Sing it loud: The children raising the roof of the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is inviting 200 schoolchildren on to its stage this weekend. It's all part of a groundbreaking plan to get pupils singing again.

This Saturday evening, nearly 200 primary school children will make their singing debut on the main stage of the Royal Opera House, performing a new choral work written by one of the country's leading composers.

On the Rim of the World is a complex and haunting piece about growing from childhood into adulthood, and the ground-breaking performance is sure to raise the concept of school singing to a whole new level. "This is the biggest, most ambitious thing the Royal Opera House's education department has ever taken on," says Kevin Rainey, the ROH's opera education manager. "It is literally like putting on a whole new production at the Opera House, except that we're having to rehearse 300 non-professionals instead of just six professionals."......... 

The work's young director, Karen Gillingham, is at the sharp end of this. She has been given only a few days of full rehearsal to pull the 200 children, and the 100 Kent amateur adult singers who are also taking part, together. By noon on the second day, in a secondary school hall in Maidstone, the strain is telling. "Stand still," she shouts, standing on a chair and waving her hands above a heaving throng. "Stand still, stand still, stand still, stand still! Listen. I've said it five times. That means standing still with both your feet on the ground." She waits for the restless mass to settle. "I'm still smiling," she says, pointing at her face. "But it's cracking."

For the children, the concentration is demanding. It's half-term, it's lunchtime, the music is complicated and the stage directions are difficult to remember. Some are definitely flagging, although most understand what a big chance they are being offered. "It's quite special as we've been chosen out of thousands of people who wanted to do it," says Reece Graves, 10, from St Eanswythe's Church of England Primary School, in Folkestone. "Sometimes it's hard because they want you to do changes, but then you get it sorted and it becomes good again."

Paradoxically, this ambitious project is rooted in the decline of school music. Over the years, singing has fallen out of favour in schools, but now big efforts are being made to revive it. Under a new national Music Manifesto, the Government is pouring £332m into music education, including Sing Up, a campaign to get primary children singing and to train teachers how to do it.

Meanwhile, the education arm of the ROH, known as Royal Opera House Education, has been doing its bit by training primary-school teachers and running the Voices of the Future project, which promotes the enjoyment of singing and invests in a repertoire suited to young voices.

As part of this, the ROH recently joined with seven other opera companies, including Glyndebourne, the Welsh National Opera and Opera North, to commission a work written for young people, by Orlando Gough, who is well known for his ballet and choral works.

"We've been working with all 46 lead music teachers in Kent for some time under the Music Manifesto," Rainey says. "It's amazing how many teachers have been told when they were at school not to sing, and don't know how to use their voice. They're not familiar with singing at all, so they do things like choose the wrong songs – year-seven songs, say, for year-four voices.

"At the end of the first year, last July, we said to them, 'Who wants to be on the main stage of the Opera House in March 2009?'" he continues. "Eighteen schools applied and we chose seven, which we picked out for different reasons. The school heads had to be on board, for one thing." Since then, pupils have been learning the piece in their own schools, while local choirs have been rehearsing the adult parts.

The children have not been hand-picked. Each school has contributed its entire year-five class, so performers include many children with special needs and plenty of non-singers. Dorothy Driscoll, a lead music teacher for a group of primary schools in east Kent, says, "We've had a few surprises – children we didn't expect have really got into it. Quite a few children have seen a different side of themselves, and it has really boosted their confidence."

Most of the children have visited the Opera House to see a performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, so they know how huge the venue is, and working with the ROH Education team has been an eye-opener. The young directors and vocal tutors are outstandingly enthusiastic and demanding. Nothing less than the best will do, and the pupils quickly realise that they need to shape up. By the end of a hard morning, most have morphed from pale and lethargic into animated and zestful singers.

The children are appreciative. "I like it because we are getting to do so much singing, dancing and acting," says Amy Brown, nine, of The Craylands School in Swanscombe. "If they didn't tell us to be quiet, the rehearsals would be a disaster," says Meryem Ali, 10.

The Royal Opera House feels that the programme is working. "We want all schools to be singing schools," Rainey says. "We want to put singing back at the heart of what a school does. In Kent, thanks to our work, every primary school now has someone who is a confident singing coach."

Helen MacGregor, the primary music advisor for Kent, points out that there has been a lot of training leading up to this. "It's all been of such high quality," she says. "It has really improved the quality of singing."

North of Maidstone, in Thurrock, other school and college students have been helping to make the sets and costumes. "We've been working with groups of 10 or 20 young people who've had a chance to work alongside the Opera House," says Gabrielle Forster-Still, the education manager for Thurrock. "They've done make-up and all sorts of things. They made the carpet on the floor of the set. The local college, Thurrock and Basildon College, has been great. I don't know what we would have done without them."

On the Rim of the World will be produced by other groups of young people in due course, and the ROH hopes to build on its work with Kent's schoolchildren. When the curtain rises in Covent Garden on Saturday night, a major new marker will have been put down for what can happen when children learn to sing their hearts out.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?