Every young musician's a winner

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Michael Burnett looks at preparations for next week's National Festival of Music for Youth

It's freaky music," says 16-year-old Natalie Collins. "The time signatures keep changing and the rhythms are really complex." Natalie is a member of Reeces Peeces, a marimba ensemble from Bishop Vaughan Comprehensive School in Swansea. And she's talking about "Toccata for 5", a composition by ex-pupil Damian Rees that they are to play at next week's National Festival of Music for Youth.

Being held at London's South Bank Centre, this, the 27th festival, will feature 7,500 young musicians, singers and dancers who have been selected from 50,000 entrants to regional festivals held throughout the country.

Reeces Peeces took part in the Swansea regional festival last March, and gave a skilful performance of "Toccata for 5". But they were uncertain about their national festival prospects. "We played in it last year," says Rhea Torry. "But now we know from experience how difficult it is to get through to the national event." Reeces Peeces needn't have worried, though. They got through and their "freaky music" will surely delight their South Bank audience.

Some five to 11-year-olds from Oakleigh House School also participated in the Swansea festival. The children had composed a theatre piece, Sea Story, which they performed with effective vocal tone and dynamic control. Flautist Alexandra Sorensen played a tune she had invented. "The tune is a lament for the sea because it's dying due to an oil slick," she says. They, too, will be performing at the national festival.

But what of those ensembles that don't go on to play in London? The Groves High School, Wrexham, entered its Jazz Band and Blues Band in the Rochdale festival. Although the Blues Band got selected, the Jazz Band did not. David Wootton, who teaches music at The Groves, says: "It's disappointing when youngsters who have put in so much time and effort don't get through. The regional festivals are great fun. But there's that negative side to them."

The disappointment of the members of the Jazz Band is obvious, but there is more to music in this school than its national festival successes. Richard Trow, who plays in the Junior Blues Band, says: "It's great doing music here because you see the success of the older students and you want to be like them."

The school also boasts a 12-strong cerdd dant ensemble (a traditional Welsh choral and harp group), which has, like the Junior Blues Band, achieved success at local eisteddfods. So, for The Groves, the success of the Blues Band is merely one aspect of the busy musical life of this urban comprehensive school.

The band is rehearsing three numbers by lead vocalist Matthew Nichols for the festival, at which they have won an award in each of the past three years. How do they explain their achievement? "It's because we've never taken success for granted," says Matthew. "We're always re-evaluating what we do."

Music for Youth has some satisfied customers there, and many teachers speak highly of the agency's work. But what about the negative effects of the competitive festival process? Larry Westland, Music for Youth's executive director, says: "Our aim is to promote the non-competitive and celebratory aspects of youth music. And we have a range of criteria for selection other than excellence in performance. The problem is that, between 1992 and 1996, the number of groups entering the regionals doubled. Yet lack of money prevented a corresponding increase in the number of participating groups at national level."

To rectify this situation Music for Youth will be mounting three national festivals next summer - at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and the Royal Festival Hall in London. "We'll be able to accommodate all 600 groups which deserve to perform, almost tripling the number of individual participants," says Larry Westland. "But we can't afford to continue the regional festivals, so ensembles will be selected by tape-recordings. I admit this is a major step backwards but there's nothing else we can do. "

The loss of the regional events will be a blow to many participants, since many of them benefit greatly from the performance opportunities they offer.

Larry Westland is characteristically upbeat, however. "We may well resume the regionals in the future," he says. "But at least next year 20,000 young people will be able to perform at three of the finest concert halls in the world. "

National Festival of Music for Youth: South Bank Centre, London, July 7-12, 10am. Day tickets (Pounds 5 Pounds 3): 0171 960 4242. Music for Youth is sponsored by British Aerospace, Commercial Union, Glaxo Wellcome, PJB Publications and W H Smith, in association with The TES

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