Hit me with your rhythm stick

Since it was dreamt up in 1977 by Yehudi Menuhin, Live Music Now! has been taking music to people who don't normally hear it. Now it has plans to bring harmony to Northern Ireland, writes Simon Tait

There was a little miracle the other morning, at the Marjory Kinnon School in the shadow of Heathrow. Eight-year-old Perry conducted the Arcadia bassoon quartet through the opening bars of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer". "I don't know where it came from, it's fantastic!" says Jill Roach, music co-ordinator at the school.

Perry has almost no communication abilities and very little power of co-ordination over his limbs. There were no misgivings about allowing him to attend the concert because no one is excluded, but a bewildered look flashed between teachers when Perry volunteered to take the baton.

He walked from the back of the hall, at first stumbling, then walking normally with a straight back to take his place in front of the ensemble and his schoolmates. Facing the quartet of large instruments that he'd never seen before, his conducting arm moved up and down with ease and assurance. Then he turned, took the applause with a brief bow, and returned to his seat at the back.

"The music brought something out of Perry, a source of joy and something for him to connect to," explains Roach.

But then, it's not the first such miracle at Marjory Kinnon, and schools like it, where there's music about. "At any other time, they can't stop fidgeting, or they shout involuntarily, and it's generally difficult to keep their attention," says Roach. "But music has a special effect, it calms and intrigues them, and they listen."

Marjory Kinnon is a special school for children with moderate learning difficulties, and this morning, 150 of them sat rapt, responding only when the four musicians wanted them to. The players walked among the children, letting them feel the wood and brass of the large woodwind instruments, and the vibration as they played them.

But music is a luxury for the school. To hire an ensemble, the fee is usually around £200 and Ms Roach's annual budget is £280. This concert was free, though, courtesy of Live Music Now!, with the help of Arts Council London funding and other charities.

The quartet are young players who met at the Guildhall School of Music and have been together for five years. "It's a great experience for us, very fulfilling," says Claire Wadsworth. "You never know what the reaction is going to be, but there's always a positive response and a direct connection that you don't often get in a concert hall." Graham Hobbs added: "It gives us a chance to express ourselves, so we can play as we would talk."

At Lower Hardres village hall, near Chilham in Kent, the next day, the soprano Rebecca Rudge tossed a red tinsel boa around her neck and across her shoulder, gave a "one-two-three-go" glance at the pianist Christopher Glyn, and launched into "There'll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover" with the Occupational Therapy Users' Group and their charges joining in lustily - "I know it's their Christmas concert, but you can't give them just carols, can you?" she says afterwards.

She and Glyn have also been brought by Live Music, again with the help of charities. "It's such a positive audience. It's quite different from the operatic work I do, and quite hard on the voice, too, but when you see tears in the eyes of the audience, there's a special feeling," Rudge explains.

The rules for the musicians are simple. They are paid a standard £70 a session, and this can be either a straight performance or a workshop. They have to pass an audition, and as soon as they reach the age of 30, they have to make room for someone new. There are around 320 musicians in any year, giving 3,000 performances in schools, civic centres, village halls, residential homes, even out in the open air, and almost never in a concert hall.

Live Music was founded more than 26 years ago, but is little heard of outside its own circles. Its influence, though, grows wider all the time. Devised by Yehudi Menuhin, with the twin aims of providing live music for those who can't get to it, and giving young professional musicians the chance of work, the charity began in London and the South-east and has developed across the country, with a North-east office planned to cover the last corner.

It almost collapsed before it had started, though, in a welter of disagreement and over-ambition, but was rescued by Menuhin's friend, the musician-turned-banker Ian Stoutzker, LMN's chairman. "It was a wonderful idea but I realised that you couldn't immediately make it a national enterprise. It depends so much on local knowledge, and on volunteers, so we had to start modestly," he says.

"Although we are UK-wide, the local element is vital," agrees Sarah Derbyshire, LMN's chief executive. "We have to know locally what is wanted, and we have to raise funds locally so that those who give can see their money going into their own communities. So we're also eager to give regional directors - most of whom are part-time and already involved in the local music scene in other ways - as much autonomy as possible, because they know their own patch best."

It started with classical music, but demand has led Live Music Now! to mean jazz, Asian, world music - which- ever live music is called for. In Belfast, they've been calling for folk. The Bradys, Edel and her brothers Kieran and Paul, for example, have been performing since they were seven, eight and nine, respectively, starting with the tin whistle and progressing to fiddle, bodhran, flute, uillean pipes, banjo, guitar, harp and concertina. They've played with The Chieftains, among many others, and been in a film, The Ceilidh Wars. As of a year ago, they have also been Live Music musicians, and this year they will be joined by another sister, Christine.

"What we are not," Stoutzker says, firmly, "is about politics." But the Drake Project, that the Bradys are working in with LMN, brushes close to a political context. Its task is "promoting mutual understanding through an exploration of diverse musical traditions" in Ireland, the understanding being, says the LMN Northern Ireland director Peter Rosser, that whatever the political and religious differences, there are shared musical traditions that cross the divides.

But the Bradys have taken their musical traditions somewhere else. Rosser has commissioned a series of physically disabled people of all ages to compose computer-based pieces and work with the young musicians towards a performance in Belfast this month.

When Rosser became director a year ago, the emphasis was on classical music, but finding young classical musicians in Northern Ireland was difficult because most went to England to be trained and stayed there. Besides, traditional Irish is more to the local taste.

"I was also aware of what music can mean to the physically disabled, and we wanted to see how we could bring the two together, to get a different take on the Troubles in the context of musical heritage."

In a series of workshops in Enniskillen in the North and Roscommon in the South, the composers, many without the use of any limbs and all handicapped since birth, with the help of 20-year-old Edel and her brothers, all Belfast University students as well as professional musicians, created their own versions of airs and songs.

In all, 20 composers of varying disabilities and ages, Protestants and Catholics, working on computers created four pieces of music with the Bradys, of seven to eight minutes' length each. The result is due to be performed in public later this month. "We had tunes they were familiar with, and others they were not so familiar with , but it was a different look at the music that made a completely different sound," explains Edel.

They would take phrases of words and music associated with, say, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, and swap them around, thereby giving them entirely new meanings. "The song 'The Fields of Athenry' has become a bit of a nationalist anthem, but when it was written it had nothing to do with politics, so we've looked at it again and they've given it another slant," says Edel.

"We were apprehensive about the project when we started in the summer, but soon you forget about the disabilities as the work gets more interesting.

"Using our musical tradition and new technology, what we've made together is a new music with a particular meaning for Ireland. I can't wait to hear it all together," she says. And she's not alone.

Live Music Now! (020-7730 2205)