All in the mix

1st November 2002 at 00:00
From brass bands to carnival, this year's Schools Prom is as eclectic as ever. Nicholas Pyke reports.

Wardle high school is what you might call a big noise in the world of brass and silver; a big, warm and very well-modulated noise. Wardle is the Grimethorpe or Black Dyke of the school band circuit, a regular winner in the brass competitions that still flourish in Pennine Lancashire and Yorkshire. Its stock rooms and trophy cupboards are stuffed with cups, shields, cornets and tenor horns.

So next Tuesday, at London's Royal Albert Hall, when 14-year-old Ruth Walczac stands up to play the solo cornet in "Georgia on my Mind", on the second night of the 28th Music for Youth Schools Prom, the Wardle high school Year 9 band will be representing much more than its year group or even school. The band's fluent rendition of Hoagie Carmichael's wistful standard is the sound of more than two decades of musical endeavour at Wardle, which has put the collective love of playing and performing at the heart of school life. Between one in five and one in four pupils are in the school's bands at any one time, using 500 of the school's prodigious if battered stock of instruments. (It hopes a bid for arts college status will help smarten them up.) The school is a low-rise, brick-built comprehensive to the north of Rochdale, perched on the hills above Manchester. And it runs, almost literally, on valve-oil, available in pound;1.50 bottles alongside the crisps and cola in the snack machines. Where most schools congratulate themselves on scraping together one band, Wardle runs eight, including one for each of the five year groups, 7 to 11. Every lunchtime and most evenings, the school resonates with the sounds of rehearsal - scales, arpeggios, the clatter of music stands and strange brassy burps - particularly on Mondays and Fridays, when everyone stays late. Come the weekend, the students haul their instrument cases into cars and coaches to do battle with rival youth and county players across the region.

Wardle has become a magnet for brass-playing teachers, including top-rate musicians from championship bands such as Black Dyke across the hills in Halifax, or Ashton-under-Lyne. Even non-music staff get in on the act, helping organise rehearsals and concerts.

Other genres are not completely excluded from the school. Wardle has a thriving string orchestra, a choir and a wind band. But brass is king, and time constraints prevent the school from supporting an orchestra. So, instead of the classical trumpet and French horn, Wardle pupils stick to the more specialised cornet and tenor horn, the flugelhorn and E-flat bass.

It is easy to see why they are so well regarded. Even on a wet Monday evening, the Year 9 band combines warmth, balance and phrasing with attack, particularly from the cornet line. It opens its Prom performance next Tuesday, Bonfire Night, with "Le Rejouissance" from Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks", followed by "Georgia on my Mind" and a slower number "Oh, How I Love Jesus" by Canadian James Curnow, before rounding off with Shelton Brooks's "The Darktown Strutters' Ball".

Sitting on a wooden table by the side of the rehearsal is the shield the band collected from the Huddersfield and District Brass Band Association competition just last weekend. Only third place on that occasion, but an achievement all the same because they were beaten by two county bands, not schools, which included 15 and 16-year-olds. Between 40 and 50 of Wardle's players had never blown a note until they arrived at the school two years ago.

The competition structure of brass playing makes the young musicians well used to the discipline of performing in public. But, battle-hardened or not, the band knows this year's Prom, Wardle's fourth, will be special, says John Peacock, Year 9 conductor and assistant director of music at the school. "The Prom has given a focus to the whole year. In fact I'm at odds over what to do afterwards with them." Christmas music will come next, of course, a highlight of the brass and silver band year. Then, in the new year, he will teach them how to march and take instructions from the mace and the drum. But, for the moment, all they can see is the domed roof of the Albert Hall.

Why brass and not, say, woodwind or strings? The great advantage of an instrument such as the cornet is that children can start playing almost immediately, says John Peacock. "It's relatively easy to produce a sound quickly. The kids want to be able to learn tunes, and they can do that in a matter of weeks."

The Wardle tradition started in the late Seventies, when, with the current buildings yet to be completed, the school wanted to give the children a positive distraction from their temporary accommodation, and invested in instruments. Twenty-five years later, brass playing has gone way beyond the classroom. A lottery grant helped support the joint school-community Anderson competition band, for example, and helped it set up a separate community band for adult beginners, including many of the parents. Now Wardle is taking the gospel of brass to even younger pupils, sending its peripatetic teachers out to the feeder primaries to get them started early.

But in these post-mining days it is the girls who are making all the running in the traditionally male-dominated world of brass bands. In the 1996 film Brassed Off, Gloria (played by Tara Fitzgerald) is a lone woman instrumentalist who has to overcome a tide of bigotry before helping the men to victory at the national brass band championships at the Albert Hall. But real life has kicked in at Wardle, where the girl instrumentalists outnumber the boys by two to one. While the school makes big efforts to involve the boys, John Peacock says the going is hard; music, even the type of music made famous by hard men in the collieries and great engineering firms of the north, is now considered "girly".

The commitment to music on show at Wardle is also evident several hundred miles south in London, although the school and its setting are very different. Wardle has 1,400 pupils, almost all white. St Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in the London borough of Lambeth has 300 children from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. They perform on Wednesday in the Albert Hall with an improvised musical drama on the theme of carnival, using dance, pop and numbers from Bob Marley and S Club 7. It is a noisy, colourful festival of movement and song, featuring a mixture of Caribbean and Latin styles and involving 100 of the school's seven to 11-year-olds, the girls in particular.

An oasis of order amid the gridlocked traffic of south London, the school has no fewer than seven peripatetic music teachers, with two in three families paying for lessons (subsidised by the school and Lambeth local authority). The audience will see clarinets, drums, recorders, pianists and even a euphonium. According to Julie McCann, music co-ordinator and director of the St Mary's Proms show, many of the children take three half-hour sessions a week out of the main curriculum to do their music. The effect, if anything, is to sharpen academic performance, she says.

The routine has been written and devised by the children themselves in the playground, piece by piece, leaving Ms McCann baffled if delighted by some aspects. "None of it's written down. I didn't know any of the moves for the songs. If they wanted to be in it they had to work it out in the playground then come and show me what they could do," she says. It is no surprise to hear that, like Wardle, St Mary's has taken part in previous years.

Wells Cathedral school has never featured in the Schools Prom before, even though daily life there is based on a singing schedule of five morning and two afternoon rehearsals a week, daily evensong and a Sunday service. Anglican choral music is as English as brass bands, and traditionally as male. But the school will be represented on this occasion by girls. Six of last year's leavers will return on Wednesday for a final meeting of the Fairer Six, a versatile vocal group offering a mixture of the sacred and secular - "Tota Pulchra es Maria" and "Sancta Maria" by Norwegian composer Knut Systed and the rather less religious "Mr Wonderful" from the Broadway show of the same name.

The six were among the first girl choristers to be accepted by the Cathedral choir in 1995, and have already made their mark.

The standard of entries for the Prom is as high as ever, according to Larry Westland, director of Music for Youth, despite complaints about the shortage of music teachers and the lack of time in the national curriculum. "Interest in youth music has never been higher and the number of people coming to the Schools Prom this year has set a new record," he says.

For more information on Music for Youth go to www.mfy.org.uk

Prom highlights

Monday November 4

* Northampton County Youth Concert Band with Martin Ellerby's "Evocations" movements 1, 3 amp; 4

* Little Voices from Shakespeare primary school, Fleetwood in Lancashire is the youngest group at the Proms. Thirty pupils aged between six and eight take the audience on a musical trip to the circus

* Portchester community school in Hampshire is represented by the Sounds of Steel band, winner of the On the Road competition at the Notting Hill Carnival for the past two years

* Lady Eleanor Holles school from Hampton, Middlesex, will play Beethoven's Symphony No 1 in C Major

* The John Fisher school in Purley, Croydon, provides a boys' choir while a giant 550-strong primary choir from Bromley will do "The Singing Game" by Barry Hart

* The Soundwaves from Lytton House, Putney high school, perform a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof, "Pinafore Pirates" by Malcolm Sircom

* The closing honours go to the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra with Gershwin's "Cuban Overture".

Tuesday November 5

* Whitchurch high school Wind Band from Cardiff is the opener, with a medley from Miss Saigon by Schonberg and Boublil

* Abraham Darby school in Telford had four groups at the MFY festival in July, but it is the jazz band that represents them at the Prom

* The choir from St Margaret's school, Exeter, performs compositions by Brendan Ashe, the school's composer in residence

* The chamber orchestra from Alleyn's school in Dulwich, south London, plays "Divertimento for Strong Orchestra" Op 45 by Anthony Hedges

* The massed Aylesbury choir will perform a piece by Sarah Watts, accompanied by the Aylesbury Music Centre Dance Band, with dance students from Aylesbury high school

* After singing in the Prom, the Maltman's Singers from Maltman's Green school, Gerrards Cross, are due to perform in the Sainsbury's Choir of the Year Competition

* The evening will be closed by the Birmingham Schools Concert Orchestra playing the "Symphonic Suite" from Harry Potter by John Williams and "Lord of the Dance" by Ronan Hardiman.

Wednesday November 6

* The last night will be opened by the Greater Gwent Brass Band; There are two more groups from Wales, Ysgol Glanaethwy senior choir and Isca Linea Caravan Ensemble, which plays gypsy string music

* The Fair Oak Junior Concert Band and Choir from Hampshire entered two groups for the National Festival, both for the first time this year. The Concert Band received an outstanding award and choir a highly commended award

* St Margaret's school, Exeter, will make a second appearance with its four-strong Saxophony group

* The Dorset choir is performing four movements from Karl Jenkins's "Adiemus, Earth, Air, Fire and Water". The composer will be in the Royal Box.

* Jordan Junior Strings from Buckinghamshire have put together a tribute to the Queen's Jubilee.

* Pop gets a look-in with High Style from Bedford high school

* Confusion, a jazz group from Abbot Beyne school, Burton on Trent, will play one of its own compositions and Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia".

* Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra will close the evening with Barber's "Adagio for Strings".

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