Interview with Kathryn Knight

  • Posted on 2 April 2007 at 2:15pm
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How would you describe Howard Goodall? ‘Composer of TV theme tunes to Vicar of Dibley/Blackadder/Red Dwarf’; ‘choral composer’; ‘Channel 4 presenter and writer of various music series ( How music works/Big bangs );’ ‘BBC TV presenter for Choir of the Year;’ ‘Compere of the School Proms’…the list goes on! His energy, passion and commitment to music and music education has made Howard one of British music’s greatest assets, and in January 2007 he was named as ‘Singing Ambassador’, with a brief to lead the Government’s national singing campaign for primary schools.

I caught up with Howard to talk about his exciting news…in the middle of recording his score for the next Bean film, Mr Bean’s Holiday.

Kathryn Knight: Your new role as ‘Singing Ambassador’ came out of your work on the Music Manifesto’s Singing Workstream. What motivated you to get involved initially, and what do you believe can be achieved through the singing campaign?

HG: My musical experience began with singing at a very young age and I believe that singing is both a basic human activity as fundamental to our well-being as, say, laughter, and it is also most children’s first access to music. Even if, within a few years, the young person will have migrated from singing to some other musical activity like playing an instrument by preference, that first opening door through their own voice is vital. Everyone reading this article will know the many benefits to a child that singing can give, but often outside our choral silo it can be reduced to the function of a learning accelerator (which it is, undoubtedly) and therefore a carrot for aspirational headteachers, or as something ‘nice’ for children to do that looks good at the school showcase. For me it is far more than these things and I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the three key ministers behind our initiative, David Lammy, Andrew Adonis and Alan Johnson wholeheartedly agree. This is therefore an historic opportunity for singing and I would have been mad not to want to do my bit if at all possible. Singing enhances self-esteem and improves group behaviour – it teaches concentration, performance and focus without feeling like it is teaching, since primary-age children really enjoy it. It coheres communities (what other communal, non competitive activities do we have at our disposal to effect this?) and it can be a safe place for self-expression and the letting off of emotional steam. What drives me on, most of all, is a sense that music can be about social justice as much as it is about notes, rhythms and chords, and if by giving every child a rewarding experience of music through singing at an early age we have helped to compensate in some way for the total lack of it in too many homes, then this will have been worthwhile. My aim is not to fill future concert halls with passive listeners but to give all children a musical toolbox that is at their disposal for the rest of their lives, a gift that they too can pass on to their children.

KK: The abcd membership is made up of choral directors up and down the country, with a massive variety of experience and contexts. What’s your vision for how they might get involved with the singing campaign?

HG: One of the things which makes me confident our national singing campaign can make a difference is that the leadership in singing has modernised and improved dramatically in the last 10-15 years or so. abcd (Association of British Choral Directors) can take considerable credit for this. Only a halfwit would now tell a 6 year old they ‘couldn’t sing’, that they were ‘tone deaf’,or that they should ‘mime at the back of the choir.’ The repertoire and methodology of singing has become much more focussed on the needs of the child, at last. Choir Schools have begun to see that a creative, open-hearted relationship with primary schools in their area could possibly hold the key to their own futures as well as being of great benefit to those primaries, and also understand that their particular expertise may need to be widened further to get maximum benefit from the enterprise. Accepting and embracing these challenges will be key to the success of such outreach projects. Many abcd members will know that persuading young women to sing is easier than persuading young men. If we can, through the campaign, enable the very best practice in this field, whether it be Berkshire’s various boys’ choirs or the extraordinary ‘Bring on the boys’ programme run by The Sage Gateshead, to be shared and better understood by the singing leadership at large, that will be a job well done. What I have learnt over the last two or so years researching the field is that no one conductor, no one choir, no one music service, no one school or college has all the answers to all these challenges, but that some of them do have some of the solutions, some of the time. If abcd members can count themselves in the ‘still lots to learn’ category rather than the ‘expert knows it all’ category then we have reason to be very optimistic about what will unfold in the next few years, since wherever I have encountered charismatic, versatile, dynamic singing leadership it has always been in the former category, not the latter.

KK: Tell us more about the National Songbook, and how we all might get involved.

HG: Every good singing leader, animateur, choral director or class music teacher working with primary school children has a collection of favourite songs in their back pocket that they know work with young people of this age. They are fun, connect well with the children, generally avoid the overt promotion of one religion over others and may include movement, games or some flexible component that suits the group or the time or place. Crucially these favourite songs are pitched to suit the young voices concerned and are not simply regurgitations of songs written for, by and about adults. Often these mini-collections have a strongly regional feel to them; dialect, local colour and recognisable place names all feature. They are songs for groups, not solo songs (there seems to be a widely-held misconception that our 21st century song book will be a compendium of pop songs – even if it were desirable on some level and clearable on another, most of the hits of the last 50 years are suited to an individual performance and would therefore disqualify themselves). The idea of our proposed song book is to collate all these back-pocket collections into one mammoth, update-able resource for all singing leaders and teachers at primary level. It should be cheap, easy to access and simply presented, with an online version as well as hard copy. My colleagues and I in the Manifesto vocal strategy group were hugely impressed by Maurice Walsh’s Singing School books that are used in all the primaries in Greater Manchester and to some extent theManchestermodel is an inspiration for ours. The widely-reported figure of 30 songs for our song book, by the way, is wrong by a factor of ten: I am after something equivalent to a hymnal – 300 songs at least!

KK: Composing and broadcasting has been your full-time profession – making you a household name. How will you be able to juggle your new role with your existing work, and do you think they are complementary?

HG: Well it’s going to be tough, since I’m not exactly sitting around looking for ways of filling my days as it is! However, there is no doubt that my profile as a composer and broadcaster has been part of the reason we are having this conversation. I have direct access to two ministers and a secretary of state – when before has singing had that kind of governmental interest? I doubt even Raph Vaughan Williams or Charles Stanford had that kind of access so I am determined that I must seize the opportunity and act as an advocate and supporter of my colleagues up and down the country who actually do the singing work with young people. Call me a megaphone. I can also say with some pride that two of my best-known theme tunes, The Vicar of Dibley and Mr Bean, feature SATB choirs as their main sound (and there’s another that pops up from time to time in the new Mr Bean’s Holiday score too!) so I do practise what I preach, so to speak.

KK: You’ve recently published Winter Lullabies – a six-movement suite for upper voices and harp – with Faber Music and are in the middle of writing two new musicals – King Cotton with Jimmy McGovern, and an adaptation of Erich Segal’s blockbuster novella Love Story, both for production at the end of this year – and revising your recent Two Cities for a UK tour in 2008. What are your feelings about getting new music performed – getting choirs and their audiences to be sufficiently confident to ‘try something new’?

HG: Audiences before about 1920 used to hear mostly new music when they went to a concert. The obsession with old stuff, the heritage repertoire, really took a grip as a reaction to modernist music that scared the living daylights out of ordinary folk. As it happens, most contemporary music these days isn’t at all scary but it will take a few decades for that fact to sink in and for the old fear of new music to recede (which it will). In my experience most choirs do actually perform and commission quite a lot of new music, but probably rather too much of that body of work is targeted at competitions where the needs of the audience are zero and the need to impress expert judges paramount. Consequently, it can sometimes be absurdly difficult or tricksy and unlikely to win over new audiences. Pieces that are enjoyable to sing, that are unafraid to be beautiful or that might not be allergic to melody don’t seem to have as much trouble getting performed, but I don’t pretend that it is easy for younger composers to get their careers of the ground. It never was!

KK: You’re in the final stages of recording your score for the latest Mr Bean film. Have you enjoyed the process, and should we be rushing out to buy tickets to see the film?!

HG: It’s a very charming, feel-good movie set in the sunshine of a summer holiday in France. Rowan is very funny too. I would have thought it was the perfect antidote to a late winter evening in the UK, but I’m too close to it now (and too exhausted!) to be of much objective use,. Take your (young) kids; they’ll love it, that’s for sure.

KK: Thank you, Howard, and we look forward to watching how the singing campaign develops!

[Kathryn Knight is Editorial Director at Faber Music]


This interview appeared in MasterSinger, the journal of the Association of British Choral Directors, Spring 2007: