Studying choral conducting for a postgraduate degree
Studying choral conducting for a postgraduate degree

We have what I think is a very wonderful MA
Choral programme here at the University of Birmingham which we’ve had for about 7 years
now. It’s principally taught by me – my name’s Simon Halsey, I’m the Chorus Director at the
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as well as Professor here at the University and I’m
assisted by Julian Wilkins who also is on the staff here and also at the City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra and it’s the only choral conducting course in the world that is done
in association with a major international orchestra and we’re teaching people to do
the job that I do which is to train a choir to sing with an orchestra. I’ve been wanting to level up my conducting
for a while and I thought this would be perfect. I initially came here actually for my undergraduate
degree and then after graduating just got way more involved with choirs and children’s
choirs and community choirs and looked around at a lot of different places but this appeared
to be the only place that choral conducting is taught to the level that it is taught here. I’ll tell you how to rehearse Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s Second Symphony, all the big pieces with choir in them. Nothing is theoretical – it’s all hands on.
I will take you around and let you watch me at work in Birmingham, in London, in Barcelona,
in Berlin. You’ll go to visit the great a cappella choirs and so on, in addition to
the work we do here. You get to work with many different groups
with different levels of experience and you do a very very wide variety of repertoire. We’ll be working with University Singers which
is an absolutely top-notch choral ensemble, the CBSO Chorus, and the next day we’ll be
working with an auditioned University chorus or the staff singers on a Thursday which is
really good fun, really sort of nice wholesome community stuff. We do early music, we do really modern stuff,
we do the big symphonic works, we do smaller chamber stuff. We give the students their
own choir and it’s a choir that’s of a really high standard. They assist on three choirs,
they conduct another one, they’re members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus,
they get first study singing lessons, they are much more active on a daily basis waving
their arms around, telling people what to do, dealing with the reactions than quite
frankly anywhere else in the world. Conducting in front of each other means that
you really have to get better but it’s a safe space. Rehearsing is when you need to put
up your sleeves and really work and explore because the great thing about rehearsals is
that although you plan everything you never know what is going to happen, you never know
how people are going to respond. We have the budget and the resources to have
famous international conductors in charge of some of them, and our students, our conducting
students, assist those people, so Bob Chilcott who used to be in the Kings Singers and one
of the leading composers of the day… I’ve been so impressed with the Music Department
here. It’s a very very vibrant department. From a choral point of view, it’s got teachers
and mentors as good as anywhere you’ll get in the world. Even now after we have finished
we are still in contact with them and they are really aware of what we are doing and
they are always there for us if we need any sort of advice. I’m really proud and excited by what our graduates
are doing. One way and another everyone is in first-class jobs. I am choral director
at City of London School for Girls. I also am participating in a mentoring scheme by
Crouch End Festival Chorus in London. I’m being mentored by David Temple and I get to
work with them for a year being assistant and having one-to-one lessons with him and
getting to know more about the life of a symphonic chorus. Ultimately, I’d like to work with
children, with community choirs and community choruses. I’d really love to conduct the children’s
chorus of a symphony orchestra or something in the future. I’d love to get as much experience as I can.
Ideally working with professional or pro-am kind of choirs. We need people who have the skills to be able
to work with people, bring them together, make them sing well and the fact is if you
study choral conducting in a place like this you learn how to do that and you learn how
to function. It’s a very special thing that’s going on here because everyone who does it
will end up doing something completely different within choral conducting but it will all have
that value.

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