Sheer joy making music;Arts;Music for the Millennium
In our individualistic age "personal" is the adjective most frequently attached to words like achievement, development and success. So it is good to be reminded that group effort can be just as rewarding as the lone push to the top.
And there could scarcely be a more emphatic statement of the pleasure of team playing than next week's TES Scotland Schools Prom in Glasgow, where six top youth musical ensembles will blow, bow, strike and pluck in celebration of the sheer joy of making music.
Larry Westland is founder and executive director of Music for Youth, the charity which is presenting the Prom. "People have no conception of the very high standard these ensembles play to," he says. "Something like BBC Young Musician of the Year creates a rarity out of what exists in abundance."
All the organisers and musical directors of the ensembles stress the enjoyment young people get from playing and performing in a group: from the 12 members of Glasgow's early music ensemble Flat Pavan to the 78 players of the Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra.
James O'Malley, woodwind teacher and musical director of the Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra, has children from vastly differing social backgrounds in the contrasting Edinburgh suburbs of Balerno and Wester Hailes. He has found that when they come together in a musical group they discover their similarities, not their differences.
For him, the jazz orchestra is all about accessibility. Anyone who wants to play is welcomed. "It's basically saxophones, trumpets, trombones, piano, bass, drums and guitar, but I've had a French horn, flutes. I don't refuse anyone."
Mr O'Malley numbers world famous saxophonist Tommy Smith among his former pupils and is keen to raise awareness of the quality of musicianship in the jazz orchestra. "They are playing to as high a level as orchestras playing classical repertoire. And once you grab them with exciting music, like the theme from Mission Impossible, you can throw anything at them. Jazz is not just party-time music. It's about phrasing, interpretation, and also improvisation, which can be more taxing than simply reading little black dots."
Percussion, like jazz, has historically had a bit of a backroom profile. But Graeme Wilson, music adviser in Fife, champions the achievements of the Fife Youth Percussion Ensemble. "There are a lot of skills involved. It's not banging away on drums. It's mainly tuned percussion, and it is very concentrated, hard work. The players are changing from one instrument to another, so it's both complex and complicated. We're very keen to stress the educational possibilities of playing instruments. There is a tremendous power for developing learning abilities." The 14 members of the percussion ensemble play a bewildering selection of marimbas, vibraphones, timpani, tubular bells, glockenspiels and gongs. "We have to keep numbers quite low, because it gets difficult to control larger numbers," says Mr Wilson. "I don't mean in terms of discipline, but just musically and logistically."
Many of the members usually play in other instrumental groups in Fife. But they meet annually for a week's residential course to play the more complicated and exciting pieces that the percussion ensemble can tackle.
Richard Tedstone is the founder and musical director of Flat Pavan, the early and traditional music ensemble which has performed to great acclaim. But he is happy to admit he has no musical training himself.
Flat Pavan began as a recorder group in the Easterhouse primary school where Tedstone taught, and has grown and changed over the years. "Basically, we learnt together," says Tedstone.
The group explores the ground between folk music and classical early music. It is certainly not a po-faced ensemble in wrinkly mediaeval tights, intent on historical authenticity at all cost.
"I'm the referee," says Mr Tedstone. "I disappear when the kids are on stage, and the group is led by one of the players. I noticed that the nature of the group changes depending on who is leading it - so much so that for some concerts we call the group after the road the leader lives in."
The members of the ensemble come from all over Glasgow, but a majority are still from Easterhouse. "Most of them sing and play madrigals on a Saturday with us and then play in rock bands the rest of the week," says Tedstone.
Flat Pavan consists of recorders, percussion, the full range of strings and the occasional crumhorn. Its repertoire spans about 400 years - at the Prom they will play a piece written specially for them this year and a Scottish dance from 1800 collected by Thomas Hardy.
West Lothian has a great tradition of brass bands, so it is not surprising that the West Lothian Schools Brass Band should have more prizes on its mantelpiece than you could shake a euphonium at. The 65-strong band rehearses once a week and plays two or three major concerts or competitions per term.
"They're in great demand," says West Lothian's arts manager, Brian Duguid. "We choose very carefully what they can take on, bearing in mind their school work and the fact that many of them are in other bands. But the TES Scotland prom is a priority this year."
The band players are aged from 12 to 18, and around 60 per cent of them are girls. "It is a concern," says Duguid, "that the number of boys taking up instruments is declining."
The band has played as far afield as the Sydney opera house, and appears regularly on radio and TV. "They are not just ambassadors for us," says Duguid, "it is a tremendous opportunity for the band, giving them independence and self-confidence."
While concern mounts over music in Scottish schools, Duguid is emphatic about West Lothian's commitment. "Music is a priority here. We have maintained the level of tuition and the number of pupils has risen. We would rather children were engrossed in music than in some other sorts of activity."
The Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra was formed in 1982 by string teachers Wallace and Alexis Galbraith.
"We both played with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra," says Alexis, "and we thought what a pity there wasn't something similar for young people."
There are now 150 members of the orchestra, although they often play in smaller groups, and about half that number will appear at the TES Scotland Prom.
"People don't want to leave," says Alexis. "It's a very social thing. Some of the original members still meet up when they come back from their various colleges."
The players, aged from 10 to 24, play traditional music with great verve. "We're busy at this time of year and at Christmas," says Alexis. "But we try and keep it to Friday and Saturday nights."
The group has played in Europe, Scandinavia, Canada and America, and is particularly proud of having filled a 4,000-capacity concert hall in Calgary.
"How would you describe the sound the Strathclyde Arts Centre Wind Band makes?" I asked musical director Kevin Price. "A glorious cacophony," he said.
The award-winning wind band come from all over Glasgow and play flutes, oboes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, euphonium, tuba, French horns and percussion. "It allows incredible flexibility in repertoire," says Price, a claim borne out by the band's programme for the Proms which consists of a lush piece of church music followed by a selection of tunes from the James Bond films.
The TES Scotland Schools Prom is at the City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow on Thursday June 25 at 7pm. FREETICKETS: For free Prom tickets, call 0181 870 9624.