The musical life of North-East England is incredibly rich and varied: there’s a strong folk tradition championed by musicians such as Kathryn Tickell; former mining villages take immense pride in their excellent brass bands; there’s been a full-time choir in Durham Cathedral for at least 600 years; and Gateshead is home to Britain’s only full-time professional chamber orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia. Because all this music-making takes place among some of the most deprived communities in the country, the North East is also home to thriving music education services, with a strong commitment to bringing music to children of all backgrounds and abilities. We talked to members of staff in Durham County Music Service and at in the education department of Sage Gateshead to find out more.

Carolyn Norris, Deputy Head of Service for Durham Music Service began by explaining that their aim is for every single primary school child to have the opportunity to try out a musical instrument in the classroom. The old cliché of classroom music was 20 children overblowing into plastic recorders, but these days they’re just as likely to be learning ukulele, chalumeau (a simplified clarinet), mini-trombone, violin or trumpet. Carolyn stressed that these first experiences then enable children, their teachers and parents to make informed decisions about whether to carry on with music tuition. This First Access programme also endeavours to give primary school children the chance to discover the thrill of performing in front of people, and Carolyn spoke warmly about recently seeing around 200 children from five primary schools in Peterlee proudly playing in brass, wind and orchestral ensembles. Carolyn said “Durham Music Service is very proud of the quality of what we do – whether it’s a whole class learning the ukulele or a diploma level violin student. Unfortunately many Music Services have had to change the way they employ their teachers because of financial pressures: we feel that it is really important for the quality of our provision to have the best teaching staff we can”.

Past and present members of Durham County Youth Choir performing Messiah for their 50th anniversary © Simone Rudolphi
Past and present members of Durham County Youth Choir performing Messiah for their 50th anniversary
© Simone Rudolphi

For those who do continue, the music service offers not just instrumental tuition in schools but access to around 40 different ensembles. The teachers I spoke to all described how group music-making is encouraged right from the very beginning, and so students make graded progress through district and regional up to county level. The County Youth Orchestra has developed a partnership with the Hallé Orchestra, while other music service ensembles have strong links with the Durham BRASS festival, with jazz venues and with local choirs. Many teachers also give up their own time to run what Carolyn described as “pop up” ensembles, catering to specific interests; this has included a Renaissance trombone group, string quartets, a flute choir, a folk fiddle group and Clarinetix, a clarinet ensemble led by Caroline Roberts. Caroline spoke of her pleasure in seeing how fast students progress when they play in a small ensemble, and how other students have been inspired to take up the clarinet after her ensemble has played in schools.

Carolyn sees the music service as a way of giving everyone access to music, recognising that good early experiences with music can give people lifelong pleasure, whether or not they make a career of it. She spoke of her delight that there is now an alumni Big Band and the thrill that the whole music service felt at a recent performance of Messiah in Durham Cathedral to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the County Youth Choir in which the current youth choir were joined by over 100 former members. The letters and emails that they received in the office after that performance spoke overwhelmingly of how the Youth Choir had fostered a lifelong passion for music in so many people.

Since opening ten years ago, Sage Gateshead has had a massive impact on the musical life of the North-East, and Ed Milner, Head of Music Learning at Sage Gateshead began our conversation by emphasising that education has always been integral to the organisation’s mission, with funds set aside in the founding endowments. The building is not just a concert hall, but a whole network of musical activity, and whenever I visit for concerts, I’m always struck by the buzz around the place and by the number of young people milling around on the concourse carrying instruments. Whereas most orchestras and concert halls are separate organisations, Sage Gateshead directly employs the members of Royal Northern Sinfonia, which means that it has access to a core team of musicians whose talents are available for activities beyond the concert stage. The orchestra regularly visits local schools and community organisations and Ed explained that this is where children see that orchestral musicians are real people, often with local accents, not an unreachable elite.

Sage Gateshead’s strong education programme led to the organisation being awarded funds to run one of England’s six In Harmony projects. In Harmony was inspired by Venezuela’s famous El Sistema and aims to transform the lives of children in deprived communities through music. Sage Gateshead are running their programme at Hawthorn Primary School in Elswick and have made a long-term commitment to the project – well beyond the initial three-year funding provided by the Arts Council and the Department of Education. I had already heard about In Harmony, but as Ed described how the head teacher Judy Cowgill has thrown open her school to a complete immersion in music, I was amazed and inspired by the scope and ambition of the project.

Young Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Young Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

The children begin with musical activities in the school’s feeder nursery, and from the reception class, every single child learns an instrument, beginning with strings and then adding woodwind and brass later, with music fitting into the timetable every day. One thing Ed noted was that with no preconceptions about what is hard, the children just fly through their music lessons, and the cohesive, non-competitive aspect of daily music making has led to clear improvements in behaviour. The school now has two orchestras, teachers and assistants all learn instruments too, and the children and their families receive free tickets to classical concerts at Sage.

Several children from Hawthorn Primary have now enrolled on the weekend schools that are run by Sage. The Centre for Advanced Training runs along similar lines to the Junior Conservatoire programmes at music colleges. The centre’s 80 students follow an intense programme of first and second study instrumental tuition, music theory classes and ensemble playing either in groups formed from among the students or in one of the larger ensembles run by Sage such as Young Sinfonia, a chamber orchestra that mirrors Royal Northern Sinfonia. Nearly 90% of the participants receive some degree of means-tested financial support and entry to the programme is judged strictly on potential, not prior achievement, ensuring that the programme really is open to everyone, regardless of background.

Durham Music Service and Sage Gateshead are two very different organisations, but what comes across whenever I talk to teachers from either is a sense not of hothousing an elite group of virtuosi, but a deep commitment  to music as a group activity that should lie at the heart of every community, and that whatever students go on to do in their adult lives, a love of music-making is a precious gift that will go with them forever.


With thanks to Carolyn Norris, Ed Milner, Caroline Roberts and the staff at Sage Gateshead for their assistance.