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Voices blowin' in the wind

Hazel Leslie reports on gusty voices preparing for a town's school music celebration.

In the hall at lunchtime some of the children at Woolgrove School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, are "Blowing Away the Morning Dew" with their music teacher Miranda Emler at the piano.

"My mother bought a likely hen On last St Martin's Day; She clucks and clucks and clucks again But never yet will lay..."

Everyone joins in the words of the old folksong, and at the appearance of the hen a burst of flapping and clucking in many different registers breaks out while the piano continues quietly in the background. "Mustard the dog" and the "grand high-stepping grey" in the other verses get the same enthusiastic vocal treatment, and after the haunting chorus of "How sweet the winds do blow", the gusts are enough to lift you off your feet.

This session at Woolgrove, a school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, is part of the Letchworth Voices Project, which this year is the main feature of the town's annual Celebration of Schools Music. All 14 primary schools in the town are taking part, as well as the independent St Christopher junior school.

Each school has chosen two folksongs from a list of seven classroom favourites, and throughout the spring term they will work to produce their own individual interpretations of their chosen songs, to be presented over five evenings at the celebration in March. This is only Woolgrove's third session, but it is obvious that the pupils are enjoying it and, with Miranda Emler's encouragement, are learning to listen not just to themselves, but to the sound they make together. Where they will take the folksong next, nobody yet knows.

The title of the Voices Project was carefully chosen. "We didn't want to limit it simply to singing, though that will certainly be a major part," says Nick Skinner, Office for Standards in Education inspector, head of music at St Christopher's, and one of the co-ordinators of the project. "We wanted to explore using the voice imaginatively to generate all sorts of sound. The aim is to encourage the children to use the words and rhythms of the folksongs as a starting point for creating their own music, rather than just producing sound effects. Inventiveness is the key - the only rule is that there are no rules."

Letchworth - the first of the England's "garden cities" founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1915 and still redolent of Cecil Sharp and the Arts and Crafts movement, seems a particularly appropriate setting for a folksong project. There is still a local interest in folk music, and a traition of singing in the primary schools. Both Nick Skinner and Linda Hirst, head of vocal studies at Trinity College of Music and one of the project's main advisers, felt the focus on folk songs was something that would have meaning and could be developed. Work began this January with an in-service training day led by Linda Hirst and attended by all primary school staff in the area, not just those who would be working on the project directly.

The INSET day was, says Nick Skinner, an enormous success: "The schools jumped at the idea of using their training day for music, and the imagination staff brought to it was wonderful. I don't think they realised they were going to be so good at it." As well as encouraging teachers to relax and experiment, the day also demonstrated how effective simple techniques can be - singing a song as slowly as possible, for example, to produce a "lovely overlapping sound" as each voice gradually finds its own tempo.

During the spring term schools will have workshop visits from Trinity College students, for whom is it is a great opportunity to experience what their tutor Linda Hirst calls "applied performance". Stephen Montague, an American-born composer whose music has already been performed at the annual schools music celebration, is also actively involved, as is Deena Day, primary music co-ordinator for the North Hertfordshire Music Service, which, with the Letchworth Community Education Trust, is funding the project. And a local young composer, Tara Guram, is working with Lordship Farm School, where she was once a pupil.

Each school receives suggestions about ways to work, but inevitably each approaches the project in its own way, targeting a different group of children. Some are using computers to record and manipulate vocal sound. Others are weighing-in with homemade percussion. For all of them there is a challenge in the idea of blurring the boundaries between composition and performance, in line with the new national curriculum for music at key stages 1 and 2.

For primary schools with limited resources there are obvious advantages in a creative music project that captures the spirit of the national curriculum and requires no instruments, only the human voice. "It's liberating and confidence-building," says Nick Skinner. "You're communicating, and you're not just using your voice, but your creative ideas. It's unpredictable and that's exciting."

A documentary film is being made of the project. Further details from Nick Skinner, St Christopher School, Letchworth, Hertfordshire SC6 3JZ. Tel: 01462 679301

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