Putting on a show

From Chicago to Java via the West End, Simon Fry says schools are taking an ever more sophisticated approach to performing arts

For pupils hoping for a career in music or drama, recitals, rehearsals and read-throughs are as important a part of school life as reading, writing and arithmetic. However, even the most gifted children can benefit from having the right space in which to shine – literally and metaphorically. With the best equipment, schools can nurture their pupils’ gift while showcasing their talent, producing impressive content for websites and social media to attract the next generation of stars. When it comes to music, one south-west school celebrates an inclusive, historic form from SE Asia in a very modern way.

In the north-east, Yarm School is currently building a state-of-the-art music school, containing specialist music classrooms, 10 instrumental tuition rooms, a drumming suite and a recording studio. In addition, there will be a 132-seat lecture theatre with retractable seating. The entire facility will be sound-proofed and air-conditioned. This impressive addition to Yarm’s already enviable performing arts provision is part of an ambitious £25m redevelopment programme of the school’s sites.

At the heart of the school’s performing arts centre is the 750-seat, professionally designed Princess Alexandra Auditorium opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in 2012. It features an orchestra pit with a hydraulic lift able to take up to 20 tonnes, as well as retractable seating and a bespoke four-tier digital organ. The auditorium is equipped with professional lighting and sound equipment, including 94 dimmable lighting channels and 16 stage microphone lines. It can enjoy full north-facing daylight or complete blackout.

The atrium break-out space has double-height windows and a river terrace for refreshments before and during productions. Adjacent to the auditorium is a music recital room, used for smaller and more intimate performances. A dance studio and studio theatre provide rehearsal and teaching space but can also be used as smaller performance venues. The facilities’ flexibility means the auditorium can be used for exams and exhibitions as well as a drama and concerts.

The school’s performing arts calendar has been greatly enhanced with the addition of the new facilities. Pupils are inspired to take to the stage with a wide range of school and external productions. The school stages a full-scale musical, many plays, concerts and dance performances throughout the academic year.

The auditorium also attracts a wide range of music, opera and drama productions open to the wider community and has hosted the Black Dyke Band, The London Community Gospel Choir, Banff Mountain Film Festival, National Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Northern Sinfonia, as well as numerous school concerts, drama productions and lectures.

‘The Good Schools Guide’ describes Surrey’s Hurtwood House as “a utopia for creative minds”, something endorsed by its head of performing arts Doug Quinn: “Hurtwood House has long been established as a centre of excellence for performing arts. It boasts one of the country’s best performing arts departments and proudly produces over 30 productions annually, including musical, devised and experimental theatre, contemporary and classical drama and several music concerts. Hurtwood consistently delivers a professional standard and each show is designed, produced and technically supported by some of the best industry and creative professionals in the business.”

Operations are on an impressive scale. “The budgets for each project are out of this world as our recent £50,000 production of ‘Chicago’ and our annual £30,000 music concert suggests. Our in-house team consists of our head of performing arts, artistic director, head of theatre, director-in-residence and a full-time technical manager, production stage manager and costume supervisor. We also work closely with West End designers and companies such as Autograph and leading specialists in lighting and video. This helps ensure our students get the complete ‘X Factor’ experience in terms of equipment and production value. We predominantly use two spaces for our productions. Our black box theatre studio is particularly effective for intimate drama and new writing and our main house, a 200-seat auditorium and versatile theatre space, is predominantly used for main-scale productions. Recent projects have included a musical theatre showcase, student-directed plays and a modern ‘Hamlet’ adaptation.”

Black Cat Music has been providing a ‘one-stop-shop’ service for music education and performance equipment to schools, orchestras, bands and theatres for over 30 years. The equipment, mainly manufactured by the Wenger Corporation and supplemented with products from other leading brands, is widely recognised to be high quality, functional, ergonomically designed, robust and fully guaranteed. Black Cat provides a finance scheme as well as an education discount scheme offering 5 percen discount on qualifying orders. It can also advise and install acoustic solutions.

Music stands include the Classic 50, folding stands and iPad holder stands while music folders can present a unified image for your choir or orchestra via optional customisation with your school crest in gold blocking.

A range of ergonomically designed music chairs provide a posture best suited for playing music by ensuring breathing in a way which minimises fatigue during long rehearsal and performance periods. Instrument storage systems protect valuable instruments and make great use of scarce space while conductors’ equipment includes podiums, music stands and chairs.

Stages can be assembled in a variety of configurations, sizes and heights, are quick to erect and take down after use and can be wheeled away using specially designed storage carts. Ideal for choirs, risers are similarly easy to assemble, disassemble and store. Backstage equipment ranges from costume storage to make-up mirrors, complete with lights. For front-of-house, there are numerous audience chairs with spring return seat mechanisms, comfortably upholstered in plush fabrics and offering versions for permanent installation or portable use.

For rehearsal or recording, sound isolation rooms complete with internal lighting and ventilation systems enable other classes nearby to be conducted without disturbance from the music suite.

Wells Cathedral School has its own Javanese gamelan. It’s called sumber laras (literally “well-spring of harmony”) and has been used in the school’s music curriculum by every child for many decades. The gamelan orchestra is a collection of tuned percussion including gongs, pots and instruments resembling glockenspiels or xylophones. The music is ideal for groups of mixed ability as the playing technique is easily assimilated and the pieces are learnt by rote rather than written down. Beginners can make an instant contribution playing simple parts, while the more advanced can play more florid or challenging material.

The school’s gamelan is also available for use by community groups coming to Wells. However, over recent years a unique way has been found of sharing it across the world. The Virtual Javanese Gamelan is a piece of software for PC or Mac integrating performing and composing using sampled sounds from the school’s gamelan. It is available, free of charge from the website below which also features details of the Virtual Javanese Gamelan app for ios and android mobile devices. This includes the full set of gamelan instruments and pieces to play using the device’s touch screen. It is now possible to have the school’s gamelan in your pocket.

Fostering a pupil’s love of music or performance can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment and enrichment, while taking to the stage usually builds confidence in the child and glowing pride in the parent in equal measure. The staging of such performances is often complex and multi-faceted, but with the right equipment, planning and preparation, a school won’t make a crisis out of a drama. 

Hurtwood House: www.hurtwoodhouse.com

Yarm: www.yarmschool.org

Black Cat Music: www.blackcatmusic.co.uk

Wells Cathedral School’s Music Academy: www.wellsmusicacademy.org


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