MUSIC / Clogs and high voices: Nicholas Williams on the NFMY at the South Bank

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For days now they've been battling it out at the South Bank - the Yateley Manor Handbell Ringers in stiff competition with Our Lady of the Wayside's Percussion Group from Solihull, the Roedean Descant Singers rivalling the Junior Pongos from Newcastle upon Tyne. Since Tuesday, dozens of ensembles such as these have been attending the National Festival of Music for Youth, with each category - chamber, choral, brass and wind band, pop and rock - enjoying a one-day mini-festival of its own. By the weekend, some 6,000 young musicians will have joined the jamboree.

Despite a small ethnic input from the South Bank's gamelan this afternoon, the festival's ethos is largely traditional concert fare. Competition is the heart of it, so there's a certain amount of repetition, plus the kind of repertoire that makes more sophisticated audiences blush. Examine the heats going on throughout the day and some tough topics emerge: folk music and unusual works by Faure, Elgar and Bridge are set against the rota of 'humorous' inter-war choral items and arrangements of 'Mood Indigo'.

If this seems to mix the bland with the inspired, presumably it's because the performers and parents like it that way. Presumably, also, the organisers: the charity Music for Youth. Despite exhortations to keep music live, they seem as keen to avoid controversy over the National Curriculum as to recognise the debate. They've left it to the events themselves to speak for the current commitment to music in schools.

Wednesday evening's concert devoted to the choralists, for example, stressed music as an object lesson in sharing through self-discipline, singers perfecting their own part, yet subordinate to the effect of the whole. The eight ladies and harpist of La Cappella from Dyfed sang spirituals, Welsh penillion and lively folk-tunes (with clog-dancer). But the laurels went to the visiting Toronto Children's Choir singing Bach, Debussy and Poulenc with exceptional tonal purity. In contrast, Monday's Schools Prom Special at the RFH demonstrated music's social role as a vehicle for integration.

On one level this happens when children of mixed abilities and backgrounds are brought together in youth orchestras. Oxfordshire's County Youth Orchestra delivered Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain with a growing sense of rhythmic security. The Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra and Choir performed Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice and Howard Blake's Let Music Live.

But it was the younger musicians that really got the message across. From Tottenham's Down Lane Junior School, where 30 languages flourish, 100 children gathered to sing The Secret Diary of Connie Kaminsky, a love story in 1950s song and dance that was one of the evening's hits. The other was the Band Arbennig Dwyfor's Journey to Ireland. Atmospheric percussion, played entirely by mentally handicapped teenagers accompanied by synthesiser, made a tone poem in miniature, compelling in its simplicity. For the first time that evening, compere Bob Holness's claim that 'you can see the enjoyment in their faces' sounded more than just a cliche.