Catch-up: live webchat with some of the Music Society

In case you missed it, you can watch again a live webchat with some of this year’s Music Society members, in which they reflect on getting involved in extra-curricular music as part of their experience at the University, and some memorable moments.

Featuring alto Carmen Mackey (reading Drama & Theatre Studies), soprano Harriet Wilde (reading Psychology), and Maddie Rigby (also reading Drama and Theatre Studies).

Watch out for some surprise moments involving some household pets…

Extra-curricular music at Kent: the Music Society view

Here’s a pass-the-baton-with-a-difference introduction to being involved in extra-curricular music at the University, from members of this year’s Music Society.

We hear from Music Society President, David Curtiss (Physics), Holly Porton (Architecture), Felicity Bourdillon (Psychology), Amy Tokel (Drama & Theatre Studies), international student Paschalis Kontypyrgos, (Psychology), Ellie Gould (Biomedical Science), Beth Chapman (English Language & Linguistics and German), Harriet Wilde (Psychology),b (Drama & Theatre Studies) and Maddie Rigby (Drama & Theatre Studies).

Filmed in isolation; edited and created by Maddie Rigby

Find out more about getting involved on our website here.

Ave atque vale: Sue Wanless retires from the University

After many years devoted to championing extra-curricular music as part of life at the University, Sue has decided to lay down the conductor’s baton.

Image: Molly Hollman

For thirty-two years, Sue has been at the helm of the Music department,  conducting the University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra each year in the epic annual Colyer-Fergusson concert in Canterbury Cathedral, as well as the University Camerata and other chamber groups.

University Chorus and Orchestra
University Chorus and Orchestra in Canterbury Cathedral: Photo: Robert Berry
Image: Molly Hollman

From a humble beginning, rehearsing fifty singers in the Senate Building, through to the cavernous acoustics and logistical challenges of performing in Eliot College dining-hall, and eventually into the landmark Colyer-Fergusson building, music has become a flourishing, vital part of the University’s creative life.

Rehearsing in Eliot dining-hall in 2010.
Digging the first hole
The Honourable Jonathan Monckton and Director of Music, Susan Wanless in May, 2011.Image credit Mick Norman

Over four hundred members of the University community, both students as well as staff, are involved each academic year, as well as members of the local community. Aside from a busy life on campus, Sue has also  been part of the panel of judges for the Canterbury International Festival’s annual music bursary competition for young performers.

Sue in rehearsal with compser, Matthew King, in 2018

Thanks to a wonderful donation from the Colyer-Fergusson Charitable Trust, the Colyer-Fergusson building opened its doors to extra-curricular music in December 2018,  revolutionising the opportunities for rehearsal and performance with its award-winning concert-hall.

The gala opening of Colyer-Fergusson, December 2012. Image: Matt Wilson
Rehearsing in Canterbury Cathedral

Thanks to Sue, each year students leave the University with fond memories of having performed in the Nave of the Cathedral, Colyer-Fergusson Hall, and (last November) across the Channel in the city of Calais. And it’s not just the music; joining in with music leads to the creation of friendships amongst the student community that last a lifetime.

In previous years, Sue conducted fully-staged productions of works as part of the summer opera projects, and created the former annual ArtsFest that transformed into the current Summer Music Week, a vibrant week- (and, in recent years, more than a week!) long musical celebration of the end of the academic year, concluding with the popular Saturday Gala concert complete with popping champagne corks, popular orchestral and choral favourites, and fond (and often tearful) farewells as another generation of University musicians graduates, performing in the concert-hall for the final time.

The annual Summer Gala concert in Colyer-Fergusson Hall. Image: Matt Wilson

And it’s not just about waving your arms; there’s also the programme notes to write, the lunchtime concerts to book, the liaising with other departments and schools across the University, the bills to pay.

So it’s farewell to Sue after many of commitment and dedication to enhancing the lives of countless students (and staff) at the University as she heads to the nineteenth hole. We’re sure the future holds many, many rounds of golf and post-golf refreshments – as Sue heads off the eighteenth green for the final time, we are sure everyone joins us in wishing her all the very best. Thank you for the music…

Sue on the spoons…

A Love Letter For the Arts on BBC Radio Kent

BBC Radio Kent presenter, Dominic King

BBC Radio Kent presenter Dominic King has recently launched ‘A Love Letter for the Arts’ on his show, in which creative people from the region are invited to respond to the threats facing the arts during the current times.

Last night’s show featured Deputy Director of Music, Dan Harding; if you missed the feature, the text is reproduced below, or listen back on BBC Sounds at the 1hr 14mins mark here.


Just stop what you’re doing for a moment. Just – put down the book; put Spotify on pause; pause watching something on YouTube or Netflix, stop listening to that CD.

Now wait a minute; all those that you’ve just stopped doing. They’re arts, aren’t they ? Without really realising it, those are the arts with which you’ve just been engaging; those things which you’ve all just stopped doing are the product of many hours of work from a whole infrastructure of people – craftsmen, performers, practitioners, professional and freelancers, all coming together to deliver that product that you just watched – or read – or listened to – or looked at on a wall, in an art gallery.

Just think about all those individuals involved in creating those things. Now imagine what happens if the arts, under grave threat in the current climate, were to disappear; venues to close; freelancers are no longer able to do what they do – they’re no longer able to pay bills, to put food on the table, to make ends meet.

Now imagine a world where lockdown has finished, life has returned; you want to go out in the evening, or at the weekend. Let’s go to a concert! But wait; the venue is closed, the concert-hall dark, the piano lid shut, the pianist and the singer have taken up other jobs, to be able to pay bills, to make ends meet.

Image: Aaron Burden via Unsplash

We’ll go to the theatre! But wait: the curtain is lowered, the auditorium empty, and the freelancers – the set designers, the costume-makers, the actors – have all taken up other jobs, to pay bills, to make ends meet. Let’s go to an art gallery! But wait; the gallery is shut, the curtains are drawn; there are no paintings to see, because the artists aren’t painting any more; they’ve put down their brushes to re-train as an HGV driver, a delivery man, to work in a supermarket, to pay bills, to put food on the table, to make ends meet.

Let’s go to the cinema! But wait: there are no films being made; there are no directors, no cinematographers, no set-designers, no set-builders, no model-makers, no film composers, no caterers; they’ve all taken up other jobs, in order to pay bills, to put food on the table, to make ends meet.

Let’s go to a live gig! But wait: the venue is closed, converted into a trendy wine-bar; the stage is dark, the bar is empty; the musicians have laid down their instruments – the guitarist put down his strings, the drummer given up her sticks, because they’ve all taken other jobs; to pay bills, to put food on the table, to make ends meet.

There’s a real danger that, as we emerge into a post-COVID world, that venues will have been lost; there will be fewer creative activities for us to enjoy. Libraries would be shut; there will be no books being written, because people won’t be writing any more because the writers will have laid down their pens and taken other jobs, to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to make ends meet.

We’re also at risk of losing the opportunities to inspire the artists and practitioners of tomorrow; that children who would have sat in the concert-hall, or gone to a live gig, or visited an art gallery or the theatre and had that revelatory moment of thinking ‘Yes! THIS is what I want to do,’ are not going to able to have that moment of career-defining inspiration

The arts are at risk; we need to save them, and the people that create them. We need the government to write its own love letter for arts on the back of not just one large cheque, but several, each of which will filter down to the grass-roots venues, the freelancers, the venues at the beating hearts of their communities.

As Joni Mitchell put it so memorably once upon a time in a bitter-sweet ballad in 1970 whose message still endures to this day:

“Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…”

Many thanks to Dominic King for the invitation to contribute to the series.

Hallowed music in hallowed halls: thinking outside the (musical) box

Music is usually with us most of the time; on streaming platforms whilst we work, on the radio or mp3 player while in the car, running, cycling; it announces the mood of the film we’re about to watch (usually in the cinema: more likely, on Netflix these days…), or draws the programme we’re watching on television to a close. It identifies particular brands or products in adverts; it accompanies times of celebration, of mourning, enhancing public pageants and private moments.

Image: Larisa Birta via Unsplash

In the current climate of various states of lockdown and social distancing, many of us are finding we need music now more than ever; being deprived of the opportunities to either perform or experience live music is affecting musicians and listeners everywhere. The recent resumption of tiny live concerts from the Wigmore Hall – delivered from behind closed doors with only one or two performers and a skeleton technical staff – and performances from the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have come as a reviving musical burst of oxygen for many.

We’re all looking for solutions at the moment, that will allow us to keep performing and experiencing music during the current pandemic. We look for models, for ways in which others are responding to the challenge in different, creative ways, to see what we might learn from them; what might work, what might offer the possibility of keeping music alive.

Kate Romano: image by Bella West

It’s easy to be afraid; traditional models of classical music, in particular, rely on delivering hallowed music in suitable venues. As musician, producer and creative whirlwind Kate Romano put it recently in an impassioned article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, we cling to “the idea that music of high stature has to be performed in buildings of high stature,” a concept that “closes things down and prevents people from thinking about different ways of people hearing music.”

If we can, for a moment, relinquish the idea that audiences need to experience music in traditional venues (a concept looking increasingly untenable as concert-halls, churches and clubs look to be least suited to allowing live musicians and audiences to occupy the same space), and look instead to other spaces that might allow performers and listeners to come together, in whatever shape or form may be possible, things start to get a little more positive. Think, for instance, of the Proms in the Car Park series that began a few years ago, bringing exciting music to a multi-storey car park in Peckham.

Of course, performances benefit from taking place in ideal, purpose-built venues, in concert-halls and opera houses that have been designed especially to enhance acoustic properties, lines of sight, managing people and instruments and all the trappings of concert-giving. And this is not to undermine their importance, especially when they engage and support their local communities. But these venues rely on packing people together – musicians and audience alike – in order to enhance the electricity that derives from (and is necessary to) live performance – and also to maximise ticket sales, to keep venues operating, and musicians, box office, front of house and technical staff paid. And whilst repertoire benefits from being experienced in exactly the right conditions for the ears and (sometimes) the spirit – sacred polyphony in resonant churches, symphonic repertoire in concert halls, jazz quartets on club stages – the current climate is forcing us to consider the need to move outside of these places, if social distancing requires more space between the players and more seats between the audience.

Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind.

Most music is written expressly to be performed in dedicated venues (I recall watching a broadcast of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s About Time in which the sonorous opening brass-call came from the players spaced around the tower of Ely Cathedral, in dialogue with the period-instrument orchestra and modern ensemble below). What happens if organisations started commissioning new works especially for performance in unusual spaces; for car-parks, libraries, art galleries ? Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind. Initially, it would be about working on the smaller-scale; using different ensembles, spaced to exploit a venue’s characteristics and draw directly upon them rather than trying to get around them.

I realise of course that this isn’t a short-term solution to the problems we’re facing. And some communities are doing this already. But drawing on this approach particularly at this moment might wed musicians, artists, composers and curators closer to their local communities, encouraging collaboration between artists, the places and the communities in which they live in the way that some festivals already work, resulting in a closer creative dialogue between people and place. The danger, of course, of successfully engaging the local community is that the focus of creative groups and organisations becomes somewhat more inward-looking, or locally focused; but it would be important to keep being aspirational, challenging, and with a view to building towards a return to the concert-hall but wielding a new, imaginatively different approach to programming. Having established a loyal, local audience, what you would then aim to do is to take your community audience with you when the time came that those traditional venues reopen. “You enjoyed listening to us HERE; now listen to us HERE as well!” Building up a faithful, local listenership that then follows you into the concert-hall or opera house might help also reassure those involved that the classical canon in general, and the contemporary scene in particular, isn’t always something of which to be afraid. Those local followers might well be the open-minded, open-eared listeners happy to take the risk, especially if they were engaged enough to have come with you through odd venues, unusual spaces with quirky acoustics and perhaps unusual (or even non-existent) seating…

Now’s the time to think about looking to those imaginative ways of presenting music as models for the future, rather than as Novel But Ultimately Forgettable Sidesteps from the Traditional Ways of Doing Things. There is room for both opportunities: for traditional repertoire in customary spaces, and for traditional and imaginative (and new) repertoire capitalising on the novel possibilities afforded by unorthodox spaces. We need to support and develop organisations prepared to take on the challenge.

And, as Kate dryly tweeted in response: ‘Yes. And channel funding into them.’

Even though a rescue package of £1.57bn towards the arts was announced yesterday (and there are still concerns about how that will be implemented, and whether it will support freelancers and grass-roots venues…), the conversation is still intricate, fascinating – and urgent. We need to keep it going.

Coming home: Laura Osswald reflects on music-making and the impact of lockdown

Erasmus-student, cellist and singer, Laura Osswald, looks back on her time as part of extra-curricular music-making, and how she continues to be involved all the way from her home Germany during lockdown.

More than two months have passed since I have left the University of Kent. But the connection with the Music Department is still strong and will continue to be.

Card on the table: Laura (left) backstage in Colyer-Fergusson

Looking back on my Erasmus semester in Canterbury, music and the amazing people I got to know through it were a huge part of what turned this time into a great, enriching experience. Music allowed me to develop friendships not just based on the common fate of going to the same lecture or living in the same flat, but based on the shared passion of making music, especially making music together with others.

Within the music department, I never felt like a stranger – instead, going into the Colyer-Fergusson building more and more felt like coming home.

Being part of the Symphony Orchestra, the Cecilian Choir and the String Sinfonia and several small groups, I was very involved in the Music Department from the start. In my blogpost from November, I could only look back on the first concerts, but many more have followed. Christmas time had started wonderfully with the Advent Breathing Space with the Cecilian Choir in the medieval St Michael’s Church in Hernhill. My first term then ended with the fantastic concert with the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. 2020 continued to be full of various musical activities. For Alice in Wonderland, I got the chance of not only singing in a choir, but also dancing as a playing-card which I enjoyed very much!

On the cards: the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ chorus in rehearsal

With the amazing University Camerata, we had a nice family concert of Peter and the Wolf where I was leading the cello section – so exciting and a great experience! I also continued to make chamber music: I joined a string quartet that performed at the Law Ball and a piano trio. With the Symphony Orchestra and String Sinfonia, we worked hard on our repertoire for the concerts in the end of March and I loved our rehearsals – but unfortunately, Covid-19 came in the way. Particularly the cancellation of the Cathedral Concert was very sad for me as it would have offered the unique opportunity to play in the impressive Canterbury Cathedral – I even would have had a small solo in Duruflé’s Requiem. It would have been a great finale for my musical time in Kent.

Laura (second from left) with the chamber group

But then, we found an alternative ending: a Facebook livestream concert with a piano quintet playing the beautiful music of Ólafur Arnalds. This was actually a dream of mine coming true, since I have loved his music for years and always wanted to play it myself – and now I could, together with four amazing musicians. I am very thankful that this happened, giving me a perfect ending to my Erasmus semester and bringing a bit of calm and peace into a troubled world.

When I think of all the music-making and concerts I have been part of, I am incredibly grateful that I had this opportunity and I am so happy I could experience all of this before the coronavirus started to change our lives so much. However, a positive side-effect is the emergence of the virtual music projects! Thanks to the great commitment of Dan Harding and the wonders of technology, I can continue playing with the people I love and miss. Of course, this is very different from making music together face-to-face and it can’t quite replace it, but nevertheless it is a beautiful opportunity to maintain my connection to Canterbury, the Music Department and joint music-making in general.

Social distant-strings; Laura recording as part of the Virtual Music Project from her home in Germany

The music, the memories and the people will stay in my heart. Thank you for welcoming me in Canterbury with open arms, I hope I can come back one day.

Show your working: now is the time to be spoiling the illusion behind creating performances

Lights, camera – action.

Or, currently, more likely: lighting (pulling curtain, adjusting angle-poise lamp), camera-phone (or webcam) – tripod (or dodgy pile of precariously-balanced books) – internet signal (strength variable but should suffice) – crossed fingers – Go Live / Start Stream.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

The lifting of the curtain, the hushed expectancy of the audience as the music begins or the first words are uttered on the stage. The first moments of what, hopefully, is a magical, captivating, challenging performance, created after hours of endless work in crafting a flawless experience that hides well the hours spent in making it. At the moment, that’s all gone.

Whilst lockdown has afforded new ways of realising creative ideas, it also underlines how hard it is to bring about a ‘traditional’ live event. Performers can’t engage with live listeners in the same way, with a packed house, an eager audience.

Continue reading Show your working: now is the time to be spoiling the illusion behind creating performances