A 360-degree view of music: Singing, learning and performing together as the Oxford and Cambridge Singing School bring their one-day course to Bradford Cathedral

On Friday 1st November, Bradford Cathedral will host a one-day course which will give children aged between 7 and 13 the opportunity to sing great classical music with world class coaches in a relaxed and fun environment. We spoke with Dr Edward Wickham, singing school vocal coach, to find out more about the course.

Can you give us an introduction to your background?

I’m the Director of Music at St. Catharine’s College in Cambridge. My background is as a singer and I have been singing since I can remember! I was in parish church choirs, and then the choir at St. George’s Windsor, and later on in a cathedral choir. I’ve always been in that world, so I’ve benefited from the really privileged music education that is available through cathedrals, and that’s something I’ve been very keen to pass on as an adult.

At St. Catharine’s I set up the first girls’ choir in the city, and there wasn’t one in Oxford either. That was just over ten years ago. The boys’ choir around Oxford and Cambridge were well known but there were no opportunities for girls, so I set up the children’s choir for girls aged 8-15 and that’s flourishing. I’ve been always very keen to engage children in singing classical musical in particular.

You’re in expert in Vocal pedagogy – could you briefly explain what that is?

Pedagogy is just teaching children’s singing and the various skills involved in it. Part of it is vocal technique. Just like when you learn the piano or the violin, you’re learning particular techniques, not just to do with reading and interpreting music, but what you do with your fingers or your arms. In singing it’s how to breathe, how best to shape words so that they carry melody, that sort of thing. These are vocal techniques that you can teach to children from a very early age so they pick up good vocal habits.

Also what I’m keen to teach – and what we do on our courses – through learning music, is about music theory, how the pieces are constructed, and something about the historical background of the music: why it was composed, who composed it, and in what situations was it first sung. All these elements are covered in our choral courses.

What skills will they learn, both musically and non-musically?

There are more specific skills, such as singing in different languages, and learning history and culture in general. There’s also learning about the religious and historical background to the music. I’ve always found through teaching music to children you’re bringing a whole load of education skills to them without thinking; they’re delivered in a soft way. Broader still, there are the accepted benefits of singing together in an ensemble which are enormous. It improves confidence and social skills, especially at an early age, and one finds that even the most timid child at the beginning of the day will really blossom after a day of singing together.

Could you give us a flavour of some of the pieces covered at the Singing School?

The course has a particular theme, which is sort of Halloween-based. We’ve chosen some fun pieces which include a modern song all about skeletons, but we’ve also got a piece by Handel from his oratorio Saul: it’s the moment when, in the Old Testament story, Saul goes to visit the Witch of Endor; a bit like Macbeth. It’s a beautiful and haunting piece. So there’s music from the 18th century through to the present day.

At the end of the singing school there will be a chance for parents to see their children perform?

That’s a very important part of all of our courses: we find you learn best when you’re actually performing. Whether it’s a day course, like this one, or several days, we’ll always have a performance at the end. It’s work-in-progress, of course; it’s not going to be the most polished performance ever but it’s a good opportunity to show-off what we’ve learnt in the day, and a good opportunity for the parents to support them.

What can children get involved in to continue to develop their skills?

This is our first course in Bradford, but the response has been encouraging so we’ll certainly be coming back. We will also be able to give some advice to children about where they can look to follow-up the course, including information about local choirs such as the wonderful Bradford Cathedral choir! We’re keen that this is the starting point of the musical journey for the children.

Finally, if you could sum up the experience the children and parents will get from the course, and why they should sign up, what would it be?

This is an opportunity to enjoy singing in the round. It’s the experience of singing together, learning music together, and performing together, and also learning about the music. It’s a 360-degree view of the world of music.

The Oxford and Cambridge Singing School course runs on Friday 1st November from 10am – 4pm and tickets can be purchased online at oxbridgesingingschool.co.uk/booking/

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