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Kids delighted as Ulster Orchestra project brings live music to primary school

Pupils at Dunmurry’s Good Shepherd Primary School enjoyed another day of glorious sunshine yesterday — and a performance by the Ulster Orchestra.

After months of receiving music lessons via a computer screen, the joy on children’s faces was clear to see as members of the orchestra put on a show just for them.

Walking out to the playground carrying plastic chairs, the pupils had a front-row seat to enjoy arranged renditions of nursery rhyme classics such as the Grand Old Duke of York and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As part of the orchestra’s Crescendo outreach project, four schools normally come together for an annual event at Belfast’s Ulster Hall.

With the Covid crisis making that impossible this year, musicians are instead travelling to schools.

Double bass player Michelle Strong began the show by playing pupils the theme from Jaws, which they know as Baby Shark.

"I really loved it. I liked that we could do some marching and I actually really liked the atmosphere,” said Megan Bryson (5).

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Picking the violin as her favourite instrument, Megan also suggested the orchestra try playing her favourite song, A Million Dreams, from the Greatest Showman soundtrack.

Having just finished her first performance of the day, Michelle said it was a relief to be working with children again.

"I usually see the older children in P6 or P7. Of course, we haven’t seen them since March last year, which is a shame, so we’ve been sending videos for them to watch of us playing,” she added.

The project normally sees children given a chance to pick up instruments themselves, something Michelle hopes to see return after the summer break.

"It’s great to see them, even those little kids in P1, because they haven’t had much experience of live music before," she said.

“Even if the kids aren’t going to carry on with an instrument, it’s something they can learn and they really enjoy it.

"It’s the thing about working together, playing together as a group and listening to each other.

"We’ve been doing videos in the Waterfront, but not with an audience, so it’s not the same at all.

"Maybe on June 21 [the indicative date for music venues and theatres reopening] we might have our first date with just a small invited audience.

"That would be quite a thing to get back to because that’s what it’s about really, to play to other people.”

Viola player Jonathan Simmance is an ‘animateur’ for the Crescendo project, meaning it is up to him to get children interested in music.

"Performing to a screen, you get nothing back," he said.

“You get comments, you get emails, but you don’t actually get that real live vibe, that something in the air that you get in a concert hall with an audience.

"Here, we got to see the kids and they got to react to people they’ve seen on TV.

"For some of them, that will be the first time they’ve heard our acoustic classical instruments played live ever.

"Just to see their faces... we’re in it for the audience. A round of applause keeps us happy.”

Navigating the ever-changing lockdown restrictions, particularly the previous ban on singing, was tough work for the team.

“That was really hard. There was a lot of humming, a lot of clapping and a lot of clicking going on," Jonathan said.

Like the other members of the project, the animateur was delighted to get back to working with kids.

"It’s what we’ve missed possibly the most. It’s a form of communication without words that we have between ourselves. You can share it with anybody," he explained.

Taking a break from arranging the seating, Good Shepherd principal Damian O’Neill was over the moon to see the musicians return.

"It’s a wonderful experience for all of the children — the weather has thankfully done its part," he said.

“We are very grateful to the Ulster Orchestra, who have been wonderful partners with Good Shepherd Primary School for a number of years now.

"The influence that is having on our children in terms of their confidence… their learning experience is enhanced by the whole musical experience.

“Sometimes there’s an overemphasis on the academic side of schools. We would have quite a few children who don’t have any outlet to showcase their talents in music.

"I feel that it’s so important that we can tap into all of those talents and give the children an outlet. These guys have been phenomenal in their support of us.”

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