12th January 2001 at 00:00
Nigel Williamson sees a pound;10 million plan take shape which will inspire youth at the grass roots.

The name might sound bureaucratic, but music educators believe that the new youth music action zones genuinely represent a grass-roots approach to widening music-making for young people.

Last month, Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced a pound;10 million initiative from the National Foundation for Youth Music to establish 20 youth music action zones across Britain, reaching more than 1 million people aged up to 18 and their communities by spring next year.

Isolated swathes of rural Britain as well as deprived inner-city areas are strongly targeted, with the first six grants going to consortia in London, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Thanet in Kent, Norfolk and the whole of the northern region from Carlisle to Newcastle. Cornwall and Liverpool will be part of the next series of zones to be set up from this spring.

The National Foundation for youth Music, an independent organisation set up in 1999 with funding from the Arts Council of England, aims to bring together inspirational musicians, "animateurs", instrument makers, dancers and DJs to offer new kinds of courses, workshops, individual tuition, mentoring and performances.

Nicky Stainton, of the Norfolk-based Rural Arts East organisation, which manages projects in East Anglia, says: "The government has been refreshingly humble on this because it has come to us and said, 'You're doing valuable work, how can we help you take it on?' That doesn't happen very often."

Martin Milner, education director of the Manchester Band On The Wall organisation, agrees: "It's much less bureaucratic than European funding and it's not being imposed from the centre. They've listened to the people on the ground about what is needed and where."

"They've been very open-minded," adds Chris Chambers, head of regeneration and development at Thanet district council. "We have some of the most deprived wards in the country here and we're linking our youth music action zone work to our other regeneration schemes. This is an example of joined-up thinking."

The Thanet youth music action zone is one of the few partnerships in which the lead body is the council. Most of the others are led by independent arts organisations. Since the aim is to reach children and young people who have had little or no access to music making, all agree that music provision outside schools is vital.

"It's important to provide facilities in community centres and youth clubs," says Martin Milner, who has also taught music in schools. "Music is about breaking rules and being experimental and it doesn't always fit easily into a rigid school timetable."

In Norwich, Nicky Stainton also believes that creating the right environment is the key. "We will be using village halls and youth clubs, which gives us a better chance of picking up those who aren't doing music in school. We're not looking so much at finding flautists and violinists in schools as concentrating on the more sexy, IT sie of music-making and areas like DJ-ing which are part of youth culture."

In Newham, east London, where the Urban Development organisation is working as part of the London youth music action zone, a DJ championship is planned for next July as the culmination of a series of workshops in youth centres and schools. DJ Pogo, a member of the touring band run by Britain's leading contemporary jazz player, Courtney Pine, will run the workshops.

"We're targeting kids at risk, and a lot of them have behavioural difficulties. But we might find the hot stars of tomorrow," says Urban Development's Pamela McCormick.

The new approach of the zones represents an acceptance of research which shows that children who make music have significantly better creative abilities, higher levels of concentration and perform better academically. Many of the courses will also have a vocational element. "We're providing the equipment and helping them exploit it," says Pamela McCormick. "There's no reason why it shouldn't lead to young people developing careers in music which they would not have otherwise had the opportunity to pursue."

Chris Chambers in Thanet expresses a similar view. "We're keen to access music and culture for young people in a way which could lead into employment," he says. "Skills like mixing and cutting CDs are very much part of what we are planning."

"These are all new projects for us," says Nicky Stainton. "We have particular difficulties in Norfolk because communication and transport are major problems. So it's important for us to go out into the rural areas and give them the sort of high-quality music provision they probably haven't seen before."

Early priorities for Rural Arts East will include projects in the small market towns of Watton, North Walsham and Fakenham, with transport provided from outlying villages.

Other action zones will build on existing initiatives. Manchester is particularly advanced in this respect. "We've already been running five-day courses at youth and community centres which develop songwriting skills and have a concert at the end," says Martin Milner. "Five days is enough to inspire the kids and point them in the right direction."

From the courses Martin Milner hopes to develop People With Instruments, a flexible ensemble of young musicians aged 13 to 18, which will play a series of concerts this summer. The group will then perform during the Commonwealth Games celebrations, due to be held in Manchester in summer 2002. "The beauty of it is that they will all be young people who are making their own music for the first time and we are going to be able to put them on in the city's most glittering halls of culture."

Britain's oldest symphony orchestra, the Halle, is part of the diverse Manchester consortium. Johnny Jay, of the city's Black Music Development Network, is keen to make connections: "I want a young rapper who's working in a studio on Moss Side, and who wants strings on a track, to be able to phone the Halle and know who to speak to."

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