The child's eyes widen more than you would think possible of a 7-year-old’s eyes. Besides him, a girl covers her ears every time the timpani thunder. Further down the hall, a much younger child mimics the movements of the conductor and laughs. The children are captivated and even startled by the powerful beauty of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As they discover a world of unexpected sounds and emotions, they do not realise that they are embarking on a journey that will forever change their lives. [Scroll down for more photos.]
Today the spotlight at the Grand Theatre is not on the wonderful Orchestra of Opera North, but on the children that sit around and among the musicians. The 350 pupils of Windmill Primary School are taking part in the launch of In Harmony Leeds, a project that is part of the In Harmony national programme to inspire and transform the lives of children through music-making.
Cellist Matthew Sharp initiates the children into the mysteries of orchestral music. Nothing too fancy yet, of course: mostly some notions of conducting and of the art of air-playing. He invites a boy to the podium for a demonstration of air-guitar, and then he introduces the children to air-violin, air-viola, air-cello (“To play the cello you have to transform into a gorilla,” he quips) and air-double bass.
A month from now it will not be air-playing. “Each of these children will be given a string instrument,” explains Rebecca Walsh, Head of Education at Opera North. “We are looking at delivering activities involving four or five hours of strings and singing work for each child, each week.” Leeds will be the first In Harmony project to be led by an opera company, so singing will play an essential role in the music education of these children.
But it is not only about making music. Walsh points out that Windmill Primary School is based in a community that faces many challenges, and she is confident that, as already seen in the In Harmony Liverpool and In Harmony Lambeth projects, there will be an overall improvement in the lives of these children, including their academic performance and the self-esteem and empowerment of the community.
In Harmony is a national programme founded by cellist Julian Lloyd Webber that aims to inspire and transform the lives of children through community-based orchestral music-making. It uses the principles of Venezuela’s inspirational El Sistema. In Harmony is jointly funded by the Department for Education and the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North, is thrilled that the company was selected to lead In Harmony Leeds. “This particular project reaffirms much of the work that we’ve been doing over 30 years, engaging with children, young people and families through the inspiration of opera and music. It is a great tribute to the Education team,” he says.
As the orchestra finishes playing and Kastchei's terrifying palace disappears in front of the fascinated children, In Harmony Leeds is born. Many of the children do not understand what, exactly, they have just witnessed. But the passion and the excitement they felt today will probably be the first thing they think of in January, when they are handed their instruments.