Lambeth to Cambridge: opening the road

At the end of a slightly frustrating day in the middle of a rather non-descript week, I trudged down to Kennington to carry out an interview for my new blog, wondering why I’d prioritised my time on this project when I had so many other things I needed to get done.

Whilst I want this blog to be a wide and representative mix of the different brilliant things that are going on in the musical world, it’s inevitable that – for now at least – they begin with personal connections, and so it was an old school friend who met me at Oval tube. Jeremy Martin was a part of our music ‘gaggle’ at school, and now works for the Bank of England, living in Kennington. Quietly spoken, and warm, absolutely nothing passes him by: he is known amongst my friends in equal measure for his loyalty and for his infuriating habit of never ever forgetting any passing comment or misdemeanor that might later come back to haunt you. Jez was meeting me to introduce me to the boys’ choir at St John the Divine Kennington, a project which he was instrumental in founding.

One of the things that fascinates and saddens me about London is the way that rich and poor live side by side, and crossing from one street to another can feel like a different world. Walking from the tube to the church hall reminds me that Lambeth is both walking distance to work for the suited and booted of the City, with their fancy flats, and also home to estates packed with people of diverse ethnicities, limited opportunities, and uncomfortably low income. St John the Divine is one of the poorest parishes in the UK, its congregation including people of over fifty nationalities, especially from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the church hall I’m introduced to the vicar, Fr Mark Williams, to Ben Clark, who will take the rehearsal, and to his assistant Rob. I make myself comfortable in the corner and Jez confides that this is actually the first time he’s sat in on one of these rehearsals. What follows is honestly one of the most inspiring hours of music-making and music education that I have ever sat through. (And I say that as someone whose entire living is earned in music.) It was inspiring both in its ordinariness – a weekly local choir preparing music for church – and its extraordinariness.

Here were a dozen boys of primary school age, living in the area, wearing uniforms from three or four different schools; 75% were black, and most of them were pretty cheeky. (In a good way, of course.) I’m told the numbers increase as the year goes on and recruitment kicks in. Ben started with some warm up games, partly to introduce the two or three new boys – name games, clapping games, moving games. There was camaraderie, and a lot of laughter, but also a lot of concentration. People got out for getting the game wrong but also for laughing too much, for not being enthusiastic enough…. There were indignant cries of “You’re making up the rules as you go along!” but it was all in good humour.

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Ben leads the children’s choirs in rehearsal

I was a little nervous that Ben would never take back control of this group after the hysteria but I needn’t have worried – he and they were clear about the boundaries. They got on with some singing – a round from last week which the new ones pick up by osmosis (always something I’ve loved about the way groups of choristers learn). It was high octane. It was demanding. Some were asked to sing on their own. And then they’re straight into sight-reading a Psalm – there was no time for nonsense. “If you’ve never seen a Psalm before, this is an exciting moment of your life,” says Ben. “You learn some incredible words” – asking them to bring ‘Tush!’ back into every-day life.

This could have been a masterclass in how to teach children Psalms – in fact, in how to teach full-stop. It’s all focused, it’s all encouragement, and it’s never gushing. “That’s good mate” or “well done, that’s really good” is well earned. They play a round of ‘Favourite Verses’, picking a verse and singing it solo. They play ‘Psalm Bingo’ – Ben shouts out a verse and they have to sing it, quickly. They sing unaccompanied. They sing it out of order. They choose as a group whether or not to breathe at a particular comma. They sing it more dramatically. “Make ‘wickedness’ sound wicked!” “Sit well.” “Yes that’s hard to say isn’t it?” “Head up!”. When they say “I can’t sing that, it’s too high” he ploughs on, “yes you can mate, don’t worry about it, let your voice do the work for you, here we go, 1, 2…..”. Half-way through one of the small new boys says nervously “I don’t understand anything!”, and Ben answers “don’t worry, none of us do, we’re all just pretending!” Clearly the boy knew this not to be true, but his worry is diffused.

As they work through the rest of the music they’re preparing for their next evensong, Ben gets the boys to help with drawing a graph on the board of how they’re getting on with each piece; they invent categories – ‘outstanding’, ‘alright’, ‘ok’, ‘dodgy’, ‘terrible’ – and mark their progress. After some discussion they decide they’ve got the Psalm as far as ‘ok’. One of the older boys, evidently one of the stronger musicians in the room, is pretty damming about their progress. “It’s definitely still dodgy.” (Ben tells me later that he wants to encourage the sense that there’s always room for improvement. “In primary schools there’s so much ‘oh well done, you tried, have a sticker’. We don’t want them to be down on themselves – we want them to feel pride in what they’re doing – but it’s healthy to keep aiming to do it better! Not to be complacent. There’s always more to do.”)

Like every good teacher, Ben is constantly changing pace and style – there’s no time to get bored. He’s not afraid to be strict when it’s needed: one boy was threatened with having to leave the room if he was disruptive again. But it’s all great fun and I’m hugely struck by the camaraderie in the room – between Ben and the boys, and also amongst the boys. It feels like a safe room. They’re supportive when others are singing solos. And when you ask for a volunteer, most of them put their hand up. They want to be involved. There are clearly lots of kids with lots of spirit – and there are moments where they have to be asked to be quiet – but they’re so on side and so engaged. I’m struck by the high expectations here in every way, not least in their concentration.

I’d wondered whether sitting through an hour and a quarter might be tedious. I could not have been more wrong. This was entertainment of the highest value! I was beaming by the end – and so were these kids, off back to their homes to do their homework or help with their siblings or kick a football around. I have students, and children of friends, who sing in a range of different types of choir, and the best ones – in any genre – share the same thing (yes, Pop Chorus of Solihull, I’m looking at you – your awesome concert in Birmingham Town Hall last year could have taught many a classical choir a thing or two): they are committed, they are focused, they want to communicate, they want to learn skills, and they are happy to be there.

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Over drinks afterwards, Mark, Ben and Jez filled me in a bit. Fr Mark has been at the church for 8 years, and Jez a little longer (he now has the dubious honour of being churchwarden). When Mark arrived the church had an established adult choir; like many places there hadn’t been children singing for about forty years. “Given our interest in schools and education, and with lots of children in the congregation, it didn’t seem right that we weren’t sharing a high standard of adult music-making with the kids. There’s a real problem for children from modest backgrounds, in state schools, getting access to music. So we thought about that, and also about what youth work we were doing as a parish, and came to conclusion that this could be our work with young people – rather than opening a youth club, and having a dozen kids playing table tennis. This would be focused, rewarding for them, it would teach them skills, it would give them aspirations.” And so, from a field of about 25 applicants, Ben was appointed as Director of the Children’s Choirs in January 2013. Mark explains, “There was something special in the way Ben related to the kids, and getting something off the ground is a different skill compared to working in an established routine – you have to get people on side, you’re starting from scratch. One of the children in the dummy choir for the audition process voted for Mr Clark, saying ‘he doesn’t just like the music, he loves it’.” It was clear that they couldn’t just go into schools and ask who would like to join a choir; the children didn’t know what that meant or what it was or how it felt or what the experience would be about. So Ben went into the schools, led workshops, got them excited about singing, and then invited them to audition. The auditioning was a fairly light touch – not many were turned away, but it gives the children a sense of having earned it. And so by Easter, the choirs were singing!

I ask about the other choirs – I know the boys’ choir is only one of the children’s choirs. They and the girls’ choir rehearse in a similar way on different days, and sing separately – each typically sings a service once a month. “We had lots of conversations about having a mixed choir or having boys and girls separately,” says Mark. “We were quite clear that it should be liturgical and choral – no dumbing down – that’s what we do here, that’s our culture here, and it’s good to be consistent with that. But there was anecdotal evidence that – particularly in areas where there isn’t an existing culture of choral singing – mixed choirs will quickly become girls’ choirs. Boys needed space to do something that isn’t a typically boy thing to do in their culture. So we decided they will sing separately – though occasionally come together for particular things.” Here, as at other times in our discussion, Mark chooses his words carefully, around a thorny and potentially controversial subject. I suspect this wisdom and level-headedness has a part to play in the success of the project.

As the children have grown older there’s been demand for a teenagers’ choir – they travel further to various different schools and can’t make 4pm, but the team doesn’t want to lose them. So the teenage choir evolved: they re-audition, so they’ve earned it, and here they have a contract to set out their obligations to the group and to one another. Ben points out that this is the tough age range to crack in any educational situation. Secondary school can be a hard new world. “We’re trying to work on that, provide them with an environment where they feel safe.”

One of the distinctive aspects of the SJDK choirs that I’m fascinated by is the annual residential at St John’s College Cambridge – not an obvious trip, sadly, for a group of Lambeth kids. This, I’m told, has become a real lynchpin of the choirs. The children go to Cambridge for a week; they stay in the dorms in the choir school boarding house, they eat their meals in the refectory, they enjoy the swimming pool and the green space. They have a structured day, with morning prayers, breakfast, a full morning of singing, lunch, recreation time (crafts, football, swimming), another singing session, entertainment, dinner, and then compline (the traditional monastic close to the day – here singing the Salve Regina in Latin in their pyjamas), before bed. Then hopefully sleep – “they’ve got better at that” – “last year they were complaining about the staff making too much noise…!”. They get to sing in St John’s College Chapel – an awe-inspiring building by any standards – and have a great ally in Edward Picton-Turbervill, who tutors and plays for them (former organ scholar at St John’s Cambridge, and before that a pupil of mine – I feel a certain pride!).

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The children’s choirs at St John’s College Cambridge

Jez points out that the Cambridge trip has been really important in widening the children’s horizons. “Last year we had a panel discussion while we were there, where they could ask questions to recent graduates. There are kids asking and considering ‘what do I have to do to get into Cambridge?’ – it’s broadening their educational horizons hugely.” Mark adds, “when we take secondary school kids up to Cambridge, in about year 10, they say ‘this is not for me, I don’t see people here who look like me’ – we have to do a lot of work to persuade them. For these kids, Cambridge is already their place – they’ve been every year! It gives them a different attitude to the whole thing.” Since my visit to Kennington, there has been yet another splash over the press about the racial imbalance at Oxbridge, and it has reminded me again what incredible wider work this choir is doing.

Musically these children are getting great opportunities. They sang live on Radio 2, singing jingles for the Chris Evans show. Ben told me, “we had a girl who’d been in a lot of trouble at school, and we’d had difficulties with her, she was so loud-mouthed – but this was perfect – she was at the front speaking these jingles! It’s about harnessing and using their personalities rather than repressing them and trying to make them all the same. You can’t do that at school – with 30 kids in a class they have to do the same thing. Here, they can do solos and be themselves in their own weird way!”

The choir recently sang with the renowned professional choir Tenebrae; in being invited to take part in this sort of project they’re knocking at the door of the established choral setups of schools like Cardinal Vaughan School or Tiffin – state schools, sure, but not mostly kids from the backstreets of Brixton and Camberwell. Ben points out they have to be wary that some more pushy parents are really good at getting the most out of free opportunities like this – “we really want to target the children whose parents aren’t doing the pushing for them. I’ve been to knock on estate doors on a Sunday morning – I know the kids want to come, the parents maybe just haven’t got up, or they’ve got lots of things on – it’s not that they can’t be bothered, it’s just an entirely different mindset, so we have to be quite persistent. In many ways we’re following on from the Anglo-Catholic vision – they built these churches in the areas where they were needed. It’s all community work.”

Listening back to our conversation, the soundscape is one of laughter and of clinking ice cubes in heavy cocktail glasses. I get the impression that they sit here quite a bit with drinks, dreaming ‘we should do this’ or ‘we should do that’ – but here, unusually, the ideas actually seem to take off. Ben chips in, “this is how the residential came about – after 3 weeks of rehearsals! I barely knew the kids’ names! We just said ‘we should do a residential!’ – right in the first year. Jez was here. And we talked about it. And then we were in Cambridge having coffee outside St John’s. And then three months later we were there singing Noble in B minor in the chapel!”

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The choirs rehearse in Cambridge with Ed Picton-Turbervill

I ask the obvious but necessary question – what impact do you think singing in this choir has on the children? Mark reels off a list: it increases their confidence, their team working, and obviously their musical skills. And then they can apply their classical training to all sorts of things afterwards, if they want to go into jazz or other music. One of their kids was on The Voice. Ben adds, “I really notice so much more focus – which you don’t often get in primary school kids – but these ones are really engaged and motivated. And we try to foster this caring spirit, the older ones are helping the younger ones, even though really they haven’t been doing this for long themselves.” Mark continues, “it’s been a huge part of the church’s mission. Some of the children were in the church before – maybe 5 or 6 – but that means 90% were not. And their families come, and sometimes then on the Sundays when their children aren’t singing. Some are lapsed Christians and now they’re coming to church again. We’ve prepared a number of children for baptism or confirmation through this.” Ben gives another angle: “A number of them have gone on to win music scholarships: the state secondaries give them a music scholarship, which means they’re in the choir, and they get subsidised music lessons – which are expensive, so that’s really valuable. And they get a badge to wear on their blazer, they identify as being to do with music, and they’re proud of it. And some of the schools specifically have places reserved for music, so the kids have got into the school they wouldn’t otherwise have got into, off the back of that.”

We talk about a child who arrived speaking in a very quiet monotone, and singing in the same way. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t pitch,” Ben explains, “but it was something about his personality – he was worried or…. We don’t know what had happened in his life. Anyway it took him a year and then he got there! Now he’s doing really well. He’s so driven. I knew he could pitch it – you just have to access the right bits of your voice and for some people that takes a while. But if you get rejected now….” He trails off. I’d been talking only a few days earlier to my aunt who is convinced as an adult that she can’t sing, because she was told so at the age of six. My mum remembers being sorted into “squeakers and growlers” at the same point. We agree you have to train the muscle – if you’ve never rowed before you can’t just sit down and do it! You have to learn to connect what you hear with how you make the sound, and that can take time. Giving them a chance is so critical.

Jez sits pretty quietly through much of the conversation, but it’s clear that he is absolutely pivotal to this whole project. He was a chorister and an undergraduate at St John’s Cambridge, and has established the connection there. St John’s have now made it a formal partnership and have committed to supporting St John the Divine Kennington financially. Clearly this man makes things happen. Jez says, “there’s nothing so frustrating as a PCC meeting where nothing happens, or it takes ages.” Mark sheepishly says, “yes Jez chases us all about our action points….” And Ben concurs, “yes, Mark phoned me the day before the last PCC meeting – ‘quick, we need to chat about this before Jez gets to me!’.” And that’s how things get done.

In addition to the good fortune of having a musical vicar, this project seems to have the full backing of the church. Jez tells me, “On the PCC it’s seen as one of the most important things we do; it’s central to our youth work, which we see as a key part of our mission. Now some of the parents of the choir are on the PCC too so that’s really becoming embedded – they’re getting involved in helping us think how we develop this. There was a discussion in the summer about whether we should get some assistance for Ben. The PCC was clear that this was important and they should definitely back it – people felt it should be a priority. Normally there are rather more questions asked on a PCC before spending money!”

The projects don’t stop here. They’re planning a trip to Walsingham (less nerve-wracking than a cathedral residency, for now, but with lots of opportunities). They’re working on a project to replace the church organ, which is ‘falling apart’, and are having exciting discussions with possible builders. “There’s a pretty serious plan to fund all of this,” Jez assures me; they’re planning to reorganise some land adjoining the church to generate some of the funds, as well as engaging with trusts and fundraising in the local community. They want the children to engage with the new instrument and to be able to play it when it arrives, so they’re developing a scheme, costing £10,000 a year, to fund organ lessons (plus exam entry, sheet music, going on courses etc) for five children from the parish. St John’s Cambridge have given £3000 a year for three years to kick-start it, and just the day before we meet they’ve heard that the Hymns Ancient & Modern charity have given the remaining £7000 they need to make the first year happen.

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Organ student Owen Olanpejo at St John the Divine Kennington

As we’re sitting there they start mulling over how they could rent or borrow an electric organ for the rehearsal room so the kids can practise. Getting into schools or churches after hours is such a headache, we want them to be able to progress, and they feel at home here already… I suspect the new ideas aren’t going to dry up any time soon.

I leave with a smile on my face. These people are inspiring and they are impressive. They are not complacent. And my goodness they are making a difference. For my first interview on ‘The Good of Music’, I feel like I’ve struck gold.

To read more about the children’s choirs at St John the Divine Kennington, see the church website, the St John’s College Cambridge partnership page, or the SJDK children’s choir Twitter feed.

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