A big pleasure of my unpredictable schedule is when work takes me to places I’d never otherwise have planned to visit. In the case of Nantwich, Cheshire it would have been a shame to miss this workmanlike little town whose centre is largely made up of magnificent 16th century black-and-white timbered buildings. Nantwich is also unusually lucky to have Malbank School as its local comprehensive and sixth-form college, to which I was invited by its head of music, Dr Sue Sharkey.
My invitation came in response to a media interview, in which I'd said my knowledge of the school music curriculum was rusty and needed updating. Sue kindly arranged for me to spend a whole day with all her GCSE and A-level students from years 9 to 13 – in itself an unusual feat, as in recent years I’ve found schools generally unwilling to release people from 'important' classes like mathematics. (In a gratifying Malbank inversion of this phenomenon, a trombone-playing maths teacher dropped in to join us during his free period). I felt so grateful to the students who patiently led me through what they are required to do, what they are doing, and what they think of it. The syllabus in fact didn’t seem to have changed hugely from when I last saw it, but new quirks are always appearing in educational policy, on the micro and macro level.
Parallel with our curriculum ‘investigations’ we ran a quickly devised composition project, asking small groups of students to create and perform their own version of Amazing Grace. The playthrough at the end of the afternoon was a really wonderful hour of listening. I find I rarely listen as closely as I do to classroom compositions which have an evanescent quality (because no-one will remember how to play them exactly like that the next day) and sometimes contain genuinely striking material. That was the case here with several pieces I’m still thinking about a week later – a haunting a cappella group with vocal drones and descants; a funky trio including electric bass and cello; and a ragged band of violins, drums and trombone who produced an elegant stretch of counterpoint which would never have occurred to me in the proverbial 'month of Sundays'.