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Somerset blues

The rebellion has gone out of rock 'n' roll. Ex-Beatles are getting knighthoods, the Stones have turned into wrinkly accountants - and Wells Cathedral School has given Sinatra and Sabbath equal billing with Strauss on its curriculum. Critics accuse a venerable institution of dumbing down; supporters say music is music and the kids just want to play. Nigel Williamson lends an ear

Think of Wells Cathedral Music School and you think of angelic choristers and budding classical instrumentalists: gifted pupils who will one day be conducting symphony orchestras, singing at Covent Garden and gracing the world's grandest concert platforms.

The picture is not entirely inaccurate. The Somerset school is one of Britain's four specialist music schools, it wins huge numbers of scholarships to the Royal College, the Royal Academy and the Guildhall, and its pupils have performed everywhere from London's Royal Festival Hall to concert halls in Russia, Malaysia, the USA and Hong Kong.

But that is only part of the story. Today's young musicians at Wells belong to a post-rock'n'roll generation. They are dedicated and serious about their music, yet they find nothing strange about going from choir practice to a rehearsal with a rock band or from a violin lesson to a jazz jam session.

On the day Frank Sinatra died in May, a group of the schools most talented students gave an impromptu concert of jazz and rock in the old theological college library, culminating in a swinging tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes with a belting performance of "Fly Me To The Moon". The band was fronted by 18-year-old singer Rachel Griggs, who doubles up as a grade eight classical violinist, and included on keyboards 15-year-old Stephen Barton, a former head chorister at Winchester, and Sam Wedgwood, 18, who is off to the Royal Academy of Music this autumn to study trumpet.

But if anyone feared the school is dumbing-down, they only needed to visit London's Wigmore Hall that evening, where they would have found one of the school's star students, 17-year-old Mei Yi Foo, giving a classical piano recital, part of her prize for winning a competition against tough international opposition.

This radical policy of encouraging young musicians to switch between the classical, rock and jazz traditions is the vision of Roger Durston, the school's head of music, who according to headmaster John Baxter "has transformed us all with his enthusiasm".

If this blurring of genres seems revolutionary to those of us on the wrong side of 40, who were reared on notions of high and low culture, it makes perfect sense to Mr Durston's pupils, who regard the idea of barriers between different kinds of music as old fashioned and irrelevant. When Rachel Griggs had finished her Sinatra tribute she went off to play with a chamber ensemble. "It seems quite natural to me," she says. "I like to play the violin for my classical music, and I like singing light opera. But I really love musicals and jazz as well. It gives you a broader perspective. A good musician ought to be able to play everything."

Stephen Barton, just finishing his first year at Wells, says he has got as much enjoyment out of playing jazz as from his classical singing. "They fit alongside each other," he says. "It can get a bit schizophrenic, but really they complement each other. It's good to learn to present different kinds of music in different contexts. There are a lot of classical musicians who won't listen to rock or jazz, and that's a shame, but those barriers are definitely being broken down. Young people don't look at music in that way."

Sam Wedgwood, who starts a four-year course at the Royal Academy in October, plays the trumpet, piano and drums, and his musical enthusiasms range from Black Sabbath to Beethoven. "I started at Wells six years ago," he says. "It was a straight classical training, but it developed into other things. It seems quite natural going from classical to rock to jazz. I play in the symphony orchestra and the jazz band and a rock group. I play a lot of baroque music in a four-strong ensemble. I wouldn't necessarily say I enjoy one more than the others; they are all so varied."

He also has a very practical approach to music as a career. "Realistically, you have to be a complete all-rounder today to earn a living and pay the rent as a musician. I can't say I'm only going to play baroque trumpet; I might one day do a studio session and the next be playing with a big orchestra. You've got to keep all the options open, and I find it sad if people close their ears and only listen to one kind music."

Mr Durston, a former King's College choral scholar who has taught in comprehensives as well as specialist schools, is justifiably proud of his talented young charges. After spells as director of music for Berkshire County Council and then East Sussex he came to Wells four years ago with a philosophy based on the idea of the teacher as enabler not director, and on creativity as much as rote learning.

His approach also has a practical benefit. "I wanted to see what I could do with a group of young people absolutely committed to music but who have to accept that they are not all going to become concert pianists or get jobs in professional orchestras," he says. "Pragmatically they need a range of skills. So we brought in a music technology centre and we said it is OK to play rock music. Youmustn't forget to do your piano practice, but you can do these other things as well . The students were there anyway, but once it was endorsed officially they raced ahead. My role was simply to light the blue touch paper."

What he has achieved is to demolish the distinction between the music that is taught in school and the music children listen to when they get home He says: "Research shows that music is one of the most important things in young people's lives but that music teaching in school is the biggest turn-off subject of all. I asked why that was and how we could bring them both together under the same roof."

So how does he respond to the dumbing-down criticisms? "The specialist instrumental teachers watch what I am doing with a proper questioning and caution," he says. "It is quite right that they should want to ensure that I don't divert the children away from the very important basic skills, because you can't compromise on that. Hard work and practice is at the basis of all music. I'm sure both Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Yehudi Menuhin would agree on that. But the application is another matter."

Needless to say, Mr Durston, who also chairs the Music Education Council, is profoundly critical of government policy on music in education. "Taking money away from the arts and putting it into basic skills is very misguided," he says. "To let children run only straight down the track towards literacy and numeracy means that they miss the scenery along the route. They arrive without a sense of purpose. If children are committed to their institution via music they will learn anything. If they are alienated they will learn nothing."

Mr Durston is not only an articulate critic but a persuasive advocate and lobbyist. Last month he managed to cajole a pound;15,000 grant out of the Department for Education for a two-term project to work with the St George Community School, an inner-city Bristol comprehensive, creating a piece of music theatre which will be performed in schools around the West Country.

"I hope St George's gets a lot out of it, but it is also very good for our students," he says. "If you separate out children in a boarding school from the rest of the community there is a risk they will grow up like withered plants who haven't seen the full sunlight. So it is important that they work in other schools, and old people's homes and with the handicapped so they are learning to communicate with a wide variety of audiences."

Wells has an international reputation for excellence, but what is Mr Durston's definition of the word? "Excellence is often seen as finding the golden children out there, bringing them here and developing their talent. I want to turn the idea of specialist music education on its head. It isn't special because of the gifted children it attracts, but in what we can do for any child when they arrive."

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