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.

USP TENNIS: WIMBLEDON S TEN GBR [E

 

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

In Production

 

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The cast of West Side Story 2016

This week Churchill has been buzzing with the excitement of West Side Story being performed at The Playhouse in Weston-Super-Mare. Well over a hundred students and staff are involved in this enormous production, which has been over a year in the making and is the culmination of countless hours of hard work, dedication and effort. Is it worth it? You bet!

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Programmes from some of the shows I’ve done…I got some of them signed in case the cast went on to be famous!

I know first hand what it means to be involved in a school production. My history with them goes right back to being second innkeeper in my primary nativity! However, it wasn’t until secondary school that I got fully involved with drama, working behind the scenes on lighting for many of our plays including Guys and Dolls, Our Country’s Good, Cider with Rosie, Animal Farm and Evacuees. The highlight for me was definitely the production of Twelfth Night we put on when I was in Year 13. It was a beautiful production and it felt like an incredible team effort!

I carried on my drama work throughout university and into my career as a teacher. I was in the band for Bugsy Malone and (my favourite show!) Return to the Forbidden Planet at my first school, and even made an appearance as Johnny Casino in our production of Grease! I ended up directing or co-directing productions later on in my career, including a heady spell of co-writing plays for our school to put on with the Head of Drama. We adapted the story of Faust in a production called “Tina”, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream became Fairylandatopia, before I returned to the Forbidden Planet for my final stint as director (in a production starring the now famous Jack Howard as Captain Tempest…but I didn’t get him to sign a programme!)

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The programme for West Side Story

Why do we do it? Let me count the ways! Clearly there’s the opportunity to learn such a range of skills in the performing and expressive arts area – performance is the ultimate aim. Acting, playing, singing, dancing, choreographing, directing and conducting all go into the show, alongside lighting, sound, costume, make up, set and production design and construction, stage management, marketing…the list is endless. The chance for young people to learn and practise these skills in a “live” context is invaluable.

Above all, though, it’s the connections that the production makes which mean it’s integral to the school’s calendar. The fact that so many staff and students need to work together as a single team towards a single goal galvanises the whole community, and shows that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts.

I know what it takes to put a production – the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, that bad rehearsal where everything goes wrong and you wonder if it’s ever going to work…but it always does. And when the audience is laughing or gasping or gripped in collective silence by the action on the stage, when they applaud and you just can’t stop smiling with pride – that’s when it’s worth it.

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Well done to everybody involved in West Side Story – I can’t wait for the next one!

 

 

The power of music

Many people have written about the power of music to move us. For example, George Eliot wrote “there is no feeling that does not find relief in music”, whilst Martin Luther is reputed to have said “my heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been so laced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.” My personal Headteacher hero, Albus Dumbledore, reflecting on a performance of the Hogwarts school song, was moved to tears in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes, “A magic beyond all which we do here!

Lucy, Joe and Reuben at the Christmas Concert

At the Churchill Music! Young Musician of the Year competition at St John’s Church on Monday evening, I was moved beyond measure by the performances I heard. At the event, I shared my thoughts about the power of music in other ways. Firstly, playing a musical instrument actually improves your brain. A recent study by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in America, for example, showed that “music training changes the course of adolescent brain development” leading to significant gains in literacy. The theory is that in learning an instrument, you are training your brain to hear subtle differences in sound, which reinforces and strengthens your ability to process language. An earlier study from Harvard University showed the “links between musical training and enhanced cognitive skills” – in particular the executive functions of our brain’s frontal lobe which “allow for planned, controlled behaviour” according to the study’s author, Nadine Gaab. There is a wealth of research that shows that learning and playing a musical instrument has a raft of benefits for brain function, learning and intelligence.

Another benefit to playing a musical instrument is that it teaches us the power of collaboration. Of course, we can sing and play alone, and solos can be hugely powerful, but music is meant to be shared. Even a soloist is usually accompanied, and anyone who has sung in a choir or played in a band or orchestra will tell you that the shared experience of making music together is unrivalled. The discipline of listening to one another, adjusting what you are doing to match those around you, shifting your own performance to contribute to the whole, teaches us so much about selflessness and teamwork, and how we are so much more together than the sum or our parts.

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Playing together unleashes the power of music

The other great bonus to playing an instrument is the practice. I’m not sure if the performers will agree as they attempt three octaves of a C# minor arpeggio for the tenth time, but to get good – really good – at a musical instrument takes hours and hours of practice, day after day, week after week. The famous concert pianist Artur Rubenstein said “don’t tell me how talented you are; tell me how hard you work.” This was his way of articulating Stephen King’s notion that “the difference between a talented individual and a successful one is a lot of hard work.” The work ethic of learning a music instrument teaches discipline, dedication and determination which transfer to all other aspects of your life. It takes a lot of all three to get through those early, squeaky, scratchy stages to the bit where it starts to sound like music!

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Practice makes perfect

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, making music teaches you to feel. The wonder of a performance is that it brings the wood and metal of the instruments, and the space of the venue to life in an experience that only that audience and that performer will ever share. Musicians interpret dots and lines on a page, often written down hundreds of years ago in countries far from our own, and channel the emotions that those composers felt though themselves in a way which is unique, and all the more powerful for it.

In St John’s Church on Monday I was struck by the skill with which these talented young people were able to make an emotional connection through their instruments to the audience, transporting them through centuries and over miles to different places, different times. It was a privilege to be there and a lesson to us all to pick up an instrument and stick with it. It’s worth it.