"Be whatever you want to be," the teenagers from Balla Secondary School, Mayo, sing in choral harmony. "Like a unicorn in a field full of horses. Don't think about blending in."
“Crawl/breaststroke/butterfly/swim,” the students from St Ita’s, Tralee respond in catchy chorus. “Diving in the deep end, on each other we can depend.”
Across six schools and three counties, bridging the divide between mainstream and special education, 120 young people have been brought together to experience and create live music in a unique programme being orchestrated by the Whistleblast Quartet. The quartet was founded in 2006 with the aim of "providing an interactive outreach and advocacy programme for all communities, particularly those who are socially excluded, geographically isolated and those who have no previous contact with the arts", as one of the group's founders, Mary Curran, explains. They started by developing a family-friendly repertoire of classical performance, which still runs across venues nationwide, pairing complex classical scores by Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Bizet, say, with popular film soundtracks or well-known nursery rhymes.
However, Whistleblast have also been working within a formal educational context since the beginning, developing teacher training programmes as well as leading workshops and performing in schools. The impetus behind the schools programme was clear for Curran and her collaborators from the start.
“There is a lack of live classical music in accessible form,” she explains, “especially in rural areas, and particularly for young people. There is a great need for young people to have good engagement with live music and to participate within it and develop performance. It is not just that they are the audience of the future, but it is hugely beneficial for their wellbeing. Music came before words, and it can help express your emotional life in a way that language sometimes can’t. It’s an incredible way for young people to process their emotions and deepen their understanding of the world.”
It is with this in mind that Whistleblast inaugurated a new Composition programme in 2018, to give young people the tools for using music as a language of their own, as “an emotional outlet and for self-expression”, as well as an opportunity to develop a new skill or enhance a latent one.
“It is about empowering students to develop their own work, which is different than just going in and allowing them opportunity to listen.”
From the very first workshop, the teenagers are “invited to participate as equals, regardless of ability, background or experience. Those without experience are encouraged to join in on percussion or as singers; those with more experience are encouraged to help with instrumental elements.”
This year they are working with equal partners from both the mainstream and special education system across three counties: Dublin, Mayo and Kerry. Relationships are formed between the local schools as the programme develops; they share their developing work and learn each other’s songs for a large-scale performance at the programme’s end. Sligo Youth Symphonica, who are also participating in the scheme, will provide much of the orchestral backdrop to the programme’s grand finale: a live performance of the new compositions alongside classical and contemporary standards, performed by the Whistleblast Quartet themselves, in professional venues across the country.
The theme for this year’s programme,The Greatest Challenge, was chosen by the teenagers themselves, after discussing ideas relevant to their own experience and communities. The broad theme allowed them to address personal issues such as friendship, but also bigger themes such as emigration, mental health, capitalism and digital culture. Collaboration on all fronts is key, both between the students themselves as they negotiate song lyrics, and with the professional musicians, who enable them to turn their ideas into music.
“We initiate it,” Curran explains of the programme, “but they take ownership, developing the musical and thematic material: what they want to say, what they want it to sound like. We are there to help provide a quality shape to their ideas, to help develop their ideas into musical concepts: repetition, harmony, genre. But really, this is about what they want to show to the world.”
The boys and girls at Mercy Secondary School Mount Hawk in Tralee want to puncture the pressures of a life lived online. “You’re fake and phoney,” they sing. “It’s scandalous, You’re sad and lonely. It’s scandalous.”
Mental health is key for the pupils of Balla Secondary School Mayo. “You can’t have a rainbow without a little rain, You can’t have happiness without a little pain.”
At the start, they are a little bit reluctant. But by the time the live performances come about, they are transformed
The students of Scoil Chiaráin in Glasnevin brim with positivity ("Strolling and strutting down the street, Dancing along to my own life beat"), while Clonturk Community College in Whitehall turn their focus outwards, imagining life for emigrants "back in the day when the world was chanting for rights".
Curran, who has been running educational outreach work for decades, says the benefits to participating students are clear.
“You can see how they gather confidence in their own abilities” as the programme progresses, she says. “At the start, they are a little bit reluctant. Shy in front of their peers, like most teenagers, really. But by the time the live performances come about, they are transformed.”
Maureen Quinn, CEO of St Dymphna's Special School in Ballina, Co Mayo, echoes this sentiment when she talks about the benefit the programme has yielded for the 30 students at the small rural school.
“There is definitely a social aspect to the growth of the students. Self-esteem and confidence would be a big thing for our students, and confidence-wise they wouldn’t before have put themselves forward to sing or take part, but now they will take part in things.”
She says the opportunity to compose their own work definitely feeds into that.
“They are more likely to speak up precisely because their ideas are listened to to create a new piece of music or a rap.”
The benefits can be seen across the broader school context too.
“There are children who would have only been able to sit and listen for 10 minutes at the start of the programme, but who can sit through a whole performance of the Nutcracker now.”
As teachers, she says, “we wouldn’t have the sort of special skill that professional musicians have to bring to life performance and music like they do, and there wouldn’t be much opportunity elsewhere in Mayo to have this sort of experience. It has been very special for us and our students.”
The students at Mercy Secondary School Mount Hawk come from a different, more privileged perspective, says transition year co-ordinator Ronan Redican.
It is a brilliant opportunity to stand in front of your peers and demonstrate your skills in a public setting
“There is a very established tradition of music and performance at the school,” he explains. “The school has a bi-annual school musical, an established choir, and music is a popular subject at both Junior and Leaving Cert level. Even so, it would be very rare for them to have the opportunity to experience music in live performance.”
At Leaving Cert level, “there is a composition requirement for music students, and that part of whole process allows them to learn those skills with the group.”
The performance element, meanwhile, "has a huge social and personal context. It is a brilliant opportunity to stand in front of your peers and demonstrate your skills in a public setting. For many of them, they will be standing on stage in a professional venue for the first time. To say that you have performed on the stage of the National Concert Hall. You can't replicate that in the classroom, you have to experience it yourself."
Having their work is performed alongside an established repertoire brought to life by the Whistleblast Quartet is especially heartening.
“We have always believed that the best way to offer challenging music is to juxtapose it with something familiar,” Curran concludes. And what could be more familiar, more accessible, than work they have themselves conceived, created and performed for themselves and for their peers. The Greatest Challenge becomes The Greatest Achievement.
The Greatest Challenge will be performed at Ballina Arts Centre on May 10. The performance is free but tickets must be booked in advance.