Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What a show! Audiences last week were treated to spectacular performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s not every school that could manage a production this complex, this musically and theatrically challenging, this dark…but Churchill’s students didn’t just manage it, they pulled it off in style. Sondheim’s complex score was performed note-perfectly by the pit orchestra. On stage, the singers delivered the overlapping, rapid-fire songs with such confidence and gusto that the audience were carried along with the story, the characters and the experience of grimy, backstreet Victorian London, brought to life by the wonderful sets, costumes and production design.

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But, my goodness it was dark! Sweeney Todd is exiled for a crime he didn’t commit so an evil judge could get his hands on Todd’s daughter. The judge has Todd’s daughter committed to a lunatic asylum rather than allow her to see another man. Todd, returning, sets up a barber shop with the sole intention of using it as a trap to murder his enemies. Pie-shop-owner Mrs Lovett, allowing Todd to think his wife has died, uses the bodies of Todd’s victims as the filling for her gruesome produce, selling them to enthusiastic and unsuspecting customers. It sounds horrendous, but the show trod that delicate line between horror and humour perfectly, so that the audience were entertained throughout, even as the body-count mounted.

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The performances were professional-standard, from the lead actors to each member of the chorus. The show was double-cast, meaning that each audience got to see different combinations of actors in the lead roles. When I saw it, on the Friday night, Brett Kelly was a brilliant Sweeney. On stage for almost the entire duration of the show, his performance maintained intensity and drive from the first moment to the last. He was matched by Kornelia Harasimiuk’s Mrs Lovett, whose knockabout comedy was a horrific mask for her selfish plotting. The young lovers, Johanna (Evie Tallon) and Anthony (Bobby Rawlins) were both compelling. I must make special mention of Will Truckle’s gloriously over-the-top Pirelli, whose Italian accent was trumped by his excellent Irish; and Jessica Bailey as The Beggar Woman was a compelling presence on stage, causing gasps of realisation from the audience as her true identity was revealed.

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The supporting cast were also note-perfect. The villainous Judge Turpin (Bede Burston) and his sidekick The Beadle (Charlie Tyler) were so evil, they made the audience sympathise with the murderer-and-cannibal duo of Todd and Lovett! But the image that will stay with me is that of the young Tobias, a role shared between eight young actors across the performances. In a world of twisted morality and selfishness, Tobias’s final scene was chilling indeed.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What came across to me was the tremendous team effort that goes to make a production. Sound, lighting, costume, props, stage management, choreography, musicians, staff, students, parents, families…everyone contributed to the success of the show. I know how hard everyone has worked, and the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it. Well – it was worth it. Hearty congratulations to everyone involved – it was a spectacular show.

Music at Churchill

Over the past week I have had the pleasure of two wonderful musical experiences at Churchill. On Thursday night, I watched the culmination of the annual composition project. Our students worked alongside musicians from Worle School to write for a professional string quartet, under mentorship from composer-in-residence Sadie Harrison. Thursday’s recital saw their work performed by the Asana String Quartet, and it was a wonderful showcase of their creativity and skill. The pieces were by turns witty, melodramatic, spiky, smooth, and inventive. I was amazed!

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Last week I was at our Christmas Concerts at St Paul’s Church in Weston-super-Mare. This was a new venue for us, but we had a wonderful time there being entertained by all manner of music and musicians. See the Academy website for my full review!

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The Junior Choir rehearsing at St Paul’s ahead of the Christmas Concert

We are so fortunate to have a thriving music and performing arts department at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. In schools up and down the country, this part of the curriculum has been cut back and reduced. We are not one of those schools! At Churchill we have four music teachers and a team of instrumental teachers keeping music well and truly alive in the school! In the Christmas Concert Programme, the music team wrote about a year in the life of the Music Department throughout 2019. This shows you how much the musical life of the Academy has to offer!

A look back at the Music Department in 2019

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The 12th annual Churchill Young Musician of the Year competition took place on Monday 28th January at St John’s Church, Churchill. This fabulous event is held in partnership with Churchill Music. The audience was treated to a varied programme by eight of the Academy’s most promising musicians, with pieces from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century from composers including Handel, Chopin. Telemann, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Kapustin. The distinguished judging panel, chaired by Susanna Stranders from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, had the difficult task of selecting the winners. More important, however, was the specific feedback the panel provided to the performers, to help them improve and develop their stage presence, engagement with the audience, and musicality.

After much deliberation – during which the audience were treated to a performance by the Academy’s Chamber Choir – the Young Musician of the Year prize was awarded to pianist Jordan Walters. Jordan, who joined Churchill in Year 12 from Priory School, played two contrasting pieces by Chopin, holding the audience spellbound with his musicality and technical prowess.

The Ursual Dornton Vocal Prize – a new award, sponsored by the Trinity Singers in memory of the much missed Churchill Music trustee – was awarded to George Derry, who also won the audience prize which was voted for on the evening. His spirited rendition of “My Name is John Wellington Wells” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer brought the house down!

The Raymond Hayter Song Prize was won by Naomi Blowers, whilst the Churchill Music Junior Trophy was awarded to Ella Hutchinson for her performance on the cello.  The other competitors – Molly Sprouting (voice), John Skeen (piano), Maisie Slingsby (flute), Molly Johnson (voice), and George Skeen (violin) – also received awards for their participation in the finals.

Following the performance, all the winning students were invited to play at the Young Artists Showcase at St Georges, Bristol.

In February, Youthful Spirit Gospel Choir gave a performance in the school hall for the charity CentrePoint. The choir also gave a performance in late March for the Friends of Axbridge Church and also supported the RNLI by giving a joint concert with Joyful Spirit Gospel Choir. Weston Hospice Care has been supported by both Chamber Choir and Youthful Spirit – Chamber Choir sang at a Charity garden party in June to help raise funds for Weston Hospice; Youthful Spirit were invited to sing at the Anniversary Service for Weston Hospice Care’s 30th year at Christ Church.

In March, members of the Music Department were fortunate to attend an open rehearsal with Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason before their recent concert for Churchill Music! Sheku played cello at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and his sister Isata is an accomplished pianist.

The visit of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC) LEAP Ensemble in March was a real highlight of the Music Department’s year.  The LEAP Ensemble are all advanced students from the RBC and they wowed hundreds of people with their playing over the two days.  They worked with Year 12 and 13 A Level Music students on their compositions, impressed with their Monday evening concert at All Saints’ Church, Wrington and then entertained 300 primary school students. In January 2020, our Music Technology A level students are looking forward to visiting Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

In April, Churchill Academy GCSE students were involved in composition workshops with New Music South West; this is a venture that allows our young students to have their compositions performed by professional musicians. In addition, the workshop allows composition tutors to work with our students to experiment with different techniques and arrangement styles.

Congratulations to Chloe Phipps, Year 10, Peter Skeen, Year 9, Molly Johnson, Year12, Holly Stoneman, Year 11, Matthew Lucas, Year 8, Molly Axtell, Year 9 and Martha Withers, Year 9  who all performed and won their classes during May’s Weston Festival of Music & Drama. In addition, Chloe played in three classes on her clarinet and she won each one, with Honours, and then won the overall Senior Wind Player prize and was presented with a cup. Peter was awarded an Honours mark for his performance on the cello. Both of them played in the winner’s concert in Weston Methodist Church.

The Music Department held a 3 day Summer Music Festival in the sunshine in late June. Bands and duos from year 7 – 10 took to the stage to an appreciative audience who also enjoyed ice-creams!

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July saw the Gospel Choir head off on their annual tour to Austria. As always this was hugely successful and saw audiences in excess of 1000.

Many congratulations to Junior Young Musician of the Year (2018) Kimi Powell who has been awarded a Robert Lewin Scholarship from the AYM Young Musicians’ charity. He has also been awarded a place on the South West Music school’s Performance Development Programme. Kimi is an accomplished drummer and percussionist, preparing for his Grade 8 this year. We’re sure he has a bright (and loud!) musical future ahead of him.

In August, we were very proud teachers of our Year 13 Music Class who achieved 100% B Grades at A Level.

In September, we welcomed the newest member of staff to the Music Department – Miss Dalwood. Miss Dalwood is a multi-instrumentalist who has really made an impact on the department!

September also saw the start of the rehearsing for the Christmas Concert alongside the whole school musical production of Sweeney Todd, which saw around 100 students audition to be part of a cast of 50.

In November, Chamber Choir gave a very successful concert of their full repertoire at All Saints Church Weston Super Mare alongside the Trinity Singers.  This choir welcomes students, teachers and parents and really focusses on demanding sacred and secular vocal music.

All of our GCSE and A Level Music students were treated to a visit by the Lyra Trio comprising 3 Royal Academy students who gave stunning performances and then answered questions about “life as a conservatoire student”.

Our Year 10 GCSE students are currently working with the Asan String Quartet and professional composer Sadie Harrison alongside Yr 9, 10 & 11 Worle students on an annual composition project. We are very lucky to have Churchill Music! supporting the Music Department at Churchill financially for these projects and enabling our students to experience life as a musician outside a departmental setting.

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Churchill’s annual Junior Young Musician of the Year competition took place on Thursday 24th October. Congratulations to Rhiannon Allen-House, winner of the Music Maestro Junior Young Musician Competition was awarded the Colin Undery Trophy for 2019. Rhiannon alongside Oscar Vince and Aislinn Shipton are performing as part of the Christmas Concert.

This Christmas Concert is really our highlight of the year and we welcome full inclusion. The Year 7 and 8 choir Junior Choir is a great way for our younger students to enjoy the community of the Academy in a fun, sociable way. It is definitely a Churchill tradition.

Thanks to the Music Department 2019:

  • Alison Cooper-White – Leader of Learning
  • Paul Harrison
  • Jeff Spencer
  • Jessica Dalwood

Christmas Concerts 2018

I love the Christmas Concert! I remember seeing my first one in December 2015, just before I started as Headteacher in January. I was blown away then, and if anything the standard just keeps on going up!

This year’s event was no exception. There were over 400 students involved over the two nights, with such an array of music on show – musical theatre, pop, folk, jazz and classical, and even a moment of metal from Churchill’s Young Musician of the Year, Kimi Powell on drums! Young Musician runner-up Bronwen Deane had the audience in the palm of her hand with a performance of her own song, “That’s what they all say” – she has a bright future ahead of her. Last year’s competition winner, Maddie Pole, is now in the final of the Fame by Fearless talent competition – you can vote for her to win here until midnight on Sunday 25th November 2018.

Gospel Choir introduced some fantastic soloists to the Playhouse this year: Ruby Polli, Cara Crozier-Cole, Benedict Pearce, Livvy Green, Olive Barnett and Freya Hinnigan-Chambers sang their hearts out, backed as ever by an incredible sound from the enthusiastic chorus. Many of the same students also sang in Chamber Choir, whilst a beautiful acapella rendition of White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes showed you didn’t need instruments to make a wonderful sound.

Instrumentalists, however, were in plentiful supply! Big Orchestra and Concert Band both gave excellent performances, including a suite from “Enter the Dragon” arranged by our very own Mr Spencer, and a spirited performance by the Jazz Band fronted enthusiastically by Sol Walker-Mckee and Arthur Burston.

The highlight of the show for many was the Junior Choir, as the massed ranks of Year 7 and 8 singers kicked off the festive period with a re-telling of the Christmas story through songs written by students. The soloists this year were fantastic, and the actions and performance level from the choir were brilliant – how they managed to muster the energy after a disco is beyond me!

The Christmas Concert is a real team effort. Weston Playhouse work with us every year, and over thirty Academy staff were involved behind the scenes and front of house. But what impressed me most – as always – was the leadership of our students. Students compered the show, conducted orchestras, led vocal groups, ran the stage management, arranged musical items, and sold programmes. Seeing the potential and promise of these great young people, and their joy in music making, is what makes all the effort and organisation worthwhile.

I’m calling it: Christmas starts here!

You’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do

This week I watched the joyous production of Bugsy Malone put on by our Year 7 and 8 students.

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It was a terrific show – over seventy of our students were involved on stage across two casts. What was more remarkable is that the show only started rehearsing on 17th September, with the first performance on 23rd October! To put on such a professional performance in such a short space of time, whilst also keeping up with school work and all of the learning in lessons, is a truly staggering achievement.

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Tallulah and her dancers

It was a great team effort – the students worked with and for one another, playing the comic scenes brilliantly but also, in the case of Maria Amaral as Fizzy and Gemma Partridge as Blousey Brown, bringing some touching poignancy to the more emotional moments.

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The big “splurge”

Behind the scenes, our Sixth Formers and some older students from the main school made the show look and sound amazing. The set was designed, built, painted and decorated entirely by students from the Sixth Form’s specialist tutor programme – and it was spectacular. The band sounded great, and the technical crew on sound, lighting and stage management were excellent. The way that our older students supported the younger performers is typical of Churchill’s vertical system and our value of kindness.

Last week I wrote about the vital role of the arts at Churchill. I was left thinking that there couldn’t be a better introduction to that spirit than a show like this! Audiences were also treated to a gallery of A-level Art, Photography and Design work in the foyer, whilst refreshments were provided in aid of the Mend the Gap team’s Kenya expedition.

The final song of the show – “You Give a Little Love” – sums up the spirit of the show:

We could have been anything that we wanted to be

Yes that decision was ours

It’s been decided, we’re weaker divided

Let friendship double up our powers

The final chorus echoed out: “you give a little love and it all comes back to you; you know you’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do.” These students have already made such a positive difference at Churchill, and I know they will remember the experience for years to come.

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The cast from night two

Congratulations to all the cast and crew, and special thanks to the dedicated team of staff who made it all happen – especially director and mastermind Miss Bones.

 

 

The importance of creativity

On Wednesday, I was out of school at a conference for school leaders in Taunton. The conference was packed full of information I needed to know: the latest updates on school funding, on exam results, on Ofsted, on Department for Education policy, on teacher recruitment and retention….a lot of information! But, in the middle of the session on exam results, we were shown a chart from a BBC survey on examination entries in 2018. The chart showed the decline in exam entries across the country for arts subjects.

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Photography taken by Year 13 during the 2018 snow

The presenters at the conference told us that exam entries for the Performing Arts fell by 44% in 2018. This is on top of falling numbers historically: in 2015, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values, found that between 2003 and 2013 there was a 23% drop in GCSE entries for drama. Research carried out by Sussex University in 2017 warned that “music could face extinction” in secondary schools.

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The cast of Singin’ in the Rain

Of course, it is important for all students to have a secure foundation in academic subjects. Churchill’s core curriculum in our personalised stage (Years 9-11) requires students to take English, Maths, Science, and two more subjects chosen from French, Spanish, History, Geography and Computer Science, because we agree that a core curriculum of academic subjects is the right thing for our students.

But not at the expense of the arts!

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The performers at this week’s Young Musician of the Year competition

The creative arts is one of this country’s most thriving industries. We are world leaders in music, drama, theatre, film, media and art – there are strong, viable careers for our young people in the creative industries. If these subjects aren’t offered, we are closing the door on those futures. Even if you don’t go on to work in the arts, studying a creative subject brings with it much needed confidence, empathy, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and reflection.

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Last year’s Junior Choir in action

What makes me angry is that ensuring all students have a strong academic core curriculum does not mean the arts have to suffer. At Churchill, the arts are thriving. The school is full of music, dance, drama, and art. This year, we have 72 students taking Performing Arts courses in Year 9 – five more than the previous year. We have 41 students taking Music – an increase of more than 30% on two years ago. And as for Art itself, we have 79 students taking Art or Textiles in Year 9 – ten more than the year before. All of those students study core academic subjects too!

It’s such a shame that schools up and down the country are reducing provision in these subjects. As Headteacher of Churchill, I will continue to defend our exceptional arts provision: our children’s creativity depends on it!

Singin’ in the Rain – Review

At one point in Saturday’s performance of Singin’ in the Rain, the character Cosmo Brown (Cai Williams/Ricky Parsons) delivered the line: “the show must go on. Come rain, some shine, come sleet, come snow, the show must go on.”  He nearly brought the house down.

Because this was no ordinary performance. Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” had conspired together to shut down not only Churchill Academy & Sixth Form but much of the United Kingdom. Rehearsals were called off. In the midst of a Red Warning from the Met Office, Thursday evening’s performance was cancelled. Friday was also snowed off. But, with the words of Cosmo Brown ringing in their ears, the intrepid team of Mr Buckley, Mrs Lippe, Mrs Rees and Mr Stuart would not give up. The show – for one performance only – was on.

There had been no time for a technical or a dress rehearsal, and the two casts were combined and meshed together to ensure everyone got their chance on the Playhouse stage. But the cast and crew were so well-rehearsed, so professional, and so single-mindedly determined to put on a show that the audience would never have known it. Props and sets arrived on time, films flickered into life, and the rain fell from the sky right on cue. It was simply stunning.

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The actors adapted brilliantly to their shared stage time. Lucy Taylor and Molly Sprouting shone as Kathy Selden, whilst Melissa Harrold and Cara Crozier-Cole were hilariously grating as the none-too-bright megastar Lina Lamont. Jack Baker and Matt Hogg (R.F. Simpson) sparred with Ricky Parsons and Cai Williams (Cosmo Brown) with impeccable comic timing, supported by a cast as impressive in its depth and breadth as it was in the quality of its performance. But the show revolved around James Duby in the lead as silent-film-turned-musical star Don Lockwood. On stage for almost the whole show, James sang, danced and acted as though he was born to do it, holding the entire audience in the palm of his hand and bringing such energy and verve to the production that you couldn’t help but be carried along with it.

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This was a show packed with song and dance. From the chaotic comic choreography of “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the huge production number “Broadway Melody,” the dancing was exceptional. Singing was of the highest quality, whilst the pit band, conducted by Mr Spencer, would have held their own in any professional theatre. The melodramatic silent movies (and, later, the talking pictures) shot and edited by Will Maitland-Round had the audience in stitches for all the right reasons. And the unseen technical crew, running the props, costumes, set, lighting, sound and special effects for the first time ever, made the production look incredible and flow as smoothly as it could possibly have done.

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You might have expected the show to be tinged with disappointment, as it hadn’t turned out the way that everyone would have wanted it to. But actually, inside the theatre, the cast, crew and audience were united in a joyous celebration, as if the show had got onto the stage through the force of sheer willpower alone. We went home through the melting snow, singing the songs, and privileged to have been part of such a special, memorable performance.

Thank you to everyone involved – students, staff, and families – for making Singin’ in the Rain not only possible, but wonderful.

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Read this review on the Academy website here.

All photography by Neil Phillips – visit his website here.

Confidence

I remember the first lesson I ever taught. The thought of standing up in front of thirty children and expecting them to listen and do as they were told made my heart pound and a cold sweat prickle on my brow. I was full of nerves. But I walked into the classroom and I taught that lesson. It wasn’t brilliant – but I did it. And, having done one, the next one was easier – and better. Now, over twenty years into my career, I think nothing of standing up in in front of 270 students in assembly, or a hall full of parents on our Open Evenings, or even (as I did recently) in front of nearly 400 teachers in the conference centre at Old Trafford, Manchester!

This is how confidence in built. It’s not something that you either have or you don’t: it’s something you develop with practice. The first time you speak up in front of a group of people can be terrifying: what if I make a mistake? What if I get it wrong? What if they think I’m stupid? Those feelings never go away, but the next time they will be lessened, and the next time lessened further, until you think nothing of them at all. That’s when you start to come across as confident.

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At Churchill we aim to empower everyone at the Academy to develop knowledge, skills, character and confidence, as we believe these ingredients give young people (and adults!) the best chance of success later in life. We try to create opportunities for our young people to build confidence through practice. One example of this is our Year 8 public speaking competition. Every Year 8 student has the opportunity to give a speech in front of their class. The winners go through to the Year 8 finals, and the winners of that have a chance to compete in the regional Youth Speaks competition organised by the Rotary Club. Each time, the audience is bigger and less familiar, but the staging up allows the students to build their confidence each time.

The same was true at the fantastic Churchill Young Musician of the Year competition, held on Monday evening at St John’s Church in association with Churchill Music! Eight young musicians performed with such self-assurance, commitment and skill that the audience was gripped and enthralled by every one of them.

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The chair of the adjudication panel, violinist Ruth Rogers,  spoke afterwards about nerves, and about how even she gets nervous every time she performs. Her advice was to focus on another musician, rather than the audience, and to enjoy the performance. Our young musicians definitely benefitted from her advice: if they were nervous, they didn’t show it, and this enabled the audience to put their faith in the performers, to trust them, which allowed them to be carried away by the wonderful music making on display.

Over recent weeks I’ve been interviewing Year 11 students for places in our Sixth Form, and they have all presented themselves really well: good eye contact, a firm handshake, and clear, well articulated answers to my questions. Just like the musicians on Monday night, or the Year 8s the week before, they might have been nervous inside, but they came across as confident, self-assured young people. And it’s the impression you give which matters, not what’s happening inside. That impression of confidence gives people faith in you and your abilities, which in turn helps you to feel more confident in yourself.

So, even if you’re not feeling confident, pretend. Act as if you are. Because the next time, it’ll be easier, and the next time easier still, until, eventually, you’ll find that the confidence you were pretending to have has turned into the real thing. As five times Wimbledon champion and four time Olympic gold medallist Venus Williams said:

Believe in yourself. Even if you don’t, pretend that you do, and some day, you will.

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Why I love the Junior Choir

This year’s Christmas Concert was an absolute triumph, as you can read in my review for the website and all the lovely emails and messages which were sent in afterwards. The standard of music-making and performance was exceptional, and the variety of acts was joyous. But for me, and I think for most of the audience, the Junior Choir was the perfect way to close the show. Here’s why I love the Junior Choir…

Collaboration

By my count there are 237 students listed on the programme in the Junior Choir, including 21 soloists. This captures the ethos of the Academy – it’s inclusive, where all students are valued, where everyone has a voice. And what a fantastic sound 237 Year 7 and 8 students make when they’re together!

Confidence

The soloists – and the rest of the choir – who performed on the night were incredible. It’s important to remember that some of them had only been at Churchill for eleven weeks before they took to the Playhouse stage! To sing so skilfully, word- and note-perfect (or dressed as Elvis!) on a professional theatre stage is testament to all we do to build the confidence of our young people; it is this work that makes our students our best ambassadors.

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Creativity

The songs that the Junior Choir sang were all composed by Churchill students. This year we had new compositions from Finn Williamson, Lois Hart and Brooke Knight alongside some from previous years’ songwriting competitions. The chance for students to showcase their creativity on this huge scale is such a fantastic opportunity! And the songs are great too; a fantastic alternative to traditional Christmas carols.

Choreography

As well as the sound, the sight of all those students moving together is breathtaking! The choreography really brings energy to the singing, too, and brings the words to life.

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Continuation

The Junior Choir are the Youthful Spirit of tomorrow. Having the younger students in the Playhouse to hear the senior students sing, play, act and perform allows them to see where the performing arts can take them at Churchill. Our senior students are superb role models, and having the Junior Choir alongside them in the theatre ensures that this vital area of our work remains strong into the future.

Christmas!

Although our Christmas Concert takes place at the end of November, for me it marks the start of the Christmas season. It’s the first time this year – outside of shopping centres! – that I’d seen festive tinsel and it got me properly into the Christmas spirit.

You can watch and download a video of the Junior Choir, along with a selection of other performances from the Christmas Concert, at the Music Department website.

 

Can I listen to music while I work?

This week I met Lara, Holly and Melissa, three students in Year 8 who wanted me to let them listen to music whilst they revised for their exams. They wrote me a very polite letter, and they’d even discussed it with their classmates to gather a petition. They felt that listening to music when they were working helped them relax, focus, and shut out distractions. So, they asked, would I relax the rules and let them have their headphones in?

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Will listening to music help us concentrate?

There’s been some quite interesting research in this area. Scientists have studied how listening to music can change our performance in different types of tasks. Under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse.

One study from America looked at how listening to music had an impact on surgeons’ performance in the operating theatre. This study found that listening to music made them more relaxed and they performed with more accuracy, especially if it was music they liked.

Another study, by British researcher Nick Perham, found that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your motivation — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks like learning new material or trying to memorise information.

This is a very important distinction. Surgeons in operating theatres are performing operations that they have practised many times before, and therefore they are performing things they have already learned. It’s the same principle as the research that found that music can make rote or routine tasks (like folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. Music can lift us when we’re doing things that don’t require us to think too hard about them, or things that we have practised many times before.

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Listening to music interferes with concentration when we’re trying to read or retain information, and makes us less effective learners

That’s not what lessons and revision are about however. Learning is what Nick Perham would call a “cognitively demanding task.” In one of his more recent studies, Perham says, he found that reading while listening to music, especially music with lyrics, impairs comprehension.

“You’ve got…information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got…information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.”

What basically happens is that your brain will switch between the music and what you’re trying to learn or revise, and that switching distracts you from the learning process. If you’re going to be an effective learner, your brain needs to focus fully on what you are trying to learn. No distractions.

So, sorry Lara, Holly, Melissa and friends: the rule stays! If you’re learning or revising – turn the music off.

Links:

West Side Story: Headteacher’s Review

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What a show! West Side Story ran for three nights and a matinée from 10th-12th February at The Playhouse, Weston-Super-Mare. I’ve been involved in school productions since the age of 12 and I’ve never seen anything so ambitious and so impressive. It’s not every school that puts on their show in a professional theatre, and we’re very grateful to The Playhouse for their hospitality and expertise. The facilities and the surroundings certainly added to the experience for the audience and the students lived up to the expectations, raising their game to professional standards. 

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Griff and Bernardo square up


Every aspect from the costumes to the choreography, the production design to the performances, the band to the backstage crew was first-rate. The whole cast and crew meshed together in perfect sync, with the dynamic set changes smoothly managed and entrances and exits sharp, crisp and timed to perfection. Once on stage characters were clearly defined – not just from the leads. The Sharks sashayed with Latin passion, the Jets dripped with urban cool, and within the gangs it was clear to see careful and subtle characterisation. The leads, though, were truly outstanding. I saw the show on the Friday when Adam Caulfield as Riff and Michael Nickells as Bernardo seethed and glowered at one another with all the menace and threat of young men who could not – would not – back down. The tension created between these two young men, on the verge of adulthood but still with the naïvety of youth, was wonderfully counterpointed by George Davis as Tony and the Anna Lalande as Maria. George showed from his first appearance that he had outgrown the petty squabbles of the street gangs, and tackled the vocally demanding solos and duets with great assurance. Opposite him, Anna Lalande was sublime – her voice filled the auditorium and captivated everyone. I was particularly impressed by Jodie McKitterick as Anita, who managed the transition from live wire joker to broken victim with real skill. 

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Tony and Maria meet


Of course, it was a production with two casts, and my sources from the Thursday night performance assure me that the other performers were just as impressive. Dr Wratten wrote of the second cast: 

“they not only did their own bits brilliantly but always acted as a team. Of course, some individuals shone – the challenge of the on-going aggro and fight scenes between the boys was always compelling and strongly led by Adam, Dawid, Jasper, Jake and Christian; the sheer Latin vitality of the Sharks’ ladies was brilliant, especially Nina, Ruby, Jess, Jasmine and Rosie. But the principals shone very brightly – the duets between Edward and Molly and Molly and Lucy were well beyond their years. The almost final, haunting piece between Maria and Anita would have brought the house down if everyone wasn’t silently weeping.”

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Dancers in action


The dances were no less impressive. In her programme notes, Miss Lippe commented on the joy of working with male performers with little or no previous dance training – if it wasn’t for that note, I would never have known. The commitment, timing and energy of the dance from the very first number was astonishing. Particularly moving were the interpretations of Somewhere in the second half, where imagination of what was possible gave way, horrifyingly, to what was likely.

My final word goes to the incredible twenty-three piece orchestra, which delivered Leonard Bernstein’s complex and challenging score with huge energy and sensitivity. Working tirelessly to support the performances on stage, the applause for the musicians was justifiably rapturous at the final curtain call. 

What a show indeed. Thanks to all the staff, students, friends and family who made the production possible. Everyone involved – including the audience – has memories to treasure for a lifetime.

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The Jets