Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Sing It Loud: the children raising the roof of the Royal Opera House

Published By: The Independent - 12 Mar 2009

This Saturday evening nearly two hundred primary school children will make their singing debut on the main stage of the Royal Opera House performing a new choral work written by the one 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 seems sure to raise the concept of school singing to whole new level.
“This is the biggest, most ambitious thing the Royal Opera House’s education department has ever taken on,” says Kevin Rainey, 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 two hundred children and the one hundred Kent amateur adult singers who are also taking part together and 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 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,” explains Reece Graves, 10, from St Eanswythes Church of England Primary School, Folkestone. “Sometimes it’s hard because what 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 recent years singing has fallen out of favour in schools, but now major efforts are being made to revive it. Under a new national Music Manifesto, the Government is pouring £332m into music education, including into Sing Up, a national campaign to get primary school-aged children singing and to get teachers trained in how to do it.
Meanwhile education arm of the Royal Opera House, known as Royal Opera House Education, has been doing its bit by training of primary school teachers and running a Voices of the Future project which promotes the enjoyment of singing and invests in a repertoire suitable for 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 specially 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,” says Rainey. “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?’ Eighteen schools applied and we then chose seven, which we picked out for a number of 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.
But 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 been visited the Opera House, to see a performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, so they know how huge the venue is, while working with the ROH Education team has also been an eye-opener. The young directors and vocal tutors are outstandingly enthusiastic and demanding. Nothing less than the best will do for them, and the pupils quickly realise that they need to shape up. By the end of a hard-working morning most of them have morphed from pale and lethargic children into animated and zestful singers.
“I like it because we are getting to do so much singing, dancing and acting,” says Amy Brown, 9, of The Craylands School, in Swanscombe. “And if they didn’t tell us to be quiet all the time, the rehearsals would be a disaster,” says Meryem Ali, 10.
Kevin Raney says: “We want all schools to be singing schools. 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.”
“There has been a so much training leading up to this,” says Helen MacGregor, primary music advisor for Kent, “and it’s all been of such high quality. It has really improved the quality of singing.”
Meanwhile north of Maidstone, in Thurrock, other school and college students have been helping to make the sets and costumes. Next year the ROH will relocate its entire production facility to workshops in Purfleet, bringing many new technical jobs and training opportunities to the Thames Gateway area.
“We’ve been working with groups of ten or twenty young people, who’ve had a chance to work alongside Opera House people,” says Gabrielle Forster-Still, education manager for Thurrock. “They’ve done make-up and all sorts of things. They made the carpet on the floor of the set. But we’ve had to work where we can. There’s no space there yet. The local college, Thurrock and Basildon College, has been great. I don’t know what we’ve 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 be able to build on its work with Kent’s schoolchildren in the future,
Meanwhile, when the curtain rises in Covent Garden on Saturday night, a major new marker will have been put down for just what can happen when children learn to sing their hearts out again.