More than 10,000 young musicians have been celebrating the power of their craft along with politicians and educational bigwigs, reports Tom Deveson
Accents from the West Country to the Yorkshire Dales combine in a symphony of contrasting sounds as young people aged from two to 21 take over London's South Bank for this year's Festival of Music for Youth.
The six-day event, which climaxes tomorrow, is said to be the largest festival of youth music in the world. And this year's festival, the 33rd, is the biggest yet, involving more than 10,000 young musicians in more than 300 ensembles from full orchestras to rock, jazz, steel and samba bands playing tunes from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
This week-long coming together of young musicians, chosen from 54,000 children and students who took part in 55 regional festivals around the UK, is a miracle of co-ordination. Coaches packed with performers and supporting crews of parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers and friends, give the parking area a bank holiday air.
But as well as being a showcase for creative young people, this year's festival included, on Monday, a symposium recognising the vital role of music in education. Entitled The Importance of Music, it was addressed by two government ministers, Education Secretary Charles Clarke and Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Tessa Jowell.
The hundreds of teachers, inspectors and advisers who packed the symposium confirmed that music provision is a proper subject for politicians, professionals, teachers and administrators to discuss. And by the end of the week, no one could doubt just how far music enriches the lives of children, their families and schools.
While much of what Mr Clarke and Ms Jowell had to say was predictable praise, it was good to hear that the two departments regard their tasks as overlapping.
Others gave specific examples of how music can make a difference. Paul Daniels of English National Opera spoke about the pioneering work done by the ENO's Baylis educational team in bringing opera to inner-city youngsters.
Lyricist Richard Stilgoe, chairman of the Orpheus Centre, in Surrey, which gives young disabled people the chance to take part in music and drama, commended the thousands of ways in which musical success can be measured.
Margaret Martin Griffiths, Ofsted's specialist music adviser, made the comparison with sports in schools, an area in which pupils are entitled to two hours of organised activity every week. And Bernadette Thompson, headteacher of Gallions primary school in the London borough of Newham, spoke of adults in schools where the importance of music is given due recognition "rejoicing and suffering together".
Meanwhile, the stage of the Royal Festival Hall is full of infants and juniors displaying their skills with bewildering variety and self-assurance. At under two, Eloise Ford, from the Gawthorpe Brass '85 Music Funclubs in Ossett, West Riding, is the youngest performer. She leans on her older sister during an upbeat Caribbean medley.
Other infants, from Ravenstone primary in the London borough of Wandsworth, form a graceful dancing elephant, and primary performers from Wellingborough Mini Music, in Northamptonshire, not only sing one number in Japanese but are tricked out in elegant blue and green silk costumes and wave delicate home-made wisteria flowers and bright orange-gold paper koi carp.
Juniors from the north of England are especially well represented. The Wardle school Year 8 band is only one of several outstanding ensembles from the Rochdale school, taking the calm beauty of the "Londonderry Air" and the unbuttoned vigour of "Bandstand Boogie" equally in their stride.
The children of Ysgol Glanaethwy in Bangor perform entirely in Welsh, but even monoglot English listeners could delight in a mythological tale presented with dramatic clarity and - in one episode - splendidly simulated drunkenness.
Every group receives a certificate and feedback from the three dozen teachers and musician adjudicators. And by the end of the month 30 groups will have received coveted invitations to perform at the Music for Youth Schools Prom, at London's Royal Albert Hall on November 3, 4 and 5.
Music for Youth's season is a long one. But there's no sign of tiredness among the young stars of the shows, or among the audiences who so clearly delight in the efforts of these young talents.
Day tickets, price pound;6 (pound;3 concessions), are still available for today and tomorrow (Friday and Saturday) from the Royal Festival Hall box office: 020 7960 4242