The last week of my Churchill Fellowship travels was spent in Hamilton, near Tornonto - Canada. This was my first visit to Canada - the autumn colours were wonderful, though my hotel was right in the city.
Much of my week was spent with the superb Hamilton Children's Choir - an organisation which provides music education for pre-schoolers right up to school leavers. Last weekend they had a choral day on the Saturday - this was a great introcuction to some of their choirs! I then spent two further rehearsals with them last Monday and Wednesday.
Hamilton is an area with a very mixed demographic, and not all of the young people who join HCC have had any musical training before they arrive. And yet, under the direction of Zimfira Polaz and her magnicicent team, the standard of the music produced was breathtaking. Not only this, some of their pieces (which varied enormously in genre and language) had complex movements in too, which did not did not diminish the quality of singing in any way. Zimfira knows exactly what she wants and achieves this through constant tuning, adjusting and demonstrating until it's right. The warm ups were possibly the most efficient and detailed I'd seen in the whole of my travels!
Whilst in Canada I saw two other choral organisations. Oakville choirs for children and youth - situated between Hamilton and Toronto. I only managed to spend one rehearsal with them, but it was well worth it. I managed to observed their very youngest 'little voices' choirs - with so many attendees they were split into three groups. This was delightful, with a mix of singing games, call and response and rhymes. There was movement mixed in too - and anything new was modelled brilliantly by Jenny Johnston, the teacher of this agegroup. I also got to see their chamber choir - a group of about 22 girls, aged 15-18 or so. This choir was very competent indeed and they produced a beautiful sound, conducted by Charlene Pauls. They were able to change their voices effectively depending on the piece: the delicacy of Schubert, to the chesty sound of Fire by Katerina Gimon!
Lastly, I managed to visit the world famous Tornonto Children's Choir. I observed two of their choirs rehearsing on Friday, which was in preparation for a concert on Saturday. Their Artistic Director, Elise Bradley, was clearly a stickler for detail and many of the pieces were fine tuned and carefully honed until it was right. On first impression, it seemed like military precision - but Elise's unique sense of humour and twinkly eye became evident too! The choirs rehearsing on Friday were their chorale and also the chamber choir 'choral scholars' - members of which are also in their main choir.
Saturday was my last day and as the concert was at 3pm, and my flight wasn't unitl 11pm, so I decided to go to their concert. I was not disappointed! I saw all of their choirs from the 'prep' choirs to the three 'training choirs', plus their main choir and Choral Scholars. The standard was very high - and what struck me more than any other choir I'd seen in the USA and Canada, was the fact that they sounded the most English. Their vowels - even in the youngest choir - were all uniform and very consistent, with long 'ahs' in the middle of words like grass and last. The rendition of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square was exquisite!
What a brilliant way to end my travels...which have now come to an end. It's been a truly wonderful experience and now the hard word begins: putting into place eveything I've learned and writing my 15,000 word report! Keep checking back for my blog updates as my musical jouney back home begins...
For the past week I've been stationed near Chicago - just outside in fact, in a little town called Glen Ellyn. It's been a brilliant week of choral visiting!
Quite close by to my hotel was Anima - the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus. This is a fine organisation, led by Artistic Director Charles Sundquist - who is quite new to the organisation. I visited their concert choir and touring choir, which was great to see. In a similar way to Indianapolis, they built in theory into their rehearsals which included Kodaly methods. I was also lucky enough to see their chamber choir, which is an extension of their touring choir.
The children and young people clearly have fun in rehearsals, though are number were missing this week due to holiday time. They are also blessed with a fantastic community centre, which doubles up as their rehearsal space and office! It was great to be made so welcome and to meet their superb team.
I also visitied the Napervill Young Singers, situated a little further away. They have an incredible TEN choirs and I was lucky enough to visit them three times, seeing vitutally every ensemble. Their warm, friendly approach was evident as soon as I walked in - as was their level of musicianship. Their choirs have a clear progression from age 5 right through to 18, many of which rehearse girls and boys separately. This has not only had the effect of increasing the number of boys - but girls too!
Angie Johnson, their Artistic Director, leads a brilliant team of conductors, who build in plenty of theory, note reading and Kodaly - resulting in a high level of excellence. What I also liked was the way their rehearsals began with an unannounced song - everyone just starts singing, then moving straight into an enery-packed warm up! It was great to meet Neveen Michael, too, who is the president of The Board!
As I write this I am now in Canada, staying at a place called Hamilton - just outside Toronto. I'll be visiting the Hamilton Children's Choir, Oakville Choir for Children and Youth and (hopefully) the Tornoto Children's Chorus. I'm sure my last week of traveling will be a real highlight!
Since my last blog I have spent the week in Indianapolis - a bustling, vibrant (but not that large) city in Indiana. I spent the week visiting the Indianapolis Children's Choir, a phenomenal organisation that serves well over 2000 young people and children each week. Their structure - both artistically and in their management - is highly effective.
After initially witnessing some superb concerts last weekend, it was great to meet Joshua Pedde - their Artistic Director - and the team he leads. It was nice to see the concerts first as it gave me real insight into the level they achieve in just a short space of time.
Through the week I met with Josh, his team and the management (including their Chief Executive) at various times to get a feel for how things are run. I found that Josh and I were very similar in many ways in terms of philosophy and approach, and we discussed at length the varying aspects of our jobs. He's a great leader and full of enthusiasm which really shines through!
Josh explained the four pillars that the ICC is based on: Artistry, Community, Education and Excellence. The education element is what interested me initially - and Ruth Dwyer is in charge of this aspect. This set of choirs, which starts from pre-school projects, to preparatory and 'beginning level' choirs, right through to advanced choirs in the Master Chorale, has education at its heart. The children and young people learn to become musicians. At the heart of this are the Kodaly teaching methods. These help develop an understanding of notation, harmony and rhythm to a deep level - and enables pieces to be learnt quickly.
One highlight from the week (and there were so many) was watching Ruth lead some Intermediate Level choirs, where this level of musicianship was in evidence. What was also evident was how every aspect of the rehearsal engaged the kids, bringing out a whole host of skills, not all musical. In one rehearsal, I came up with this list, in no particular order: language, spelling, fractions, memory, watching, listening, pitched notation, rhythmic notation, movement, drama and speech. All of this delivered with bags of humour and energy!
These observations have shown me that, above all, singing should be at the heart of every school and community. It develops so many skills if taught well - skills that can be applied to so many situations in life with confidence. This was echoed through discussions with parents of the children.
It also has convinced me that, even when children are learning an instrument, singing should be findamental to their lessons too. Using the voice helps internalise musical skills and enables you to become fully musical. Too many instrumental teachers miss this concept and then end up 'cramming' for the aural tests before grade exams.
As I write, I'm now in Glen Ellyn - near Chicago - where I'll be visiting more choral organisations, such as Anima Singers and the Naperville Children's Choir. I look forward to meeting them very much!
Since I last blogged, I've spent a just over a week in th USA. In northern California I visited excellent music practitioners in both state and private schools and pre-schools, as well as choral organiasations such as the San Francisco Girls' Chorus and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir.
The week was jam packed with engagements throughout, thanks to my PA for the week, Cheryl Keller. It's interesting that in the USA their education system is similar to ours in the UK - quite different from Finland. It's a struggle to get music into schools. However, it's clear from my observations that if music is given chance to flourish, the kids will thrive - whether they go to private or state.
At the end of the day, it comes down to teacher training: without teachers who are trained to deliver music, schools either get none - or maybe worse, get some that is very poor quality. I've heard teachers in the UK say: 'well as long as they're having fun'. No! That isn't how it works - music, which can be taught brilliantly through singing Kodaly methods, is a subject that teaches us so much. It isn't just a brilliant subject in its own right, which of course it is, but it can teach you language, helps with numeracy, develops a high level of concentration, increased self esteem, makes you a team player, connects to your inner self through emotions.....the list can go on.
When I visited the Piedmont East Bay Choirs - a choral progarmme that covers ages 4 right through to school leavers - I talked with some of their singers and asked them what they got out of being part of choir and why choral education is so important. One reason was 'music gives you skills that you can apply to different careers' and that 'choir helps your mental health and gives me motivation to do your schoolwork.' Another chorister said that 'there's so much you have to account for when you're singing or reading music - there's so much happening at the same time.' All these skills and more, gained from musical education, can be applied to so many life situations. May employers look favourably at people who have studied music BECAUSE of the skills singers and musicians have.
Since Friday 4th October I've been in Indianapolis, where I've been focusing on the Indianapolis Children's Choir - an immense organisation that serves over 2000 young people and children. Their concerts at the weekend were superb - and I'm enjoying getting to know their team. I'll report more on this in my next blog.
Since returning from Finland a week or so ago, I had a couple of days back home in the UK, before traveling to the USA. Last Thursday I flew from Heathrow to San Francisco - a ten hour flight, although the plane remained on the tarmac for two hours once we'd boarded. This was frustrating as there wasn't much legroom - and I was basically sat down for almost 13 hours! I managed to pass the time by watching some films and listening to music (with the odd nap too!).
California is eight hours behind the UK, so it's taken a couple of days to really adjust to the new time zone. When I arrived at my host's house on Thursday evening, I'd been up for nearly 24 hours by that point!
I'm very much looking forward to my stay here. I'm so grateful to Cheryl Keller, who I met a couple of years ago at the Piedmont Choirs' Camp, for putting together an amazing itinerary for the week, including home stays at her house and a colleague's.
My week includes visiting the wonderful Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, which our own choirs met up with in June 2017 as they toured the UK. I shall also be visiting several other choirs and school music classes, in both state and private sectors. I've already had the pleasure of witnessing some high school choirs at a weekend choral retreat which was brilliant! The sun has been shining, and the forecast is good, so here's to a great week.
I'll leave you with a profound statement that one of the young singers conveyed to me on visiting the camp:
'Being able to connect with what you’re singing about, and being able to spill your soul to an audience, is such a personal & intimate thing. It helps you listen to each other, love each other and make each other laugh.'
It's another sunny (but cold!) morning here in Finland. It's a morning tinged with sadness as I'm flying back to the UK today - albeit briefly - after spending two and a half weeks in this gorgeous country.
If you've been reading my posts you'll know that I've learnt so much whilst I've been here. I've also met some wonderful people. I shall be sad to leave Finland behind, but I feel sure that I'll be back soon. I'm also looking forward to further digesting what I've discovered here.
Three words stand out for me: trust, respect and creativity. As I start to compile the Finnish part of my report, I'll be reflecting on these words! How can the UK learn from a education system that encourages creative learning - one that embraces subjects like music? What effect does this have on the child?
This is a short post for now as I head to the airport. My next destination: the USA! I'll be looking at some huge choral organisations and projects that transform the lifes of young people. I can't wait to continue this journey!
I'm now well into my second leg of the journey in Finland. Having spent the first nine days or so in Helsinki, I've now moved much further north to a city called Jyvasklyla - not disimilar in size to somewhere like Lichfield.
Finland is somewhere that feels very homely and very safe. It's been an enlightening journey so far; a journey that has taught me many things! For example, did you know that there are 89 Music Institutes scattered across Finland that are part funded by the government? Ordinary schools usually provide 1-2 lessons of music per week, but these music institutes provide an extension to the school day (which ends early at 1 or 2pm). The funding received from the state and municipalities signifies that music is held in high regard here.
Then there are 'music play schools'. Attending these is the one most popular activity for pre-school children - again, supported by the government. Funding per pupil generally works out at 57% from the state, 25% municipality and 18% fees from parents. There is no equivalant to this system in the UK.
Finland's population is around 10% of the UK's. Around 67,000 Finnish children attend music schools, with about 36% of these attending Early Childhood Music classes (age 0-7years). Research here in Finland shows that a musical education, that starts with singing, makes a huge difference to how the brain works and learns.
In my last blog I mentioned the word 'trust'. This is a big thing here - and although there is a core curriculum for both music institutes and ordinary schools, teachers are given the flexiblity to deliver lessons that are based on the child's needs. It's incredibly child-centred. This means that the child's motivation to learn is high - it's not simply that they are being told what they need to know. The reason teachers are able to be so flexible is because they are free from much of the 'red tape' that chokes many of our own UK teachers. Some primary school children as young as 8, can apply to attend 'extended music classes' - which form part of an ordinary primary school, not a specialist one - where they develop their musicianship further, alongside other topics.
There are no tests and no inspections in Finland - but every teacher music have a masters degree to be able to teach. It's difficult to get in to! The UK government places so much importance on testing and inspections that teaching has moved away from the child in many ways in order to tick boxes and reach targets. The UK spends £40M on the SATs tests evry year - and an astonishing £207M every year on school inspections. Imagine how that money could be distributed to schools in areas that really need it, like music education.
Lastly, the Finnish approach demonstrates that fact that everyone is seen as equal: there are no unecessary barriers. All children call all teachers by their first name, including the head teacher; there is no school uniform; all children (and staff) take off their shoes on entering the classroom and there are regular breaks to allow children to stay focused. It's interesting that all of the above seems to work well here - there is a lot of respect for one another in an environment that makes learning fun and where kids are motivated. Titles and hierarchy seem unimportant. People have roles, yes, but respect isn't expected; it's earned!
By the time you read this, I'll have been in Finland for five days. It kind of feels longer. It's certainly been a packed few days so far!
One thing that has struck me about Finland is that, although the weather has so far been a bit like the UK, it seems an altogether very efficient place to live - at least, it is in Helsinki. The public transport is very reliable, so much so that one weekly ticket can get you on any train, tram, bus or underground ride. And no one checks that you even have a ticket - they just trust that you have. Which neatly brings me onto this very point. Trust.
Although my remit is to look at music education through singing (though it's more than this) and the effect that this has on the children here, one thing has struck me. All teachers in Finland, whatever they teach, are respected highly and are trusted to get on with their job. There are no inspections and so no teacher pressure. This lack of pressure then transfers down to the pupils: there's no testing here, no league tables or any regimented timetabling, which means the children learn freely. Music is seen as an important part of this. It certainly isn't marginalised or seen as an 'add-on', as it is in the UK.
Discussions with teachers and music education experts have been an inspiration and so refreshing. The system of 97 Finnish music schools, or 'institutes', is also fascinating. The short school day means that pupils are encouraged to take up hobbies like music and pursue this extension of their school day. School finishes at 1pm or 2pm, allowing time to build these pursuits into the schedule.
Before moving north to Jyvaskyla on 15th September, I'll be visiting some choirs and also ordinary primary music classes to see how they work. I can't wait to continue this journey!
After months of planning it's finally here! My Churchill Fellowship begins at the end of this week, when I fly out to Finland. I'll be stopping at Helsinki, Espoo and Jyvaskyla looking at choirs, schools and instititions that deliver top quality music education. After a short return to the UK on 23rd September, I'll then fly out to America and Canada where I'll be visiting the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, the Kodaly Centre at Oakland University, Indianapolis Children's Choir, Anima Singers, Chicago Children's Choir, Toronto Children's Chorus and Hamilton Children's Choir.
I can't wait to learn from these various organisations and schools to see the effect high quality music education has on children, be in schools themselves or in the community. What can the UK learn from this? Should we really be cutting one of the most important subjects a child can learn? How do we stop it being for only those who can afford it?
I have mix of emotions right now. Excitement, yes - this is is something of a lifetime opportunity, and one that will extend into the future after my return. I'm also a bit nervous about the whole thing - and also tinged with sadness: my dad's illness is hard to comprehend, so being away for some time will not be easy. I know I have both my parents' suppport and hope that this trip will provide plenty of positive opportunities for them too.
Thank you to everyone who has given to my Just Giving page. So far it's raised £1500 for MND Association!
You can still give here if you're able.
It's been a while since my last blog, partly because it was such a busy end of term. I've managed to enjoy some rest time - and get plans into action for my upcoming travel fellowship, which is quickly approaching. One month to go!
All flights are booked and I'm booking/arrangning accomodation right now. This is the exciting bit - though it's also daunting too. My first stop will be Helsinki, flying out to Finland's capital on 6th September. I'll stay in Finland until 23rd September, also be visiting places such as Espoo and Jyvaskyla, where I'll be meeting choirs, schools and music educators. It'll be fascinating to see how music is used in the Finnish education system and how musical opportunities are provided for in the community too.
Finland has one of the best education systems in the world, and yet they do far less testing than we do. They also place more importance on creativity like music (there are 100 government subsidised music schools across the country) compared to the UK so I'm really looking forward to seeing how this all works.
Once I've been to Finland I'll be off to America and Canada to look at some amazing choral organsations that have a huge impact on schools, communities and many young lives. There's so much to be learnt from they way they do things 'across the pond', so I'm very much looking forward to meeting these choral communities.
Finally for now, my dad has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease this year - something that came as a big shock. in fact, I almost contemplated postponing my trip - but dad wouldn't hear of it. At least it will give him something positive to focus on whilst I'm away - and in return I'm raising money for the MND association in conjunction with my fellowship. You can find out more on my 'just giving' page.