Sing It Proud

Kathrine Barnecutt oversees the Sing Out With Strings programme bringing orchestral music into two Limerick primary schools.

“I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning” the Greek philosopher Plato once mused, and now, over 2,000 years later, his words still resonate. As Programme Coordinator of Sing Out With Strings, Kathrine Barnecutt has seen how rewarding the gift of music can be to children. The only one of its kind in the country, the programme was started in 2008 with seed funding from the Strategic Innovation in Education Fund from the Department of Lifelong Learning at University of Limerick. With UL lecturer Kathleen Turner at the helm in the beginning, Sing Out With Strings started out as a community engagement programme with the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO). What was initially a songwriting initiative that combined the children’s ideas, lyrics and melodies with the musical abilities of the ICO soon grew to include an immersive violin programme, inspired by the El Sistema orchestral programme in Venezuela. Joining the programme as Strings Director in 2013 while on sabbatical from her job at RTÉ, Kathrine eventually took over from Kathleen in 2015 and now finds her role as Programme Coordinator thoroughly rewarding.

Growing up in Hull, East Yorkshire, Kathrine’s family was musically inclined, and she was able to see firsthand the benefits that music brought to her own childhood. “My dad plays clarinet and saxophone and was in a jazz band when I was growing up,” she explains. “There was always music blaring around the house, and I started playing the violin at the age of six, while my sister played the cello. Where I grew up, there was a free music service delivered through the schools; it was there that I made my closest friends from all over the city and from all walks of life – many of them went on to become professional musicians.”

I’m so passionate about the experiences and skills that the children are taking with them into the future… It gives them great self-confidence and a sense of autonomy.

Today, in her busy position as the programme’s manager, Kathrine is responsible for overseeing the team who make it all happen: eight facilitators who work alongside the ICO’s musicians to teach the children of St Mary’s National School and Le Chéile National School. “I manage the teachers’ day-to-day schedule, and coordinate with the schools, the ICO, the parents, and above all, the children,” she explains. “Our team facilitates sessions in songwriting, choir, violin, viola, cello, double bass and traditional singing to over 300 children, three times a week. Each day can feature anything from tuning 300 violins, 20 violas, 18 cellos and six double basses to exploring mad thematic ideas for songs and melodies, to calling parents to remind them about a child’s after-school rehearsal. We could also be getting on a bus to go and set up 100 chairs in a city centre venue for one of our performances – there’s always plenty going on! Fundraising is also a vital part of the role and takes up a considerable amount of time throughout the year.”

Despite the challenges the programme faces – limited resources and trying to achieve ideals within the bounds of what’s practical – Kathrine says that the pride she takes in the children’s progress makes it all worth it. “I’m so passionate about the experiences and skills that the children are taking with them into the future, and the fact that their creativity and imagination are matched with tangible skills and knowledge. It gives them great self-confidence and a sense of autonomy.”

The programme will be entering its tenth year thanks to ongoing support from Limerick Regeneration, Limerick Enterprise Development Partnership (LEDP), The Healy Foundation, the JP MacManus Foundation and other private donors, and Kathrine is hopeful that it will grow to facilitate even more children in the Limerick area, as well as extend musical opportunities to the wider community. “Thanks to generous support this year we have also begun teaching in Thomond Community College and Nano Nagle secondary schools,” she notes. “It would be amazing to secure funding so these vibrant groups can come together to form a big after-school youth orchestra in central Limerick. I’m also hoping that this group will be able to participate in the Sistema European Youth Orchestra Summer Camp, where young musicians from all over Europe in other Sistema-inspired programmes come together over 10 days to form a symphony orchestra and get to perform in some of Europe’s most prestigious venues.”

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