Working with Students

Throughout my career I have been closely involved with student musical activities and development. This remains a constant theme alongside my professional work.

It is always stimulating to spend time with groups in various UK conservatoires, and I’ve been lucky enough to work in equivalent institutions in the Netherlands, Hungary and the USA. From 2000 I spent six years with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in charge of the Symphony Orchestra there and enjoying setting up the college’s new post-graduate Conducting Course. I am now glad to be part of the Conducting faculty at the Royal College of Music in London. The challenge contained in this specialised area of study is exactly the same as we must face throughout all advanced musical training in the 21st century: the skills needed are forever becoming wider and more demanding technically and musically, with pressure to generalise rather than specialise. This type of breadth is what is expected of all types of musician – especially conductors. Thankfully, though, there is at the same time an increasing recognition of the importance of specialisation, especially for example in classical and preclassical performance or equally in ever-developing new techniques of composition. Conductors cannot afford to ignore such specialist aspects of music making, and their training must reflect it. (I was heartened recently to find myself examining a PostGraduate Conducting Diploma final assessment in which the student chose to direct a Bach orchestral suite from the harpsichord. There can be a lot more to directing an ensemble than standing on a podium and waving a white stick!).

Youth orchestras are also for me a delightful area of activity. Thinking of the major forces to emerge across the globe in recent decades (the European Community, Venezuela, Soweto, the Middle East, etc), I think we can still – with increasing relevance – call it the ‘youth orchestra movement’. I enjoy working with youth orchestras in England and Scotland, and particularly with the amazing National Children’s Orchestra (NCOGB). In 2008 I helped form the National Youth Orchestra of Syria, and was able to continue my regular visits to Damascus until 2012, after which we had to give way to the force of events. The need in that country was all too obvious and the talent eminently worth nurturing. We only hope that music of all kinds in Syria – Arab and western – will survive the current turmoil in that country. It was heartening, meanwhile, to see the recent visit to the UK by the Palestine Youth Orchestra, conducted by Sian Edwards and featuring Arab music alongside Beethoven and Mussorgsky.

Music education must always be seen in the widest possible context, with lasting value to all who are lucky enough to benefit from it. Whether in conservatoires or youth orchestras I take the opportunity whenever I can to emphasise the personal and cultural value of music-making way beyond its professional application, as I believe that is where its greatest benefit lies.

Howard Williams

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