When people ask me that age-old question ‘which teacher influenced you the most?’ there is only one answer for me, Mrs Telford, my music teacher.
I was 11 years old when I went to Gregory’s School for Girls, up Church Bank in Bradford. Our school song was Non Nobis Domine. Our annual carol concert was held in Bradford Cathedral with its grand architecture and big acoustics, where I first had to stand in front of an audience and perform. I can still see Mrs Telford beaming encouragement and willing us to give of our best. And we did. Well apart from my first-ever music festival, the world-famous Wharfedale, when nerves got the better of me and I ran out of the room crying. But, with encouragement from Mrs Telford, I came back in and gave it another go. Another life lesson, though it was sheer hell at the time.
And before you start thinking this was some posh school for precious princesses, it wasn’t. It was in the strange mixed-up days of Bradford’s early comprehensive education experiment and two years at 11 to make way for ‘big’ school was part of the plan. Gregory’s has long since gone, pulled down to make way for road widening. But the memories of what I was taught there are as clear today as they were important then. Especially all I learned from Mrs Telford. Above all all she taught me music, good music, makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And I found they did, and still do.
Which is why I want to tell you about Barnsley Youth Choir. On Saturday they not only made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up but they made me laugh cry, cheer and clap until my hands hurt.
It’s been a difficult few weeks, with the death of my mum and the serious illness of my husband, but at the weekend that group of young people from Barnsley released in me all my anxieties and gave me back my natural sense of joy.Because the joy on their faces when they sang, their determination to give of their best, was captivating. Barnsley is a town I love. It’s a town not without its problems. One in four children live in poverty. It has a higher unemployment rate and a lower education rate and the number of people needing benefits is significantly more than the national average. Yet despite this 1,000 – yes, 1,000 – young people are drawn to the Barnsley Youth Choir, from the little ones at four to adults and past members who may leave the town but never leave the choir.
It is ranked number one in Britain, number one in Europe and fourth in the world. And under the brilliant Mat Wright the choir has given the whole town something to sing about
This year, 160 members will be appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, that was what Saturday’s fundraiser was for, to give them the opportunity to perform once again on the world stage, an experience that will live with them forever.
Their diction is perfect, their harmonies divine. But it is their passion and joy that sets them apart. They come from all walks of life, some of them have very challenging lives indeed. But when they sing, they are all equal and the very best. And it’s a privilege to stop this busy world for a moment, and listen.
Music has been downgraded in education in recent years, considered a bit of a luxury, though it’s been given a boost in funding recently. And so it should, if we are to produce confident and above all creative adults in the future. “She might be rubbish at maths and could be really good at English if she tried, but boy does she light up when she sings,” could be the summary of many of my school reports.
That’s because I didn’t get algebra, I couldn’t understand Shakespeare or the Metaphysical Poets, but I got music. My voice ain’t what it used to be – overuse my husband might say. But I still sing every day, even if it’s only in the car to the radio. And I still play the piano, badly. And I still take deep breaths and stand up straight with my arms by my side in difficult situations, because that’s what Mrs Telford taught us to do. And my goodness it works.
What does music teach you? If you are in a choir it teaches you discipline and team work. It teaches you to perform to the best of your ability to strive for perfection and work hard to achieve it. And when perfection happens,like it did for me on Saturday night, it is the most beautiful experience in the world. It was Plato who said music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind and life to everything”. So thank you Mrs Telford and thank you Barnsley Youth Choir. You made my soul sing.