‘Music education is vital in today’s pressured world’

The Telegraph, 14.07.15, it is invigorating and inspiring well beyond a curriculum which is only a small part of lifelong learning, writes HMC Member Jonathan Leigh Master of Marlborough College.

Much has been written about the need for powerful musical programmes, not least by the supreme role model of Nicola Benedetti. Never has music's influence been more vital than in today's pressured world.

The secret lies in its immediate and durable impact, as a tour of the Marlborough College Choir to Bayeux and Paris has just shown. This was holistic education well beyond the accountable daily curriculum.

The key feature of choirs is their diversity. They can represent both genders, any age or nationality, irrespective of background. The only requirement is a willingness to cast shyness aside and sing.

Through osmosis the confidence needed to partake grows "within" every eager participant. All differences are buried in a sublime recognition of the immediate present and what is actually happening now, not some life affecting distant target.

For the most part this is unmeasurable and cannot be defined, though it is instantly recognisable when a choir is very good and they simply attract an audience of their own accord. In short, it is the best of what it means to enjoy the liberal arts tradition.

In a more ethereal sense, singing is an influence for a lifetime. Sometimes it has been derided as not cool but the real truth is that it is something beyond and altogether different; a gift from nowhere.

Well rehearsed, like all the best things in life, it becomes time to appreciate something deep and far more than oneself. It is an ultimate in sustained concentration, a skill too often denied at times by multitasking emptiness, in a rushed existence of stressed over-communication.

The last generation has witnessed the switch to an existence where pace of life is often overwhelming.

Music, whatever genre, is timeless in what it means. Recent reflections on British values are seldom encapsulated in the great Anglican tradition of making time in the present. It was interesting to hear no less a pundit than John McEnroe extolling the need for Wimbledon players not to rush, commending the need to appreciate space and time.

So, in Bayeux, the connectivity of past and present was linked in a supreme and unforgettable morning concert, with a range of English music, some sung in Latin.

They represented pieces from 16th Century Tallis to the contemporary James McMillan via Purcell, Stainer, Howells, Burgon and, most memorably, Sir Charles Wood. The Anglican liturgy thus found voice in the glory of Bayeux's soaring roof.

Wood's anthem "Expectans expectavi" was set to words by the Old Marlburian poet C H Sorley who died at Loos, aged 20, in October 1915, not so very many miles from Bayeux.

The British values of history, music and literature coincided in the most moving evocation of what it means for a new teenage generation to be put in touch with their roots. What can be more English than singing the inspiring words of a poet from Poets' Corner in Westminster in the space of this great French Cathedral.

Our great national heritage of singing is an enterprise too easily derided. It is an art form of undefinable benefit, good for respiration and both physical and mental alertness, a gradual builder of self assurance within the comforting envelope of belonging to a mutually dependent team.

"Our great national heritage of singing is an enterprise too easily derided. It is an art form of undefinable benefit"

As with an orchestra or any group musical enterprise, it teaches profound listening and precise audio skills. It promotes memory and a consciousness of language. It creates a level of liturgical consciousness, of poetry and literature.

Lastly, it provides an osmotic absorption of a precise skill set at a time when the teenage brain is like a sponge. As such, the imprint lasts a lifetime, something every cathedral chorister knows.

On this occasion, this particular phenomenon has impacted on a choir, forever united in the shared experience of singing in Bayeux Cathedral, Notre Dame and St Eustache.

The wonder of history associated with such places and the fact that they and teaching colleagues willingly give up their holiday time and talent to make such high octane concerts and sung Eucharists happen, is invigorating and inspiring well beyond a curriculum which is only a small part of lifelong learning.

In connecting past and present, the twin lessons of history and artistic expression stimulate emotional educational understanding and civilised human values.

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