Sarah Horrocks is co-ordinator of Lambeth education action zone's international projects. Julia Lawrence is performing arts education officer at the Royal Festival Hall
The East West Schools Programme is managed by the British Council's education and training group in the United Kingdom and the Leargas Exchange Bureau in Ireland. It aims to increase understanding between young people in Ireland and Britain, and to create links between schools and educators in both countries. Thirty-four schools are currently participating.
The programme can support projects for one academic year up to a maximum of pound;2,000 for each participating school.
Contact with schools in Ireland can be established through the British Council site, Windows on the World: www.wotw.org.uk For further information about the East West Schools Programme, contact the British Council's education and training group.Tel: 020 7389 4750; email: dilbahar. tawakkul@ britishcouncil.org