At a time when music is no longer offered in many schools at GCSE and A level, largely due to pressures of cost and curriculum changes, Giggleswick is firmly committed to the subject. With our Young Musician of the Year competition taking place this weekend and exciting plans for a complete refurbishment of the music school, head of department and professional soprano Margie Simper talks about her passion and ambition for music at Giggleswick.
“I believe music to be an incredibly important subject. As well as developing co-ordination, the part of the brain used to read and perform music is the same part used for maths. Music builds confidence and teamwork. Every single person in an orchestra or choir is vital to the whole sound and working together cements relationships across ages and stages. Being a part of that is a great experience for a young person’s life skills.
It is a concern that nationally there is a downward trend in numbers of pupils studying music at key stage four (GCSE level and beyond). A study published by the Education Policy Institute revealed a decline over the last three years, bringing the average numbers taking at least one arts subject to the lowest for a decade. The blame was put on increasing pressure to pursue more traditional ‘academic’ subjects in order to fit in with the English Baccalaureate and the Progress 8 measure, as well as financial concerns.
However, here at Giggleswick we have enjoyed healthy numbers of pupils opting for music at GCSE and taking part in the many co-curricular music opportunities at school. According to music exam board ABRSM’s Making Music report, 36% of children aged between seven and 15 take lessons in a musical instrument or singing – at Giggleswick, more than eight out of 10 pupils aged between seven and 18, an average of 85 per cent, are taking instrumental or singing lessons. Many of them come out with Merits and Distinctions and a good number leave with Grade 8 or even a Diploma. We also have students like George Collins who has been studying at the Leeds College of Music on Saturday mornings and has recently been accepted to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston after his A levels at Giggleswick.
It is important to nurture children’s musical development from a young age with a wide range of instruments to learn. All Year 7 and Year 8 pupils at Giggleswick have an hour of timetabled music every week, as well as plenty of co-curricular music opportunities. In Year 9 pupils have an hour and a half of music a week and we want to see GCSE and A level classes expand further. I love to compose and it is another important aspect of our teaching at Giggleswick, and I make sure that all our GCSE and A Level students have a weekly one to one session with me. A level is a respected subject by universities as it has performance, creativity, history and theory all as integral parts of the subject.
At Giggleswick. many of our music teachers and visiting instrumental teachers, myself included, regularly perform professionally alongside their teaching careers. I sing with the Cambridge Taverner Choir and the Cambridge Renaissance Singers as well as being a piano and harpsichord soloist and violinist with The Ellen Ensemble. This experience brings an extra dimension to the learning experience for our pupils.
I believe it is important to train students not just to learn their instrument, but how to perform. They are given numerous opportunities to perform throughout the year and this gives them confidence in other parts of their lives. They learn to relax with an audience. At Giggleswick we also enjoy exceptionally strong links between our music and drama departments, with the two coming together every other year to stage a major musical, a fantastic experience for our students. Recent productions have included Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables.
Meanwhile, our young choristers have joined a sacred music elite in singing in the country’s greatest cathedrals. The school’s chamber choir, Schola Cantorum, has sung at a professional level in Liverpool, Gloucester, Durham and St Paul’s cathedrals over the last year, entering a world usually the preserve of universities and colleges. This year, Schola will be adding Westminster Abbey to its tour, performing on Sunday 4 August having passed the rigorous test to be accepted as a visiting choir.
The cathedral tour is one feature which draws young choristers to us, especially those who have been through a cathedral school. We offer choral scholarships to talented young singers who wish to develop their skills at the highest level alongside their academic studies, with a particular focus on bringing on young singers, both boys and girls, as the boys’ voices go through the break and the girls’ voices mature.
The future for music at Giggleswick is bright and plans to completely refurbish our music school show how we are investing in the subject for the long term. We will have top quality rehearsal, teaching and performance spaces as well as classroom and storage facilities, all in a dedicated music school building. Exciting times!”
Alongside her role as Director of Music, Margie regularly performs professionally and brings an incredible range of experience to her work at Giggleswick. For many years she was part of the BBC Daily Service Singers, often being heard as a soloist on the radio and she has sung under such famous conductors as Sir Neville Marriner in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus. Margie is also a composer with work that has included a Christmas Carol sung at a Christmas Eve Carol Service in Durham Cathedral, which was subsequently recorded on a CD. She has also written numerous other choral pieces for choirs.