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Triumphs for tradition

The renaissance of traditional music is attracting younger fans as workshops for the Celtic Connections festival enthuse primary children, writes Karen Shead

Waiting in their dressing room at the Royal Concert Hall, the 10 nine- and 10-year-olds from St Rose of Lima Primary in Glasgow seem calm. They agree they are a little bit nervous about performing at the Celtic Connections music festival, which ends this weekend, but most of all they are excited.

"We do feel nervous," says singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett, who has been teaching the children traditional Scottish songs, "but we keep it hidden inside very well."

Even hearing the lively audience of 1,400 schoolchildren does not seem to heighten their nerves.

As the children file on stage, they are greeted with cheers. They happily sing their songs, urging the audience to join in if they know the words or clap along.

This is one of this year's 10 schools concerts which have now become a regular feature of the Celtic Connections programme.

The annual festival, which began in 1993, introduced its education schedule in 1999 to bring Scottish traditional culture to the young people of Glasgow. The schools concerts, which form one part of the programme, have proved to be successful: 20,000 free places are offered for three- to 18-year-olds and the uptake has risen steadily over the years. Each concert is tailored to suit a specific age range and features children performing.

Audience participation is encouraged and a songs list with lyrics is given on the Celtic Connections website so they can be learnt beforehand. At least two songs listed feature in each concert.

The other part of the education programme is workshops. Some are open to the public during the festival; others are for Glasgow schools and may take place during the festival or be part of year-round projects. These involve professional musicians and artists visiting and working with pupils in a six-week block on a range of subjects. This is what Alistair Hulett did with the children of St Rose of Lima Primary.

"The children chose to take part," he says. "They volunteered to give up their time, as the sessions took place after school, so it shows they are very dedicated."

The workshops during the festival - this year there were 44 - may be song, dance, song writing or storytelling sessions or an introduction to Celtic instruments.

One of these come and try workshops was organised at Glasgow Gaelic Primary on the same afternoon as St Rose of Lima children are giving their concert.

The P5 class walks into the school hall to see an impressive array of musical instruments: a line of bodhrans of different sizes, a row of elegant clarsachs and a succession of shiny tin whistles.

The professional musicians leading the session introduce themselves and their instruments, which many of the children have never seen before, and then split the group of pupils into three so they can take it in turns to work with each musician and the Irish drums, small harps and whistles.

Children playing the bodhrans learn how to beat a few rhythms and all follow Keith Easdale's lead by chanting the syllables of Rangers and Celtic to keep the beat. Changing pace, his choice of trisyllabic words is again football teams, this time Liverpool and Everton. He teaches them how to look after the drums, but adds: "Don't be afraid of the instrument, play it," Jennifer McGlone, a traditional music officer for South Lanarkshire as well as a musician, is teaching the children two tunes on the tin whistle. By the expressions on their faces, you can see they are pleased with themselves.

On the other side of the room, Jennifer Port is teaching pupils how to play a melody on the clarsarch. As nine-year-old Inez McPherson peers through the strings with a look of concentration, she says: "I like this; it's fun.

I would like to do it again."

She later admits, however, that the drums were her favourite.

After the workshop all of the children are buzzing with excitement and so is Celtic Connections education officer Nancy Nicolson.

"It's what this is all about," she says. "We are celebrating our culture.

We enjoy speaking to each other and enjoy each other's company. It's about human exchange and the feeling of being welcome."

She is passionate in her belief that all children should have access to Scottish culture and traditions, but also adamant that it should not be turned into a school subject. "We are not teaching music, we are celebrating our culture," she says. "And if we pass tradition and knowledge on, they will get a feel for it and then want to pass it on to future generations."

From the reactions of children involved in Celtic Connections, interest in tradition is not waning.

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