Choral singing has huge benefits on both curricular and social levels for young people
The austrian hills will be well and truly alive with the sound of music this weekend - and Inverclyde Junior Choir will be on hand to make sure that they are. It is the only Scottish children's choir to compete in the World Choir Games in the Austrian city of Graz - and one of only three from Britain.
Earlier this week, 72 members of the 92-strong choir of nine to 14-year-olds set off for Austria to compete against more than 60 other junior choirs from all corners of the world. Only the best take part.
Over 500 choirs compete in a variety of categories, judged by 450 adjudicators, and take part in friendship, gala and special concerts in one of the biggest international choral events of its kind.
For the Inverclyde Junior Choir and their conductor Palma Allan, it is the pinnacle of a number of successes in its 10-year history. It has received pound;50,000 support for the trip from an Inverclyde Council trust fund which supports musical and sporting excellence in schools.
Founded in the aftermath of the break-up of Strathclyde Region, in a move to build on Inverclyde's long tradition of choral music, the junior choir has spawned a training choir, a senior choir and Inverclyde Voice, for anyone aged 18-plus.
Mrs Allan, who is also depute head of Inverclyde Academy, says: "We have been looking at the choirs we are up against on YouTube. Some are from the Far East, where there's a completely different form of music - very different to the ear."
As she puts the singers through their final paces in rehearsals, drilling them on how to come on to the stage, match movements to one of their songs, and how to stand, she tells them: "Having watched the other choirs on YouTube, I think this will earn you points."
Television programmes such as BBC2's The Choir, starring choirmaster Gareth Malone, and the latest competition, Last Choir Standing, may be persuading young people that it's cool to sing. But the youngsters in Inverclyde already know that - entry to the junior choir is by audition only and competition is fierce, even for the training choir.
Mrs Allan believes participation in choral singing has huge benefits beyond the obvious musical ones. On a curricular level, members of the junior choir have used their ICT skills to check out the opposition, and learned some key German phrases for their week-long trip. It goes further than that, however.
"For me," says Mrs Allan, "the one thing that stands out above everything else is that these children are from different schools in Inverclyde - different religions, cultures and housing schemes. But they all come together and they mix and get to know each other. It really breaks down barriers and builds bridges. If I want to do a religious song, there is no problem because we are doing it through the guise of singing."
It also helps with the transition from primary to secondary, when younger choir members recognise older ones, and it builds self-confidence. "I have seen children coming into this choir who are so shy or suffer from a medical condition. I have had children who have Tourette's Syndrome, and they have absolutely blossomed."
Jayne Dinnie, 13, sums up how the singers feel after a really good performance: "Mrs Allan calls it the tingle factor - after you've sung, the adrenaline is pumping through your body and you just feel really good and excited. You know you've done a good job."
Mrs Allan adds: "They are absolutely brilliant: they always rise to the occasion. I could be tearing my hair out the week before, and they go out and perform brilliantly."
The choir has had experience of serious competition before, having taken part in the BBC Radio 3 "Choir of the Year" competition over the past four years, twice coming runner-up in the junior section. "They are very disciplined. It's about building them up and getting the adrenaline going at the right time and their technical skills where I want them to be at the right time. If they peak too early, they get bored and if they are not ready enough, it won't come off," she says.
Mrs Allan won't be disappointed if they don't win gold at Graz, but hopes they get through to the final heat. The most important element will be the experience of competing at world-class level. "This is what these children will remember when they get older - not necessarily what they did in English, geography or science, but taking part in the choir trips and competitions and the success they have had."