As World Music Day approaches, PETER BARRON reports on a flourishing partnership that's providing musical opportunities for North-East youngsters

AS he sits in his office, looking out on the magnificent grounds of an historic North-East estate, Michael Summers is happy to acknowledge that he’s a lucky man.

Music is the love of his life and, for the past five years, Michael has been manager of Durham Music Service, based amid the splendour of Ushaw, on the outskirts of Durham.

“It’s a wonderfully rewarding job and to be working in such a magnificent setting is a bonus. I’m very fortunate,” he smiles.

Michael trained as a percussionist and began his working life as a music teacher, rising to become a head of music. Career highlights include conducting the Sir Thomas More Chamber Choir at the Royal Albert Hall, and he is now musical director of the Durham Choral Society.

As Durham Music Service manager, his overriding aim is to bring music into the lives of as many young people as possible, so the hugely positive public response to the Durham Music Service’s next big project is music to his ears.

So far, more than 15,000 youngsters have signed up to be part of the “Big Play” on June 21. Not only does it fall on World Make Music Day, it also happens to be the longest day of the year – and music will fill the air from dawn until dusk.

It is the first time the event has been held and Michael is delighted with the number of small, large, formal and informal performances being planned across the area. From school playgrounds to concert halls, instruments will be played, songs will be sung, and spirits will be lifted.

“It’s about encouraging young musicians to feel they are part of something bigger, no matter where they happen to be playing or singing,” he says.

The joyful day of music will begin at 6am with a concert in the bandstand at Darlington’s South Park and carry on until sunset with a host of activities. They will include pupils from five primary schools singing outside Ushaw, the former Catholic seminary that has been reborn as an increasingly high-profile cultural centre.

The Big Play will end with a rock concert at the Gala Theatre in Durham City and a folk night at the Langdon Beck Hotel in Forest-in-Teesdale, featuring youth folk band The Cream Tees.

“The response has been really heartening,” says Michael. “To have 15,000 young people signing up already is fantastic and there’s still time to join in.”

The event also coincides with the third anniversary of the Durham Music Service moving into Ushaw and Michael, the son of a priest himself, has no doubts that a mutually beneficial partnership is being forged. 

“Ushaw is in the ascendency as a cultural centre visitor attraction, so it’s such a great fit for the Durham Music Service to be part of it,” he says. “We were already well-established in education circles, but we weren’t necessarily seen as a cultural organisation. Being part of the creative hub at Ushaw immediately gave us that cultural connection.”

The Durham Music Service, launched half a century ago, operates in partnership with Durham County Council and Darlington Borough Council, and had previously been based at Aycliffe Young People’s Centre. The switch to Ushaw was heavily influenced by Roger Kelly, Ushaw’s highly respected and much-missed development director, who sadly passed away recently.

“Roger was a great help in facilitating the move,” acknowledges Michael. “He had so much passion for music, along with a vision for how the partnership could work.

“Being based at Ushaw gives us real kudos because it is becoming a real creative hub and the fact that it is now being visited by 43,000 people a year at the last count is a clear benefit to us.”

The benefits go both ways because, in turn, Durham Music Service is giving Ushaw an invaluable connection to the younger generation.

Despite the challenges brought by austerity, it is a testament to the continuing value of the service that 21,000 young people in around 300 schools receive some form of tuition from the service every week. Although that teaching is mainly carried out in schools, talented young musicians also come to Ushaw for additional training.

One of the main challenges at the previous location was storage and 10,000 instruments are now comfortably stored in neat rows in what used to be Ushaw’s old laundry. The music service, which runs 30 ensembles, also has use of three spacious offices as well as opportunities to stage performances in a stunning setting.

For example, the youth orchestra playing live to a showing of the much-loved film, The Snowman, has become a fixture in December. In addition, the Northern Regional Wind Band rehearses at Ushaw, and sectional rehearsals for the County Youth Orchestra are also held there.

Ushaw is also used for all graded music examinations organised by the service, and plans are evolving all the time to increase musical activities, including adult classes, an open access choir, and weekly ukulele classes. Further afield from Ushaw, preparations are being made for an office choir of the year competition to be staged as part of a vocal festival.

“There’s so much to look forward to and I really am blessed to be part of it all,” says Michael, ending on a positive note.

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