Preserving our rich choral tradition

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Earlier this month, Palatinate’s Francesca Howard interviewed VOCES8’s Paul Smith, and naturally, the conversation led to the many benefits of choral singing, particularly the pioneering ‘VOCES8 Method’ and its role in furthering music education in local communities across the UK.

However, another focal point came in the form of challenges facing music education. These are challenges arising from underfunding in schools, attitudes to music-making which neglect its many benefits, and the misconception that choral singing is marked by a divide between Independent and State institutions.

Following this interview, I decided to speak to some of those at the forefront of student-led singing at Durham University, and it soon became apparent that the myth of choral singing’s elitism is in need of revising.


I spoke to Matthew McCullough, Director of Music at Hatfield College, President of the Dunelm Consort and Players, and Choral Scholar at Durham Cathedral, about the issues of accessibility in music. When asked whether there are significant challenges when it comes to getting children involved in music at a high level, McCullough’s take is that the question of elitism is often approached from an ‘unfortunate angle’.

Given that the first, and sometimes only exposure to choral singing across the populace often takes the form of televised services such as Carols from King’s, it isn’t hard to see why choral singing is so often associated with elitist institutions, and thus seen as an inaccessible practice. However, as I discovered through my interview with McCullough, this is a misconception in crucial need of breaking down:

“People often see music as something for the elite, or something which you need to have money to do, when in fact it is almost exactly the opposite

“People often see music as something for the elite, or something which you need to have money to do, when in fact it is almost exactly the opposite

“If you want to play sport, you often need to buy extensive sets of equipment, even at a grassroots level. With music at the same level, you only need your voice to sing”.

Pointing to a lack of funding behind music and the arts, McCullough takes football as an example:

“To enter a primary school and see that they don’t have a teacher that can teach football would seem ludicrous, so why the same for music?

schools are often left without anyone capable of teaching music

“Due to the large amount of money sports stars make, this often filters back down to develop younger talent, meaning that every school is able to enable a child with a sporting interest. Musicians do not make the same money, and we don’t have the same filtration system, meaning that with an overwhelming lack of funding from the government, schools are often left without anyone capable of teaching music”.

It is this lack of funding which often leads to the assumption that music is pretentious, or only for the wealthy, McCullough suggests. This certainly does beg the question as to whether the government should be looking to countries such as Germany, where far larger amounts of money are ploughed into the arts.

“To enter a primary school and see that they don’t have a teacher that can teach football would seem ludicrous, so why the same for music?

Seeming to support McCullough on this notion is , a member of Durham University Chamber Choir and Choral Scholar at University College, who, despite coming from a largely non-musical family, recalls that her discovery of was quite by accident:

“I don’t come from a musical family at all, but when I was very young I was fairly obsessed with both these early Barbie films, and Angelina Ballerina, and so regularly used to listen to the ballet music on CDs that my dad made me

“I’m pretty much of the view that this is what sparked my interest in ”.

In a similar vein, Latham recalls that it was almost by accident that she discovered choral singing:

“I joined a county council-run Saturday morning music scheme in order to play in their junior string orchestra

“When I also started singing in their choir, I discovered that I absolutely loved it”.

I suspect that Latham’s amusing discovery of her love for only scrapes the surface when it comes to the stories of those whose high-level music-making stems from humble beginnings.

It is crucial that the arts receive the necessary funding to keep things this way

At this point, I think the picture is pretty clear: choral singing is a far cry from the elite practice it’s sometimes painted to be. However, it is crucial that the arts receive the necessary funding to keep things this way. As Latham puts it, “without my county council funded children’s choir that I started singing in, there’s a strong chance I’d have never got into choral music – lots of areas don’t have opportunities like that”.

It’s not only those making music at a high level who could reap the benefits of an increase in funding to the arts, however. Speaking to McCullough about the wealth of benefits choral singing can offer, it soon became apparent that singing has the potential to develop social skills, enhance academic performance, teach discipline, and encourage problem-solving, just to name a few. As McCullough so aptly puts it, “nobody needs an expensive education to sing, but those who don’t sing are poorer for not having done so”.

“nobody needs an expensive education to sing, but those who don’t sing are poorer for not having done so”.

I spoke to , conductor of Durham University Chamber Choir, who only further supported these observations:

“The feeling of regularly being part of a cohesive team, striving to achieve the same goal is so satisfying, and because your voice is a part of you, it makes this personal connection so much more special

“Every time I come away from singing in a rehearsal or a performance, my endorphin levels are so high and it’s a feeling I don’t ever want to live without”.

Durham really does have so much to offer in terms of choral singing at all levels. From non-auditioned choirs, to the University Chamber Choir, there are singing opportunities that are accessible for all. If there’s ever a time to take up singing, or simply enjoy it at services and concerts, our time at university, surrounded by so many opportunities, is the perfect time.


Durham University Chamber Choir’s concert, Footsteps on a Small Island, will be taking place this Saturday 2nd March, in the Chapter House at Durham Cathedral: tickets are available here

More information about Durham University’s eight college chapel choirs can be found here.

Photograph: Durham University Chamber Choir

@OscarElmon

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