Jimmy Rotheram is music coordinator for Feversham Primary Academy, a school in inner-city Bradford which in the last five years has transformed from a special measures school to ‘outstanding’ by prioritising music and drama, and is now in the top 1 per cent of schools in the country for pupil progress. He also supports local schools with music training and events and performs soul, funk, jazz and comedy at weekends.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe the BKA Summer School experience to somebody who hasn’t seen it for themselves. So rather than spouting superlatives, perhaps the biggest testimony I can give is that when I had to go home, I sobbed and gulped like a baby who had had all of his favourite dinosaur toys taken away.
If you haven’t been before, it is a week of intense fun and learning. A week of revelations. A week of having the most fun you can possibly have with a room full of people and their voices, knowledge and imagination. A week of bonding with people who don’t think you’re weird for putting hand signs to distant car alarms. A week of people unselfconsciously walking round in a state of bliss, pressing in their belly buttons whilst blowing a song about rabbits through a straw into a bottle of water. A week of sideways looks from bemused delegates of other conferences. You will be exposed to a smorgasbord of musical styles. You will develop musicianship and classroom pedagogy from some of the finest minds in music education from around the world, alongside like-minded people who take music and having fun very seriously. I’ve never seen so many people having ‘personal breakthroughs’ so expect some – from the lady who had suddenly discovered a wonderful vibrato voice, to the young women who had never sung in choir or public before, to the man who could suddenly conduct easily.
A morning’s work
Let me walk you through a typical Summer School day. We would begin with an hour of rehearsing Haydn’s Missa Brevis with Árpád Tóth. I learned so much from watching him conduct and coach the choir – such as how to make the lyrics crystal clear, or how to ensure balance and musicality on each phrase, as well as how to warm up and prepare your choir in engaging ways for a session of singing.
This was followed by musicianship classes with Esther Hargittai, who showed us how to have fun whilst developing crazy skills like the ability to suddenly switch modes from any degree of the scale. Even singing and playing in the Phrygian mode was ‘always a joy, never a torture’ (guess which notable music educator said that this is how music should be?). After a quick brew and a natter with kindred spirits at coffee time, it was back to Esther who showed us how to consider all the details of conducting a children’s choir and make part-singing easy for them.
Optional Extras – Singing
I signed up for all of the extras, and recommend the investment to anyone. Allan Hubert-Wright’s singing lessons are truly bespoke and extraordinary. He can show you how to do anything, easily, with your voice. He has the scientific knowledge to know exactly what you need to do physically, and the musical knowledge to apply this perfectly to whatever you want to sing. He added an extra octave to my comfortable range, and suddenly a clear, powerful tone was coming out of my head voice for the first time ever, with a lot less effort than I was putting in before. I should also add that Allan could also be a professional stand-up comedian – he’s completely down-to-earth, friendly and hilarious. You don’t really question the reasons why you are singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in huge tremulous raspberries or blowing bubbles into a bottle of water while you sing, but once you’ve done these exercises and got rid of your giggles, you can sing like a champion. My new voice is like getting a brand new instrument to play with!
Optional Extras – Piano
Piano lessons with Orsolya Szabó are worth every penny. There are certain passages in pieces I practised for hours and hours without getting anywhere. Some gentle movement away from the piano, a slightly different posture, miniscule adjustments to my hand shape and suddenly I could play these passages straight away, without even having to practise! This woman has superpowers! If you don’t believe me, she is a Hungarian gymnastic champion, international concert pianist and a respected fine artist and poet, with a PhD in philosophy!
Joyful and inclusive
After lunch, we would have an afternoon of fun and games and belly laughs with the likes of Lucinda Geoghegan and Gerard Klaassens. We also enjoyed wonderfully creative Dalcroze workshops from Jacqueline Vann which I can’t wait to take back to the classroom. Many first attempts at the games ended in chaos and giggles, but soon we were mastering the games, and reassuringly, kids are far better co-ordinated with new things than most of us ‘old folk’ (over 20s!). Following this, we went deep into the detailed pedagogy with Bori Szirányi, which underpins all the fun and games and ensures musical literacy for everyone. In the evening we enjoyed lectures from the likes of Paul Wilson (folk music) and a wonderful performance from the London Adventist Chorale.
At the sun set, the reasonably-priced bar was filled with people making music together. A huge gang of joyful, inclusive musicians, clutching folders of Irish folk music, jazz real books, or just armed with their ears, wielding accordions, guitars, violins, violas, saxophones and ukuleles with up to three people on the piano singing part harmony. Students, tutors, virtuoso musicians, beginners, guest lecturers, all making music together for the love of it. Imagine the best jam or open mic night ever. Every night! But of course we were all up again bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day to do it all over again (at least we were after a hearty breakfast and a coffee or two).
I wanted to take everyone home with me and keep it all going in my garden. The anger of my girlfriend discovering hundreds of strangers dancing around our garden making strange noises and hand signs would be a small price to pay to stay a little longer in paradise. I’ll just have to settle for keeping in touch with my new family on Facebook, where incredible support is available for us.
But where the real magic happens is when you take all this back to the classroom and try it out. I’ve been studying the Kodály Approach in some depth over the last few years, and the more I learn and apply from my studies, the easier it is for my pupils to excel. People unfamiliar with the approach are amazed that my year 4s can aurally dictate pentatonic melodies, or sing in harmony, or keep a rhythmically complex ostinato whilst singing in canon. Especially when they are having SO much fun doing it. This is how music should be. Always a joy, never a torture.