Songs in sweet harmony

Next week, children from an inner-city primary school will team up with pupils from the wilds of north Norfolk to sing in a new opera. Lucy Hodges reports on a pioneering exchange
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But for the past few weeks 11-year-olds at Gallions Primary School in Docklands have been belting out "Lenticularis, castellatus, fractus", the words of a song they have been learning for an opera that will receive its premiere at the Imperial War Museum next week. Their delivery isn't perfect and they haven't a clue what they are singing but there is no doubting their determination. "You're too breathy. Sit up straight. Put your feet on the ground," commands the head teacher, Bernadette Thompson. The children try their best.

As you may have guessed, this is no ordinary school. Set up to teach as much of the curriculum as possible through the arts, Gallions makes sure that every child learns the violin or cello from age five, in Year One.

"We really are about social engineering," says Thompson. "We want to give people the ability to change their lot in life. They should not be sentenced to poverty and a life of crime. It's not just a question of giving everyone a musical instrument. I want them to have the experience and knowledge that children from rich families have."

Her ambition is bearing fruit . The SAT scores are improving - where once they were average for the borough, they are now above average, she says. The singing and music lessons are developing the children's oral memory and powers of discrimination and that spreads into their reading and writing. "They are learning how to sit, concentrate and take turns," she says.

Twenty-two 11-year-olds have been selected to sing in The Airman's Tale, a new opera commissioned by the Yorke Trust, a charity based in South Creake, Norfolk that aims to make high quality music education available to all. These 22 will join children from north Norfolk to sing four songs as part of the story of an American who arrives in a Norfolk village during the Second World War.

You may wonder how inner-city children from backgrounds as diverse as Nigeria, Bangladesh and Estonia came to be singing with a bunch of white children from the East Anglian prairies. The answer is Rodney Slatford. The former head of strings at the Royal Northern College of Music and now the chairman of the Yorke Trust, he is living out a dream of introducing good music to everyone, particularly children in the villages around South Creake. He heard from a violinist friend about the extraordinary work going on at Gallions and it was his idea to team up with the school.

His original plan was for children from Wells-next-the-Sea Primary, a school on the north Norfolk coast which came out of special measures this year, to join in the singing with the children from the East End.

"I thought that it would be good to get a school in London where the children were of mixed racial backgrounds out to the countryside to meet an entirely white school where the children had never been to London," he says. "I wanted to bring children that were heavily involved in music into a school in Norfolk that was not and hope that something rubbed off."

The collaboration has worked, although his initial idea for the Wells children to sing next week has not.

No Wells parent volunteered their children to take part in the opera, says Slatford. Instead, the London children will be joined by children from 11 Norfolk primary schools who have participated in the Saturday creative arts workshops held by the Yorke Trust.

However, exchanges between the Wells and Gallions took place last month - the East End children visited north Norfolk for a weekend and the Wells children went to London - and there have been lasting effects.

Finally, the attitudes of the rural children towards singing and performing are changing, not least because they have seen others being enthusiastic about these things. "When you come across a school like Gallions where the black African boys are dancing all the time and singing, it's so infectious," says Slatford. "The Wells children were bowled over. They thought 'If it's good enough for them, we will have that too'. I think it will have a lasting effect."

He is especially pleased about the reaction of one Wells mother, who came up to him on the street after the exchanges and said the experience had had a fantastic effect on her son. "We have really started something," he says.

Carol Jennings, head of Wells-next-the-Sea, confirms this. She had been thinking about an exchange for some time. First, she wanted to introduce her children to pupils from other cultures; second, she was keen to promote the creative arts.

"The boys were quite negative about music, dance and drama," she says. "I wanted to introduce them to children of both sexes who were very open to these things. By the end of the music, drama and dance workshops my boys were totally switched on, The self-consciousness had gone. They saw all the cool dudes who were really enjoying dancing and wanted to take part as well."

Gallions is equally positive because their children had not been to Norfolk or seen the English countryside before. For the first time they were able to see acres and acres of wide open farmland, or look at a piglet that had been born three hours previously. "It really broadened their minds," says Thompson. "They met a school that was very calm. There were no fights. Our school has some children who lose their tempers quite easily. And, of course, they met a school that was entirely white. You don't have a school in London with only one ethnic group."

For the 11-year-olds at Gallions, singing in the opera is useful because it informs the research project they have been doing on the Second World War. The children have become expert at dancing the Lindy Hop to Glen Miller's "In the Mood" and were able to pass on that expertise to their new friends at Wells.

Asked about their impressions of Norfolk, the Gallions children agree that what hit them most was the space. "I liked the room in the fields," says Nicky Mott, 11. Others were impressed by the school, in particular its enchanted garden, pond and mushrooms that you can sit on. There were hugs, kisses and tears when the exchanges ended. And since then the children have been emailing, texting and telephoning one another.

Now the two schools are planning staff exchanges - so that the teachers can learn from one another - and have set up a website where the children can post mail. They are also planning a mini music festival for London and Norfolk.

"We want this to be a long-term relationship," says Jennings. Who knows, next year the Wells children may be singing in an opera as well.

'The Airman's Tale': a drama of Second World War East Anglia

The opera has three central characters, Tony, a glamorous American flier; Mary, the village school teacher; and Cynthia, the smart girl from the nearby hall who wants to have a good time. Aware of his destiny in the clouds, Tony is bemused when both women fall for him because he is interested in sacrificing himself for others and falling in love with the sky and flying, rather than with human beings.

The words have been written by Jonathan Keates, the author and assistant English master at City of London School for Boys. The music has been composed by Gerard McBurney. Neither has written an opera before, although both were keen to take up the challenge. Singers for the main roles come from students studying at British conservatoires.

The Airman's Tale is the second musical drama that the Yorke Trust has commissioned for young musicians. In 2002 it put on The Sailor's Tale, about the life of Nelson. As part of their work the children researched the life and times of the great admiral and took part in workshops, as they have researched the Second World War for this project. The opera lasts 45 minutes and forms the second part of an evening performance. The first half comprises a 30-minute collage of sounds from the time and includes five popular songs and dances.

Newly recorded material will be woven into the production, including children's poems, veterans' reminiscences and readings. The world premiere takes place at the Imperial War Museum on 20 July and is followed by eight performances in Norfolk, including two free presentations on village greens in Wells-next-the-Sea and Burnham Market. The Norfolk premiere will be at Houghton Hall on 24 July, followed by performances at St Mary's, South Creake, on 29 and 30 July.

For more details ring 01328 823501 or see www.yorkedition.co.uk

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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