It’s important to understand that what looks like a new wave in the choral movement has actually been going on for years. It actually began with the first conference of British choral conductors around 25 years ago. At that time nothing like this existed, so over 150 of us got together and decided it was time to do something about it.
When I started out 31 years ago as a choral conductor I had no idea what I was doing. Like so many others in the UK who follow a career in choral music I was a choral scholar at Cambridge but there were no formal courses where you could learn to be a choral conductor. So the only way of learning was by doing. I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors.
My first break was early on when I fell in with Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where I was working with the chorus. I have also been very lucky to work as John Eliot Gardiner’s assistant as well as with Richard Hickox and others. Later I was one of the first to study on a formal conducting course.
This is something that I and others are still working to change - we now have formal choral conducting courses running at the Welsh College of Music and Drama where at the moment there are four students in the second year and eight students have just joined in the first year, so it is already expanding. They get a real education in how to listen, analyse and conduct, as well as managing a choir - all essential skills. We’ve just started something similar at the University of Birmingham. Our legacy is to make sure the next generation is singing, so it spreads to the one beyond that, creating the biggest pool possible.
I do all this because I passionately believe that choral singing mends broken communities and mends broken souls
I do all this because I passionately believe that choral singing mends broken communities and mends broken souls. I have seen the evidence – from universities where lots of new students, feeling homesick and lost, would come and sing and make friends and decide not to quit out of homesickness after all, to choirs for those who have retired or perhaps someone who has lost a spouse. I have seen lives utterly transformed in that way, people who build their whole social life around the choir. The benefits are obvious and measurable – choral singing breaks down age and cultural barriers.
I see this choral renaissance happening all over the world – in South Africa, where there is a strong choral tradition, in South American countries where there are Sistema-style choral movements. These sorts of community choirs can be of the highest standard – for example the Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior choir. Many of these young people come from underprivileged backgrounds, some from care homes, yet they won Choir of the Year. When you consider that, it’s much more extraordinary an achievement than being the best Oxbridge choir.
Interview by Emma Baker.