Bang on when it comes to talent

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Elaine Williams looks at the exciting range of projects on offer at the Sage Gateshead that are encouraging children from all areas of the community to make music

From the outside, the Sage Gateshead looks like a giant wobbly bubble that's settled precariously along the banks of the Tyne, its fluid transparency reflecting the light and weather of the North East. On the inside, this Pounds 70 million music venue, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is alive with sound-waves from music-making of every conceivable kind. It has three concert halls raised on a ship-like deck, its engine room the 25-suite education centre which aims to nurture the region's young, gifted musicians in a weekend school, as well as developing community projects to raise the music-making game in the North East's poorest and most isolated areas. There is something for everybody in this bubble-wrapped emporium, from country to contemporary jazz bands, from classical to folk and from indie to local heavy-metal boys.

It's the new home of the Northern Sinfonia chamber orchestra and Folkworks, the folk development agency for the north of England, as well as CoMusica, one of the country's first youth music action zones, set up in 2001.

Before the Sage opened last December, CoMusica had been operating in church halls and community centres in remote and ramshackle places all over the North East. That work goes on, giving music-making opportunities to young people who would otherwise get none or, at best, very little. The Sage represents a huge carrot to them as a performance and workshop venue.

Last month, more than 200 gathered in the Sage's Northern Rock Foundation Hall -an imposingly elegant rehearsal space - to work on "Co-Co", a piece composed for the event, which was to be performed in the 1,700-seater Hall One the following night.

It was a virtuoso rehearsal session - a zany, rhythmic weaving together of all aspects of the work of CoMusica's youth ensembles, including singers, rappers, string and brass players, guitarists and drummers of every description. Each group contributed to an energetic and coherent whole conducted by Co-Co's composer and performance artist Dan Fox. Dan directs a community drumming group called Boom Dang, from the Cumbrian Furness peninsula, which was also taking part.

Once he had taken the young musicians through the piece for an hour or so, the groups broke into workshops for further work. Included in this varied array were five and six-year-olds who make up the Ocarina breakfast club in Seaham, X-ile, the eight Bangladeshi rappers from Whitley Bay, and the Steel Quakes, the steel pan players attached to Glendale Middle School in Wooler.

X-ile were treated to tutoring from the Asian Dub Foundation, who were performing at the Sage that evening. The Can-U singers and guitarists attached to Redcar Community College were taken through their paces in Hall Two by their CoMusica project leaders, guitarist Jimmy Smith and vocalist Jane Cuthbert. They practised alongside Pure Drumming, children from Skerne Park Primary School in Darlington with their project leader, percussionist Jim Montagne.

CoMusica is a strictly out-of-school-hours organisation. Its work raises the profile of music-making in communities where opportunities are few. Its affect on schools has been significant.

According to Keith Neasham, director of the creative arts programme at Redcar Community College, which has performing arts status, CoMusica and the building of the Sage has had a profound effect in raising the status of music in school. The response to the Can U initiative has been overwhelming. "This is a tough school in a tough environment (Redcar is one of the most socially-deprived towns in the Britain), but the level of musicianship is going up; it's phenomenal - and it's having spin-offs," he says. "Our students have now performed at the Sage three or four times - the kind of venue they or their families would never have previously visited - and it has given them enormous confidence to tackle other things.

"Last Friday we had an open arts competition and over 120 pupils put themselves forward to perform. Teachers can see that children have skills beyond the curriculum, which they are roping in for cross-curricular projects - musicians supporting class dance pieces, and so on."

In one recent project, music, along with dance, art, English and history had been extended to explore scientific ideas. The school, which has performing arts status in dance and drama, now intends to extend it to music.

In Wooler, a market town in an isolated part of Northumberland, the steel pans project has taken the community by storm, playing at many town events and festivals. The Steel Quakes are attached to Glendale Middle School, and there are now Steel Tremors and Shakes, made up from infant and junior children.

The drummers are taught after school once or twice a week by Wendy Brown, a steel pan drummer from Whitley Bay, who plays for the London band Ebony, as well as Phase 2 in Jamaica. Over time they have become hugely confident about performing.

Liz Breckons, Glendale's music co-ordinator says the steel pan pupils were always keen to demonstrate their latest work in assembly and willing to help other children in music lessons. They had created an expectation that music-making can contribute to many aspects of school life, "not just a lesson you have once a week".

Katherine Zeserson, director of community music at the Sage, is the driving force of the CoMusica programme. A jazz musician and singer, she has had a dynamic effect on community music-making in the North East. She was formerly community and education adviser to Northern Sinfonia and a trainer and animateur with Folkworks. She jointly oversees the Sage's education and community programme, along with Andrew Scott, director of education and formerly head of music at Whitley Bay High School.

Eight strategic programmes include Early Years, Work with Schools, Voice and Instrumental Learning, Community Music, and Further and Higher Education. These are intended to "spearhead a fresh approach to musical discovery".

Schools are offered a range of programmes involving musicians singly or in groups going into schools or leading workshops at the Sage in jazz and improvisation, folk, singing, opera and setting up ceilidh bands. All programmes are targeted at transition Years 6 and 7 and key stages 3 and 4.

From the beginning, Katherine set up traineeships for musicians so they could become professional, "reflective practitioners", skilled at working with young people and schools to develop more democratic ways of music-making. "I see myself as a marriage broker, putting people and places together to help young people to be aspirational and ambitious about themselves. I think we are successful agents of change. The North East is certainly heading in the right direction."

* For more information contact the Learning and Participation Department Tel: 0191 443 4666 Email:

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