Prepared to Listen

In my standard working week, I usually rehearse around 1000 children in choirs, most of which is done in primary schools with entire classes or year groups. It’s a privilege to work these kids and to be given the freedom to run these session how I see fit.

Whilst development of singing is a pretty major part of the work I do with these children, I’m just as concerned about these children leaving primary school with a culturally curious mind so they can feel able to pursue a passion that’s true to them. Consequently, I’ve been throwing a whole variety of different recordings at them since September, from Orlando de Lassus and Henry Purcell through to Tchaikovsky and Miles Davis. The reaction and enthusiasm has been varied, but of all the music I played, there was one piece of music that seem to really stand out as a favourite: John Cage’s Sonata No. 7 for Prepared Piano.

I’m not entirely sure exactly why this, of all the pieces I played, captured the imagination of the children, but I’ve never had so many of the class ask me what the piece was called. I’ve also never seen so many hands up asking to share their thoughts and opinions.

Will Self once said in an interview that he preferred debating with the young, because they’re not as entrenched in their views as his peers. Culturally I think we’re guilty of a similar attitude as we get older. When I was a teenager, I had no interest in classical music at all. I can remember periodically stumbling across Classic FM and thinking it was just the station that had violins playing. Over a period of time, I became culturally entrenched in an idea that this was all that classical music was. When I had that particular assumption challenged, it was quite a spectacular revelation. Whenever people talk about diversifying audiences in classical music, the same phrases get dragged out: we must ‘break down barriers’ and ‘challenge the stereotypes’ of ‘elitism’ and ‘high culture’. All this is a product of cultural entrenchment that we all experience.

This entrenchment is even more of a challenge for classical contemporary music. Last week, composer David Bruce posted a video about ‘The Unbearable Irrelevance of Contemporary Music’, most specifically the issue of it’s rather inward looking and largely academic community. I think he’s absolutely spot on in his analysis. Even within classical music circles, new music is seen as a niche. So much so, that many audiences still view the music of John Cage, who has been dead for a quarter of a century, as contemporary.

Seeing these children genuinely get excited about John Cage was life affirming. Children aren’t laden down with cultural assumptions. They just take this music at face value. Their perspective is a genuine asset and one we should foster. I think too often we get side tracked by explaining to people what a symphony is or why Beethoven’s music was so shocking in his day. Why not play something that is shocking today?

So if you’re an animateur, teacher or parent who cares about sharing classical music with your children, rather than playing Carnival of The Animals or Peter and Wolf, why not go for some John Cage instead?

All opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own. Please leave comments below.

Diversity in Education: More important than music.

Michelle Dewberry.


I never thought I’d blog about a former winner of the The Apprentice, but here we are…

Dewberry is a familiar face on The Pledge; a show that appears to be Question Time but without any actual questions from an audience. Have a watch of the first ninety seconds of this segment from a recent episode. Dewberry is arguing for a radical change to the education system by businesses ‘having a say in the skills being taught’ as our current curriculum has ‘no use at all in the real world’.

It’s not Dewberry’s proposal to radically change the education system that annoys me. What is so infuriating is how she champions ignorance so brazenly in the debate. Who is she to say what knowledge has ‘use in the real world’? What does that even mean?

I spend a good portion of my working week teaching opera arias to primary school children. I’m going to assume that Michelle would class my work as ‘not fit for purpose’. With Michelle’s rationale, if the children I work with do not pursue a career as an opera singer, then all those music classes were a waste of everyone’s time.

It would be easy to point out the wider benefits a subject like music has, such as how it teaches empathy, encourages teamwork, forces you to make creative decisions as well as a whole ream of other buzzword attributes that would bag you a place on The Apprentice. It would be very appealing to point out how misguided Michelle is, but there’s a much more substantial issue that needs addressing.

The arts are valuable, but diversity of knowledge is even more valuable. Whilst it is important to advocate the arts, we have a societal responsibility to not simply look after our own sector, but allow young people to have the option to chase a passion that speaks to them personally.

There’s been lots of talk in the Music Education sector of STEM to STEAM, effectively the idea of bringing the arts into the collection of core subjects that are science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I’m glad that we trying to foster creativity in our core subjects, but why should we have core subjects at all? By aspiring to sit at this artificial top table we’re effectively reducing other subjects to Dewberry’s ‘not fit for purpose’ category. It’s great if a child wants to engage with music, but it’s equally great if they want to engage with history or learning a language. We absolutely should champion music and the rest of the arts, but never at the expense of other subjects.

A few months back, I heard a rather damaging call to arms for music from Yo-Yo Ma that exemplifies this: “Remember those boring classes? We don’t want them. Instead we want passion driven education”. Speak for yourself Ma, but don’t tell others what they should be passionate about. Champion choice for young people above music.

As we all know, the voice of the far-right is growing. The troubling rhetoric of looking after our own first has become more present. Don’t simply look after your own industry. We should champion diversity, not just as a society, but in how we educate, or else people might actually take Michelle’s ideas seriously.

All opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own. Please leave comments below.

Community Choirs: A Legacy of the Failures of Choral Societies

Forty thousand choirs in the UK! Choral directors of the UK rejoice. Voices Now have finally published their Big Choral Census. They’ve put hard data to something we knew was true: there are loads of choirs and loads of people who love singing in them. Finally we can present government with solid evidence that meaningful investment into the art form will be money well spent. Surely a cause for celebration? Yes… but not entirely.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of choirs I’ve come across that barely survive on their current membership. For non auditioned choirs, dwindling numbers mean choirs can no longer perform the repertoire they were previously able to. I would argue that we actually have too many choirs in the UK and our amateur choristers are spread too thinly.

In the census, the most popular category choirs chose to define themselves as was ‘community choir’. I still can’t quite figure out exactly what this phrase actually means, but presumably community choirs are in existence as they attempt to fill a niche of prioritising inclusion and having fun at rehearsals. Fine… but did this niche exist in the first place? Surely all open access choirs aspire to be fun and inclusive?

It looks like the appearance of the community choir has actually come about as an apology for our shortcomings in properly advocating choral music. Had classical music not been chained to it’s clapped out elitist stereotype, we might not have seen the arrival of so many so-called community choirs. What this census has shown us is that there is an appetite for choral music, but novices are still too intimidated by the old stereotypes of a typical Messiah-loving (as in the oratorio!) choral society to join.

There is no reason why all open access choirs can’t be both musically ambitious and fun to sing in. The choral societies (in the traditional sense) that I’ve worked with absolutely have community at their core but are desperate for more singers! What concerns me about the rise of the community choir is that people feel they have to sacrifice challenging themselves in order to have fun. This is not good. We need to do more to advocate quality choral singing as an enjoyable experience in its own right and not just set up new choirs to avoid outdated stereotypes.

Let me be clear in saying I have no issue with people joining a community choir. It can be impossible to tell the difference between community choirs and choral societies today as the phrase is so meaningless. We simply have good practice and bad practice. Let’s not let bad practice dilute the pool.

All opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own. Please leave comments below.