It's a kind of magic

18th January 2008 at 00:00
The Whitelees School of Rock began at Whitelees Primary in Cumbernauld to encourage more pupils to take up music. Now the band has recorded its own songs and caught the attention of Yoko Ono. Emma Seith reports.

Jack Black's character, Dewey Finn, in the film School of Rock delivers many passionate lectures to his class, designed to fire them with enthusiasm for rock. He tells them to "break the rules", "get mad at the man", and "blow people's minds" with their "high voltage rock". He even leads them in prayer to the "God of Rock".

Tom Benham - the teacher in charge of the Whitelees School of Rock, based at Whitelees Primary in Cumbernauld - employs more conservative techniques during his rehearsals. However, he is still committed to rock. Aged 26, Mr Benham is a massive Queen fan and is a member of a wedding band, Audio 81. Under his tutelage, the Whitelees School of Rock has played live to enraptured audiences, recorded songs, written their own material, and even corresponded with Yoko Ono - she recently gave them permission to perform a modified version of John Lennon's "Imagine" at Dynamic Earth for the Eco Schools Scotland 500th green flag celebration.

The band came into being several years ago, after a P3 pupil, Scott Parker, sang "Country Roads" at assembly. His headteacher, Ann Kay, was so impressed, she decided to find a way to give more children access to music and a forum to show off their talents. Thus the rock band was born. And Scott, now in P7, is its lead singer.

Ms Kay says: "The band is a fantastic opportunity for the children to showcase their talents. It has motivated them, not just to take an interest in music, but in other areas of the curriculum as well, because it has had such an impact on their confidence. Now they look at all challenges differently."

Everyone wants to be in the Whitelees School of Rock, says Scott - even the youngest school pupils. In fact P1-3 have proved to be the band's most enthusiastic supporters, playing air guitar and drums when they perform at assembly. "Children from the early stages of school are asking for guitar lessons," says Ms Kay. "We don't have enough resources to meet the demand."

At the moment the band's line-up includes: Scott on vocals and guitar, Kristopher Pen on lead guitar, Jack Boyce on drums, Daniel Kearney on keyboards, Declan Reid on acoustic guitar, Carlos Hernandez on bass guitar and Derek Brown on rhythm guitar. Ainsley Devlin and Fiona Lauder provide backing vocals.

Watching them perform during its weekly rehearsal, it is easy to see why the band has been an inspiration. They can play an eclectic mix of music including The Beatles, The Proclaimers and The Monkeys. They perform "Flower of Scotland" and "Sweet Home Alabama". They even do a good cover of Mika's "Grace Kelly".

On stage they are impassive. This is the image a lot of bands go for, says Mr Benham. "You get bands that just stand on stage and it's just their presence," he explains. "They don't jump about or even smile."

Scott says he finds performing "nerve-racking but really exciting". The others have also developed a taste for the limelight. In the future, Daniel has dreams of playing Wembley; Derek has his sights set on Hampden. Jack has more modest ambitions. Cumbernauld Theatre, he feels, would make a good start.

They are excellent musicians given their age, says Mr Benham. "They could end up writing their own songs or one of them might make it big in a band. It's only going to get better for them."

However, the Whitelees School of Rock is facing a potential crisis. The youngest member of the band is Declan, who is 10 and in P6. The rest are in P7 and leave for high school after the summer.

Ms Kay and Mr Benham are aware of the need for new blood. So a band for younger pupils has been formed. And, sure enough, just as the members of the Whitelees School of Rock are packing up after rehearsal in the school hall, a group of younger children emerges from their practice session in another part of the building, dragging with them guitars almost as big as they are.

As rock god Freddy Mercury once sang, the show must go on. It's clearly going to at Whitelees.

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