Suffolk celebrates young music talent

One of the great cultural achievements of the last quarter century in Suffolk is the development and expansion of Celebration of Suffolk Schools Music. It’s an annual jamboree where pupils of all ages and all abilities come from all over Suffolk to make music together at the county’s finest concert hall The Snape Maltings.

Although the event is hosted and supported by Aldeburgh Music, the man who shepherded the event into the world is County Music Advisor Philip Shaw.

After 25 years, Celebration is the largest schools music festival in the UK. During the six-day event more than 1,600 pupils from 45 schools will have experienced the thrill of performing on stage in a professional concert hall in front of a packed auditorium.

Philip said that the value of the event is demonstrated by the fact that schools are creating time to plan and rehearse their pieces even though timetables were now increasingly busy.

He said: “We had an incredible number of applications this year. There are increasing constraints on schools – the time that is required to prepare and rehearse as well as the knock on costs of getting to Snape but having said that I think that they do see the advantages of getting away from the classroom and being able to showcase what the children can do and the work that is going on in schools.”

He added that very few other events allowed students to perform in front of other students from other schools and equally importantly allowed teachers to be inspired by the work of other teachers.

“It’s truly an inspirational and an aspirational event for both staff and pupils. It allows pupils to see older pupils doing work which is just that little bit more advanced and it inspires them to aim just that little bit higher.

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“Teachers also benefit from being to talk to other teachers, see different approaches to music and performance and it allows them to swap ideas and be inspired themselves. It’s quite a valuable professional development opportunity.”

He said that the benefits for small rural schools was even more marked as it allowed them to work with a large number of people often for the first time.

“It’s not just the opportunity to work with a professional crew, sound and lights but it’s also the fact that they get to work with other schools. Instead of mixing with just 20 other pupils they are sharing the stage with more than 100 other people and they are all working together.”

He said that one of the most interesting and valuable parts of the process was the fact that the students were required to watch the performances of the other schools, so everyone had an idea of how every school interpreted the theme for that year.

“It’s not just teachers that take ideas back. Pupils do too. A lot of the work is pupil inspired.”

The format for Celebration of Suffolk Schools Music is incredibly flexible but to give schools a hook to hang their contribution on, a theme is provided each year which the schools can interpret in any way that they see fit.

This gives rise to an incredibly diverse array of music which really does showcase the young talent we have in the county.

This year’s theme is Styles, Genres and Traditions which explores music across time and place, music for a given purpose and exploring different ways of working and producing music.

“The themes always match something in the curriculum so the schools can justify the time, effort and expense of preparing the work. Instead of having a lesson about chords for example, have a lesson about The Blues and work backwards. Then do some work on The Tango. It all fits.”

He said that they had no idea until each school arrives what they would be performing and the very presence of a theme allowed them to construct a basic framework to allow the disparate elements of the concert to hang together and provide a focus for the evening.

Philip said that he was the host for the evening – it gave him an excuse to dust off his dinner jacket and bow tie – and provide links between the items, giving a little bit of the music history and the stories involved in the background to the music.

“It is a way of educating the audience, in a very relaxed and entertaining way. Again it is providing an educational backbone to the evening which already has an amazingly important and useful educational and social role to play.”

He said that they are still having new schools sign up and now after 25 years they are finding that some of the schools who are looking to take part are doing so because the teachers themselves first came across Celebration as pupils and took part themselves.

“It leaves a tremendous impression on pupils. They get so much from it. I met someone quite recently and they said: “I bet you don’t remember me Mr Shaw but I took part in Celebration. She’d been off to university and was now training to be an accountant but she still treasured that experience of being involved in Celebration all those years ago.”

He said that the joy of appearing in Celebration is that it provides a wonderful opportunity for confidence building and a life-long love of music and performing.

“You never know where it will lead. It leads somewhere different for everyone who takes part, we are all individuals after all, but we know it does lead somewhere.”

The annual event is not only treasured by those taking part but also by members of the audience who are not parents or fellow students.

He said that they have a group of older ladies, former teachers, who arrive en masse each year to enjoy the music. “After 25 years, sadly the number decreases each year but they still come, they still see every concert. They are in their 70s and 80s but they have come every year since year one.

“And they come from all over. I was talking to one who comes from Dorset and we always make a point of welcoming them. The reason they come, apart from having been involved in music education, is that they love to see the passion and enjoyment that young people get from this professionally staged concert experience.”

On any one evening you may have a High School, small rural primary school, big urban primary school, a pupil referral unit and a special school all sharing the stage. “And they are all looking out for each other and cheering each other. It truly is a magical experience.”

Philip and Aldeburgh Music place great store on treating the youngsters as they would any visiting professional company. All of Aldeburgh Music’s support services and technical expertise are placed at the disposal of every school. Backstage staff work hard to make every performance look and sound as good as it possibly can be.

“There is a real buzz backstage. It has all the glamour of a professional theatrical experience. For these kids – and for the teachers – it’s a taste of the big time.

“Also it’s about presentation. We all need presentation skills. You ask employers what they are looking for and they will say they are after people with confidence and with presentation skills.”

When Celebration was founded 25 years ago, Suffolk’s cultural landscape was very different. Today the Snape Concert Hall is used all year round – back then it was empty eight months of the year and Philip Shaw believed that more could be made of the venue.

“I had been appointed in October 1986 and the first letter I got came from Ken Baird. It was beautiful handwritten letter and it said: “Dear Philip, May I be the first to congratulate you on your appointment. There is so much I would like us to do together…” and that gave us purpose to get Celebration off the ground. I still have that letter at home.

“But, we had a group called The Aldeburgh Education Advisory Committee and the best thing about those meetings was the cake. The music education work in Suffolk at that time was very sporadic. We sat around, we had a few meetings and it was so depressing it was unbelievable. Ken and I sat down one day and said this has got to stop. We got rid of the committee, reformed it and I said to Ken: ‘I will put an event on for you’

“So that first year we got three or four schools together and put on a concert. Bob Ling, the caretaker at the Snape Maltings, was the stage manager, Paul Gudgeon, an ex-King Edward’s school boy from Bury St Edmunds, he had done a music degree, had experience of staging work at Bury Cathedral, he came back and was the stage assistant and between us we put on a series of concerts which lasted a week.”

He said from these humble beginning the concert series has grown into what is now a massive event.

“There were a couple of times when I wondered if we should stop because I felt that we were, perhaps, in danger of repeating ourselves. Repetition is a terrible thing. You get bogged down doing the same thing year after year but Celebration has this amazing ability to regenerate itself. Each year there is an influx of new exciting talent and invariably you get a phone call from a new school that has just heard about us and are keen to get involved. Faced with such enthusiasm how can you stop?”

He said the event has an inbuilt ability to stay fresh. He said that now they have got the machinery in place so the event just runs itself. “Everybody knows what they are doing. There’s a lot of admin but there’s not a lot of thinking about how things are going to work, simply because over the past 25 years we have managed to iron out most of the kinks and we have a very efficient and very flexible template.”

This year’s Celebration of Suffolk Schools Music runs from March 7-12 and features students of all ages from across Suffolk including schools from Aldeburgh, Bury St Edmunds, Bucklesham, Bures, Clare, Ickworth, Ipswich, Leiston, Reydon, Rougham, Wickham Market, Woodbridge and Yoxford.

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