The day my life changed

29th April 2011 at 01:00
I loved my starring role in Traviata but I opted for a career in teaching, not opera

Singing is my life outside school. I'm very organised, always have been, and I sing every day at some point. If I'm learning new music, I play it all the time so I know it inside out and I'll sometimes practise in the car on the way to school and back - about half an hour each way.

The kids here love music. We have lots of singing groups at school and Classic FM is always playing in the school entrance. I have sung to some of the classes if it's relevant to what they're learning and even the smart boys will eventually have their mouths hanging open in amazement. The kids will say to me, "You should go on Britain's Got Talent", but that's not very me.

The day that stands out for me was when I got the part of Violetta in La Traviata six years ago. The main tenor was a professional singer and I couldn't believe I got the part. It's a central character - you're hardly ever off the stage - and the role consumed my life for a good nine months.

I was 37 and a deputy headteacher at the time (I'm now a head). The children would hear the music all the time, as I would have it playing from 7.30am in the classroom. They were fascinated and wanted to know all about the character.

I was teaching on the day of the first performance and had to leave at 4pm. When I got ready to go, the children called me back and I couldn't believe it - the headteacher was standing with them in the classroom with a big bouquet of flowers to wish me luck.

Violetta goes through a transformation from being the life and soul of the party to becoming iller and eventually dying. To have the audience in tears means it's a good performance. I think that watching me in that role was a turning point in the way many people saw me.

The fact that some of the pupils came to see it was brilliant, as these were children who didn't normally have much exposure to classical music. Those who didn't come to the performance were able to see it on DVD. They'd ask me to show them how to faint without hurting myself, like I did on stage. It opened up their curiosity and everyone was totally gripped.

When the last performance finished on a Saturday, I had to say goodbye to the character. The next day, I was completely lost. It was very strange, like a sort of loss - that's how absorbed I'd become.

But, at the end of the day, the teaching comes first. That's my conscious decision as a headteacher. I've had to be careful about what I take on and how it will impact on everything else. I've already had to turn down offers. I've had a very busy few months and I try to avoid performing during June, as I'm busy reading 400 reports.

In the final year of my teacher training, I was in two minds about whether to apply to music college and to go down the route of being a professional singer. But when I was offered a permanent job as a classroom teacher and head of music, I took it. Teaching runs in the family - my father, grandfather and great-grandmother were all headteachers. Before singing, I'd always had teaching in the back of my mind.

All my singing is to have pleasure and to give pleasure. I think I realised that having a professional life in singing would be a lot of travelling, instability, and pressure to say yes to everything. I wanted to retain the joy and enthusiasm and not have to sing to put food on the table. I know if it becomes too much, the sheer joy of singing won't be there and it would become too much like hard work.

Rachel Orr is headteacher at Shotton Primary School in Durham and a leading soprano in the North East. For more details visit She was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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