Folk music for all comers

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh meets a teacher who has found the secret of successful community music-making

So many schools come to life in a different way at weekends - everything from car-boot sales to football, wedding receptions to tea dances. The happenings at Banks Lane Junior in Stockport, though, are surely something special - for this school is the home of Fosbrook Folk Education Trust.

Run by Liza Austin-Strange, MBE, part-time teacher at Banks Lane and full-time devotee of her art, the Trust introduces children to a robust brand of folk music that's rooted in the clog dance and concertina, but absorbs and welcomes creativity, improvisation, experimentation, and influences from whatever tradition players encounter on their travels.

Each Saturday, about 70 children aged from three upwards turn up to learn accordion, penny whistle, flute and fiddle, together with singing and clog dancing. The children form groups and go off into the various parts of the building to work, sometimes with adult teachers, often with the dozen or so teenagers who have come up through the system and are now employed for a modest payment as trainees. Many children learn two instruments and they are all expected to join in the singing.

From all of this comes a range of performance groups - dancers and musicians -who have delighted audiences from the Schools Proms to the China International Folk Arts Festival.

The teaching is a real eye opener. This is folk music, and it is largely taught by imitation - call and response. So a teenage fiddle player will play a phrase to her young group and they'll play it back, and gradually the whole piece is built up.

At the hub of it all is the school hall. At one end, presiding over the whole operation as well as teaching some of the groups, is Liza herself, with accordion strapped on and organisational paperwork open on a bench before her. Everything radiates from and returns to her - from detecting that a child is in the wrong penny-whistle group to advising a girl on her clogs. ("The best clog maker I ever knew has just retired. It's getting more and more difficult to find them.") And she brooks no nonsense. "Put up your hand if you have a whistle and you've forgotten to bring it," she says, before delivering a general telling-off. The organisational effort involved is awesome, but everybody is having a wonderful time and achieving the highest standards. When the seniors get together, for example to play folk-tune-based music that's exciting, demanding and largely improvisational, you are aware that something very special is happening.

Liza is always keen to acknowledge the involvement of those who help, as either volunteers or paid teachers. She's also hugely grateful for the financial support of the charity Youth Music, which has made it possible for her to make the leap from small beginnings to a multi-level organisation with strands focused on beginners, the involvement of boys and the development of the most able young musicians. It is this funding that enables the dozen or so teenage "trainees" to be musical apprentices, with achievement targets and portfolios.

In the end, however, the whole thing is clearly driven by Liza, and she is driven by a conviction that here is something that speaks to children in a deeply educative way.

It all started when she was a pupil at Banks Lane herself, nearly 50 years ago. "I have happy memories of playground games, skipping, folk-dancing and singing from the National Song Book," she says. "But I don't remember much about the academic side of the curriculum." So when, 25 years ago, she went back to Banks Lane as a teacher, she knew what she wanted to do.

"I was keen for the children to experience the same joy and satisfaction I'd felt all those years ago," she says. "I started helping with the country dancing club and teaching recorder and guitar. Eventually my interest in morris dance led me to take up the accordion and form a group at the school."

Soon she was attracting help from other enthusiasts, including Elsie Fosbrook, the grandmother of one of the pupils, who, through her own father, was a direct link with the thriving dance traditions of the 1920s and earlier. Now, the Trust carries the Fosbrook name.

In 2000, Liza's achievement was recognised in the Honours list - and still the Trust grows, in Saturday sessions and others at lunch times and weekday evenings.

"The motto," says Liza, "is access, commitment and opportunity." Everyone gets a go. If they stick at it they end up with opportunities. Very ordinary children who work hard achieve success and widen their horizons."

The work has brought out some gifted young musicians, and Liza runs her own fund to help them, and also to support children with other special needs.

"I'm currently seeking funding to enable damaged children to have dance and music classes because I have found that learning an instrument or dance can be very therapeutic to children who are stressed by their circumstances and for those with low self-esteem."

At the end of the session when I was there, everyone gathered to sing "Wild Mountain Thyme" - children barely beyond toddling, teenagers, and adults who have gathered more wild mountain thyme than they care to remember, all performing quietly, beautifully and, with a sense of shared achievement.

I defy anyone to visit Banks Lane on a Saturday and not be touched.

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