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Singing helps to give peace a new chance

Young people in Northern Ireland see the Millennium as an opportunity for much-improved relations between the province's Catholics and Protestants. And what better way for schools to help them work towards this than through music?

Heather Ferguson, music teacher at Priory College, Holywood, one of Northern Ireland's integrated schools (which are attended by under 10 per cent of the population), was seeking a way to further the school's cross-community work. As its first full- time music teacher, she also wanted to celebrate the first year of GCSE music at Priory College.

Consultation with colleagues at other schools determined that "Voices of Promise" would be the ideal focus, a national young people's song-writing project, sponsored by Marks amp; Spencer, to produce the Children's Promise Song for the Millennium.

Five schools joinedwith Heather Ferguson's in the project: Priory College and Lagan College, Belfast (both integrated); St Columbanus' College, Bangor, and St Columba's College, Portaferry (both Roman Catholic); and Newtownbreda High School, Belfast (Protestant). One or two GCSE pupils from each school joined one of five groups, to create five songs.

An initial "ice-breaker" day - without uniform, so that no one would be tagged by school or religion - helped pupils get to know each other. "The teachers made idiots of themselves, and, not needing much encouragement, the children followed suit!" says Heather Ferguson.

Pupils then came together for two intensive days of music, bringing with them ideas and lyrics. Each group was given a keyboard, a few brought guitars. Many had never attempted song-writing before, and Brian Irvine, a songwriter from Portaferry, got them started.

Heather Ferguson was worried that some pupils might not feel able to stand up for their own ideas in an unfamiliar group, but these fears proved groundless: confidence in playing instruments helped them to overcome any initial awkwardness. They were also remarkably close to one another in the ideas and themes they wanted their songs to explore.

Some felt a little in awe of the Millennium: In the Year 2000 (It'll be all right) is the title of one rap song. Others expressed hopes for a more harmonious future, as in Dreaming dreams of peace, 2,000 years of dreams, or a song that starts "Change your mind Give us peace Change your mind Let our troubles cease. Look to our future and not to our past, Create a joy that will forever last."

Several of the songs were performed before Lord Falconer, Minister with responsibility for the Dome, who was looking at cross-community work on a visit to Northern Ireland. "Not all these pupils are brilliant singers, but even the lads were giving 100 per cent," says Jacqui Kerrigan, music teacher at Newtownbreda high school.

Three of the five songs have since been selected to go forward to the regional phase of the project. Meanwhile, the pupils have stayed in contact with their new friends, and there are plans for the songs to be performed at each school, as well as for a follow-up next year.

"This project has been a labour of love, with lots of teamwork and sharing ideas, and the chance for people to get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere," says Jacqui Kerrigan. "Music is a great stimulus for this kind of thing - it really helps to bring pupils out of their shells."

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