This was my second attempt to reach Downe House School, distantly set atop a big hill in Berkshire, and therefore unreachable during the snows a month ago, when my visit was originally scheduled. Nevertheless, nature had saved up a freezingly grey day for me to visit this remarkable campus (built pre-WW1 for a religious sect, which soon closed down) with its pretty colonnades and homely chapel. Years ago, I spent a bit of time here on a residential course with the NYO, and particularly remembered the beautiful wooden music room, rather like a Swiss chalet.
A girls school (age 11 upwards) with almost 100% boarding is an unusual schooling model these days, but it means a lot of extra hours can be put to good use. A clear beneficiary is school music, and my main takeaway from the day was to marvel at what can be done amidst a busy curriculum when the will, time and, of course, funding are available. I visited Downe House to adjucate its annual Young Musician of the Year contest. Incredibly, out of 550 pupils in the whole school, upwards of 150 had entered as solo instrumentalists or singers. (I’m glad to say there had been two previously adjudicated rounds, winnowing this number down to 20 finalists for me to listen to). Hearing the progress made, in some cases presumably just in a few terms, between the beginners’ category, a middle group and the ‘virtuoso’ round was like a paean to music teaching. The choice between the seven most senior students, all impeccably prepared on everything from organ to marimba, was a dificult one indeed.
Quite additionally to this, Downe House recently won the Barnardo’s Senior Choir of the Year competition in the RFH at the end of March. As the perfect encore to our Young Musician evening, this vocal group directed by the school’s dynamic head of music, Dr Charlotte Exon, took to the stage to sing their marvellous version of I Say a Little Prayer. How appropriate to end a day of inspiring female endeavour with an echo of that great woman, Dionne Warwick. (Or perhaps you prefer the recording by Aretha Franklin, another remarkable lady.)