Singing out the joys of music

16th February 2001 at 00:00
Julie Morrice interviews conductor and chorus master Christopher Bell

I am sitting in the sunny bay window of Christopher Bell's Edinburgh flat. Opposite me sits the respected chorus master and conductor. He is holding a large pink felt flower, out of which pops at intervals a rather winsome black-and-white spider. "Sing to Sadie Spider," he says. "Hello, hello."

This is not a situation one could imagine sharing with many orchestral conductors, but then Belfast-born Bell holds a unique place in British classical music. Alongside a conducting career which has taken him to Europe, the Far East and Australia, he has established himself as a linchpin in the campaign to bring young people to an understanding and enjoyment of music.

Whether it is acting as conductor cum master of ceremonies at a Children's Classic Concert, or putting the National Youth Choir of Scotland through its admirable vocal paces, or sitting on a classroom floor with Sadie the Spider, Bell, it is generally agreed, has a way with kids. There is no secret to his success. His seemingly unstoppable energy and enthusiasm fire people up.

But what catalyses the catalyst? He talks of dark Monday evenings driving glumly through to Glasgow to take a choral rehearsal, and then being faced with the look of expectation on 130 young faces. "You have to up your game immediately," he says. And there is the longer term inspiration. "I'm looking at a 30-year plan," he challenges. "We need to dream the dream. Our nursery, primary and early secondary school children could all be enjoying 30 minutes of music every day of the week. Singing is irreplaceable in early years."

The model for this vision is not Utopia, but Hungary, where all primary and nursery teachers have musical training and music permeates the school day. Years ago, in Scotland, every primary teacher could play the piano and Scottish schoolchildren had sol-fa drilled into them like times tables. But singing has gradually disappeared from the average school day, and the repercussions can be felt beyond the classroom.

Singing is one of the most essential and rewarding of human activities, but, as any chorus master will tell you, only older people are coming forward to join choirs. Young people, on the whole, have no interest in singing beyond moving their lips slightly to their CD Walkman.

Except, in the past five or six years things have been changing. Across large chunks of Scotland, singing has found its way back into the classroom. Regional children's choirs are springing up. And the five-year-old National Youth Choir of Scotland, which has just had its grant from the Scottish Arts Council tripled to pound;12,000, is (whisper this) quite possibly the best-sounding choir in the country.

In the early nineties, Bell, as horus master for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was wondering why Scotland had a national everything else, but no national youth choir, when two things happened.

A friend of Bell's went on a course in the Hungarian Kodaly method of teaching music, and Bell himself was asked to take over the RSNO Junior Chorus. "My friend came back with eyes wide and converted me. Here was a systematic way of teaching musicianship to children."

Five years on the RSNO has a 120-strong chorus of 11 to 17-year-olds, a probationary choir of 110 nine and 10-year-olds, and a training choir of 75 eight-year-olds. Having heard them trip faultlessly through Britten's Spring Symphony and soar angelically around Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, at the Edinburgh Festival, I can vouch for the musicianship of these young singers drawn largely from the Glasgow area.

The launch of NYCoS was an attempt to do something similar on a national scale. "People thought we were mad when they heard we were starting with seven and eight-year-olds. They were saying, 'but it'll be 10 or 15 years before you've got anything to show for it'. But quick fix is not the answer. We are trying to set up a structured approach throughout the whole development of the child, from babies to 17-year-olds."

But what of those who fail to make it through the auditions (410 children applied for 80 places in the Edinburgh children's choir), and those who would never dream of auditioning in the first place? "That," says Bell, "is why we are so keen to get into schools and why we are publishing all this resource material."

Parallel to the dizzy success of NYCoS on stage and CD, there is a quieter, but no less impressive progress being made in Scottish schools. In 1999, NYCoS published Singing Games and Rhymes for Early Years, a book designed to help class teachers develop their pupils' musicality. Two print runs sold out, several local authorities bought a copy for every primary in their area and orders continue to come in, some from south of the border. The book is bringing singing back into schools, and along with it, the improvements in use of language, fluency of speech, memory, concentration and social skills which are recognised benefits.

"There is a great sense of joy in watching that happen," says Bell. "It's fabulous to be in a situation where you can look and see potential in others."

People have always told Bell he would make a great teacher, but it was not a route he cared to take. "Ironically, when I look back, I've spent the 20 years since I left university teaching in a different sort of way. Whether you are standing in front of an orchestra, or a chorus, or a room full of children, it's all about communicating."

NYCoS, tel: 0141 287 2856, website:

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