BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Gwent Music Support Service still standing

South Wales Argus: TALENTED: Gwent Music Support Service students line up outside the Royal Albert Hall TALENTED: Gwent Music Support Service students line up outside the Royal Albert Hall

DESPITE some setbacks in the past, Gwent Music Support Service is continuing to produce talent as Nathan Briant finds out.

LAST year there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of Gwent Music Support Service.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition against the withdrawal of funding to the service from Newport council but the funding was withdrawn anyway.

Eric Tebbett, one’s of the world’s leading music competition judges, said the move was “absolutely shocking”.

And then it emerged in July that ten schools in Newport were declining tuition from the music support service because of budget cuts.

But in spite of this and other setbacks,the service still remains one of the strongest in the country.

At the Royal Albert Hall in November, the Greater Gwent Youth Orchestra and 14 other ensembles from the music service performed in front of thousands of people at the Music For Youth concert.

All of the groups had to qualify to play there from regional heats held first in Newport and then in Birmingham.

To get so many competing showed how well regarded the service is across the country and how high its standards are.

Based at Malpas Court Primary School, in Newport, for the past four years, the service’s structure had to be streamlined significantly because of those cuts but it still serves thousands of pupils a week.

It now has a leadership team of three people and 27 other members of staff – 16 were made redundant as part of the mandatory restructuring. Another 80 to 90 staff work as freelance music teachers across Gwent.

The music service manager, Alun Williams, said although there was no summer showcase held this year because of the service’s review he is hopeful there will be one in July 2014. These concerts are held at St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

And the support service is looking towards its 27th consecutive Christmas Extravaganza, which will be held at the Newport Centre this Friday, at 7pm, in co-ordination with the Rotary Club of St Woolos.

Mr Williams said: “The schools have been great in their support.

“We are obviously delighted with the standards that our young people have reached consistently over recent years but this is a result of ensuring that standards of teaching and learning have risen through careful planning, appropriate training and quality recruitment.

“We never lose sight that these achievements are only the tip of a very wide pyramid, a pyramid that offers children the chance to participate, wherever and whatever their age or ability.” T

The Extravaganza and the Summer Showcase are just two of several opportunities for music students to showcase their skills.

Over recent years, wind ensembles have toured New Zealand and Australia. Next year the service’s orchestra will be travelling to western Bohemia in the Czech Republic for a series of concerts. The tours are not a financial burden on the service because all musicians pay their own way.

Former users of the service who are now looking to make their careers in music are complementary about what the service has given them.

Matthew Brown, who is now studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, said: “It has given me a huge amount of experience performing with other people and the quality of teaching was great.”

The former Monmouth Comprehensive School pupil, 19, travels down from Manchester once a month to practice with the orchestra and will be touring with them in the Czech Republic next year.

It is not surprising he feels a connection with the service. He started using it 13 years ago and used it all throughout school.

And he went on a “brilliant” tour of Leipzig in Germany and surrounding areas with the music support service’s full orchestra and choir in 2011.

The impressive roster of people who have used Gwent Music Support Service shows just how successful it is. It has former users based all round the world.

Among those who now live in America, cellist Paul Watkins was the principal cellist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in the string section in 1988. James Manning is a musical associate at Universal Studios in Hollywood.

Others have made it big in London. Paul Watkins’ brother Huw is now Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music.

Caroline Sheen has performed in the West End and James Draisey is the musical director of the show Wicked, which has been on stage at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre since 2006.

Sean Moore, the Manic Street Preachers’ drummer, was a member of the Gwent Music Service growing up.

And the service’s varied alumni reflect just how much musical variety the music support service provides.

Decades ago, the service’s provision would have been to provide mainly classical tuition but there has been an effort to ensure that there are other types of musical genres incorporated into children’s education.

They coordinate workshops and projects in schools such as the Big Beat African Drumming Project and Cwricwlwm Cymreig, a traditional Welsh music group. The service also works with Ty Cerdd in Cardiff and Sinfonia Cymru on other projects. There are several bases across Gwent where pop and rock bands can practice.

Staff have also worked in partnership with Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to put together curriculum recitals for the local authority and Greater Gwent areas.

And Raglan Primary School’s headteacher Jeremy Piper praised the service.

He said the music service had helped bring several aspects of music education together for schools across Gwent.

At his school, all reception and year one pupils get instrumental music lessons from the music service. And a lot of the older children at the school are still keen musicians after their early introduction – half of the other older children at the school are learning to play a musical instrument.

The music service covers much of Gwent and has six specialist centres where students can play and study. They are based in Willowtown, Monmouth, Chepstow, Croesyceiliog, Bassaleg and Eveswell.

And the service also has an early years centre at the Riverfront Theatre, while another group, Isca Linea, is based in Caerleon. The four local authorities all have their own big bands.

Mr Williams added: “We still receive financial support from Monmouthshire and Torfaen councils and schools and pupils in these local authorities receive additional services and activities.

“All music services across Wales and the UK can expect further cuts in local authority funding and are looking at ways in which the service operates differently and more as a business. Those are the challenges that lie ahead.”

And young musicians across Gwent must sincerely hope the service is able to carry on as successfully as it has done for the past few decades.

The vast selection of opportunities is clear from the Greater Gwent bands alone. Students can be part of the youth choir, the jazz orchestra, the brass band, symphonic winds, youth strings, youth orchestra and brass ensembles.

Next year, just as 2013 started, talented Gwent musicians will look to qualify for the Music for Youth final in March with a view to the other qualifying rounds for the concert in London. They will also be able to perform at the chairman of Monmouthshire Showcase Concert and the Mayor of Torfaen Showcase Concert in 2014.

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