Bah-humbug to the lockdown! How hundreds of Birmingham schoolchildren are taking part in a virtual musical Christmas spectacular, complete with the Grenadier Guards
With 2020 being the year from hell you’d be forgiven for thinking the festive season is destined to be all bah-humbug too! But before we rush to accept the Scrooge scenario there is, we are delighted to report, a beacon of light and inspiration shining in Birmingham. And it involves brilliant young musicians from the city – and the Grenadier Guards!
During the pandemic and lockdowns, the amazing team at Birmingham Music Service has been working behind the scenes to continue making music with thousands of schoolchildren. Earlier in the year, the service – one of the largest in the country, working across 384 of the city’s schools, teaching music to approximately 38,000 children and providing 28,000 musical instruments free-of-charge – staged its successful Virtual Youth Proms Festival.
The festival featured 500 young musicians taking part in 30 bespoke pre-recorded free performances over four evenings, streamed to an audience of 4,000 and watched by many more since. The proms also included six performances by the Band of the Royal Marines and raised more than £6,000 through voluntary donations for the Music Service charity.
“The Virtual Proms were so successful, we’ve decided to do even bigger concerts for Christmas,” said the head of the Music Service, Stuart Birnie. “Nearly 800 children will take part with 22 ensembles and choirs providing pre-recorded pieces. Our contacts with the military mean that this time we have the Band of the Grenadier Guards also performing. Additionally, we are hoping to get official approval from the city council for a relay of traditional festive carols performed live by our brass band and chamber choir from Centenary Square.”
The two Virtual Christmas Festive Concerts will be held on Saturday and Sunday, 12 and 13 December and include Birmingham Schools’ jazz, percussion and guitar ensembles, brass and concert bands, string sinfonia and wind and concert orchestras, plus Guardsmen.
The concerts are the culmination of an incredible amount of creative thinking, organisation and sheer hard work by Birmingham Music Service which has had to adapt to find new ways of working during the pandemic to continue to bring music education to the city’s schoolchildren. The team is part of the Services For Education charity which was formed in the city in 2012 and now employs 240 staff and is part-funded by the Arts Council.
Stuart said: “In a normal year, our summer youth proms held in July would enable 3,500 young musicians and singers, aged from eight to 18, to perform to live audiences at Symphony Hall. This year, with so many restrictions in place and rehearsals an impossibility, the option was either to cancel everything or transform it to an on-line festival. So, the Virtual Youth Proms Festival was born – four nights of concerts weaving together individual performances from ensemble members in their own homes presented live on consecutive evenings via the web.”
The evening performances ran alongside four daytime programmes celebrating the work of the Music Service past and present, masterclasses in woodwind, brass and percussion led by the Royal Marines Band Service and messages of support from friends, including world-renowned violinist Nicola Benedetti, saxophonist Jess Gillam and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire principal Julian Lloyd-Webber. The Christmas concerts will follow the Proms template but Stuart is promising they will be even more ambitious.
He said: “Moving forward, once the pandemic is in the past, we will of course be returning to live performing, but the online opportunities will continue to be developed. Streaming our concerts and festivals mean that friends and relations who live far away can see their children taking part regardless of the distance between them.”
Next year, Stuart aims to widen schoolchildren’s music experiences still further with plans to start working toward summer concerts with the Bollywood Brass Band. He is also leading efforts to make contact with leading artists and musicians to become Music Service ambassadors who would hold masterclasses with children. “We want to show all our children that all options are possible in taking part in and enjoying music.”