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A Year in the Life of… Chetham’s woodwind players

It’s one year since pandemic lockdowns began in the UK. As we warmly welcome students back from what we hope is the last ever school lockdown, Belinda Gough, our Head of Woodwind, looks at the positive lessons learnt, by our young musicians and our experienced team alike.

Wow. What a year! The future arrived on our doorstep and it has been a rollercoaster.

I am a flute player from Australia via Paris and have run the famous Woodwind department at Chets for around 19 years. It’s such a treat to have worked with so many amazing young people and musicians over the years. I remember them all!

We are really lucky to have super students (around 50 currently) who are open minded, passionate and self-driven. Our staff (a team of 20) are some of the best players and teachers at what they do… flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, recorders, saxophones, jazz & baroque. To work or study here is like a dream come true for so many of us!

For those outside Chetham’s, you might not realise what a friendly, welcoming community this is, or realise exactly what life is like as a woodwind player at Chets. Well this year has been unusual, to say the least, but also inspiring.

First, I have to say that during this last year of lockdown, I have been so happy to see that our Woodwind students are a powerhouse of creativity. Lockdowns and remote working have allowed us to explore how our music might change the world, to experiment with digital storytelling and to find new ways of having fun with our art!

From the start, we decided to immerse ourselves in learning and discovering communication: as an art, an expression of ourselves, as a technical tool (digital) and as a means to bring people together, starting with us and spiralling out. We had a lot to learn! We are used to being live performers. We’re comfortable with stage work, ensemble playing and concert delivery live. But only a small handful of our students had recorded themselves for public performance before. Almost none had done so live from their own homes.

Students have been perfecting the art of recording performances for audiences to enjoy digitally, like Matt's Irish whistle jig!

By the autumn term, we were back on site together. But the digital skills we had developed remained crucial. Our Year 13 gathered plenty more experience. They prepared recordings for Music College auditions, which would usually have been performed live at colleges, but this year they needed to be recorded digitally. This was our challenge, but doing these on site, with staff accompanists, our beautiful venues, great sound gear… it was the chocolate box experience.

Then, suddenly, we were at home again! Many students were back to sharing a room with siblings or practicing in a 1 metre square space alongside home working parents and siblings in online academic classes. This has been our shared experience. You know the score.

But a household filled with music is also joyful thing. We congratulate every single student (and parent!) for learning and progressing despite these challenges. Some students even joined our school in January during lockdown; they deserve an extra level of praise for their efforts, and it’s been wonderful to have them!

Supportive families have been crucial to our young musicians in lockdown. Shia's performances with his mum were an inspiration to the whole Chetham's woodwind community!

In my house, my own two teenagers had to put up with flute & oboe 24/7 (my husband is Principal Oboe with the Halle, as well as teacher at Chets). My oldest tells me the oboe is all about spit and sing! My youngest invested in noise cancelling headphones. Meanwhile, our new puppy slept soundly underneath the base of an oboe bell, as well as during my high register flute exercises… but NOT at night! And don’t get me started on home wifi issues.

But despite all the challenges, we have developed new, life-long skills. These skills will be important in the future careers of our young musicians, who will live and work and perform in a more digital age than we’ve ever experienced before.

We learnt how to record better quality sound from home, about the optimum distance from a mic, about good light sources, about framing us and our instrument successfully, about working on camera shots without intrusive stands. We learnt how to better engage with our audience. Students figured out how to get a ‘good take’ and observe themselves from the outside rather than the inside out. That in itself, has been a fascinating journey. Then they learnt how to download and upload to various sources – a few simple words but in reality, a lot of time and frustration for many, me included!

Our project has been to create a Soundcloud of ourselves: choosing 3 of our favorite pieces that express who we are, what we love and how we feel. Wow, this was like opening up a creative maelstrom. Our young musicians presented their ongoing work in weekly online performance classes. We laughed a lot and learnt a lot (yes me too) from each other.

Many students went on to create full video movies with their sound recordings, with visuals inspired by their lives and the music they chose, text and scores adding context where a programme note would have in the past.

We were “playing” and “improving” with music & sound through digitals.

Students mixed fun with serious. I had young student roller skating in their garage to disco lights playing a Gosseck Tambourin; saxophonists playing to local cows and sheep, trying to communicate with animals; and a student multitracking bassoon arrangements of their favourite Nintendo game soundtracks. We had one student explore the ability to use their music for climate activism, creating their own ‘Earth Cry’ in a 1980’s rock style; another produced a short movie staged in mini-Acts on ‘the present, past and future’, based around Stravinsky’s 3 pieces for Clarinet.

Among all this, there were many really high quality performances, as you would expect from our artists of the future: like Ibert flute concerto recorded onsite, then edited with visuals from the student’s walk with her family during the first snowfalls over Christmas.

Importantly, during the past year we have remembered why we do what we do and the value of sharing and communicating our musical selves. It kept us all going: students, staff, and hopefully(!) their families.

We also did a huge amount of all the daily drill stuff that comes with being a woodwind player. Believe it or not, we like this! Weekly scale classes online in small groups, orchestral excerpt classes and yes even weekly reed classes online. Great tools are essential, take infinite hours and years to refine and allow us effortless freedom of expression. Quality in our ears and hearts. Meeting each other online kept us inspired on the low days, laughing on the good days and hopefully helped our southern sliding intonation.

There were also the breathing classes (Belinda’s Breath Class) where we learnt to move in space and time, link breath with movement for a real understanding of pulse (i.e., movement through space and time) whilst learning how to be calm and present and powerful. Say that in one breath!

So it’s not often that we can say we changed the world, but this year we did. It’s incredible to suddenly be back in the same room as other people, we cherish that privilege now, but we won’t throw away the skills we learnt while we were apart. They’ll stay with us forever.

Belinda Gough, Head of Woodwind

Apply Now:

Inspired to join us? We are accepting applications from students for the 2021/21 academic year. Read our Admissions page or get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

Woodwind Bootcamps:

This March, young musicians aged 8-18 are invited to join Chetham’s tutors for a free online ‘Bootcamp’ to get back into practice as we come out of lockdown. Check out our What’s On pages and register now for top tips from our friendly, expert team. 

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