An illuminating article about the Purcell School of Music in which Julius gets a passing mention
There’s an air of the ordinary at the Purcell School for extraordinarily musical children
A 16-year-old girl sits down at a grand piano in a very ordinary classroom, pauses for a moment, then plays from memory the waltz from Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, op. 23. This short number is the first published work in which Schoenberg used his 12-tone composition technique. It is no pushover to listen to; God knows what it is like to play.
But the young pianist shows no obvious signs of strain as she negotiates its technical hurdles. At the end, she reaches for her music and her tutor picks over a few textual variants. He makes no concessions to her age. “This section is marked langsamer [slower] but it’s still a waltz,” he suggests. “The dancers mustn’t fall over…” The pianist plays the piece again. Faster.
Down a flight of stairs and round a corner, a small boy with a large trumpet is studiously practising as staff set out tables for lunch.
In the hall along the corridor, a leading British conductor in suede boots is rehearsing the school’s symphony orchestra (with four harps) in Elgar’s Falstaff.
“Have you ever been drunk?” he asks the bassoon after a too-sober passage describing the boozy fat knight. “I don’t recommend it but you should watch people who are drunk.”
Music seeps through the walls, floors, doors and ceilings of the Purcell School, Britain’s oldest specialist school for talented young musicians. Especially recently, for pupils have been rehearsing for a series of concerts to mark its 40th birthday.
The school is also celebrating with an appeal for £2.5 million for a new music centre with recital, rehearsal and teaching rooms and a music technology studio.
The Purcell School was the dream of two determined women. In the middle of one night in 1961, violin teacher Nancy Rapaport phoned her friend Irene Forster, head of a school in Bedford, to announce that she had had an idea. Under their direction, the school opened a year later with four pupils in Conway Hall in London and later moved to Hampstead, where it became the Purcell School. It moved again to Harrow and five years ago settled at the former Royal Caledonian Schools in Bushey, Hertfordshire. With luck, it should now stay put.
The Purcell has 170 pupils aged from eight to 18. Two-thirds of them are boarders and a fifth come from overseas, among them Meng Yang Pan, the pianist who is rehearsing Schoenberg. She arrived from China 18 months ago knowing no English. She is now fluent and has been to Bradford. “I really like it here and have made friends,” she says. “The teachers help me.”
She memorised the Schoenberg piece in a couple of weeks. “I started reading it at Christmas and the first time through I found the rhythm and dynamics complicated. Now I’m trying to explain it as a romantic piece.”
Later this year she will play Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the National Schools Symphony Orchestra. A big career beckons.
Many of the Purcell children have formidable talents. But they still manage to sound quite normal, especially when gathered in the dining hall for a mid-morning break.
“It’s like a normal school with a lot of musical people,” explains Anthony Strong, who plays clarinet but also does wondrous things when let loose in the technology suite and recording studio. “I came to this school to get better at music and to improve my chances of getting into a music college. You are guaranteed to have a brilliant time here.”
“I came here from a comprehensive,” adds flautist Gary Hughes. “I just love the music-making with friends. We are here because we want to be.”
While the school sees its job as to nurture precocious talents, it is keen to hang on to that air of normality. “My fear in coming here was that the place would be a hothouse and the children would be prima donnas,” says the head, John Tolputt, who arrived two years ago to take over an office big enough for a chamber recital. “But it isn’t and they aren’t. They are wonderful company and very understanding of people who have to go out and perform in public. We are trying to keep the atmosphere balanced and humane.”
Tolputt says schools like his (the Menuhin, Chetham’s in Manchester and the Wells Cathedral School) are needed because music education is intensive and time-consuming.
“It’s also a social thing. Children can feel like a fish out of water in another kind of school if they go home with a cello as other pupils are going out for the night. Musical children can be bullied.”
Purcell children wear no uniform and Tolputt says the discipline is in the music. Like everyone else, they follow the national curriculum but unlike everyone else they have a supervised instrument practice session at 7.15am, a time when most teenagers will have kicked the alarm clock across the room and dived back under the duvet.
“A highly musical child is often highly focused. They have learned time management at a pretty young age,” adds Tolputt.
Next door, Falstaff has waddled off and conductor Vernon Handley is rehearsing the symphony orchestra in Mignon, a new piece by Purcell sixth-former Jean Beers, 18. It’s tricky stuff and composer and conductor discuss technical matters at length.
Handley is pleased to be making a return visit to Bushey. “It takes more out of me emotionally and physically to produce a performance with a youth orchestra than with a great symphony orchestra,” he admits. “The difference is simply the business of concentration.”
He keeps his band hard at it with cries of “You’re yards late!” and “If you can play it that quiet you can play it quieter.” They give him what he wants. In deference to the quality of the music making, the Guardian’s photographer takes off his boots and creeps silently through the music stands in his socks.
“Practically every individual comes into this school wanting to be a soloist,” continues Handley. “Many won’t see the point of playing in an orchestra. But after two days of intensive rehearsals, they begin to see the point and enjoy it.”
Quentin Poole, acting director of music, agrees. “They have the dream of becoming soloists and that helps them cope with the practising. But we can tell them that they can perhaps achieve more as a member of a group than alone.
“This school is not a sausage factory for the musically proficient. We are about taking the musically talented and giving them the broadest education we can so that all the avenues – academic and musical – can be available to them when they leave.”
Upstairs, the piano rehearsals continue: 30 Purcell students played the complete keyboard works of both Schoenberg and Webern in the sternest of the birthday concerts. Younger children were given a softer option and celebrated the birthday with piano miniatures by Bartok and Kurtag. They also produced some startlingly uncompromising compositions of their own.
The school’s famous ex-pupils include composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, composer Simon Bainbridge, pianist Julius Drake, cellist Robert Cohen, a string of Shell-LSO gold medal winners and Catrin Finch, royal harpist to the Prince of Wales. All these distinguished alumni are classical music specialists. But the school can also venture off the formal track and pupils have studied mandolin, accordion, Paraguayan harp, recorders and banjo.
Music technology is hugely popular and interest in jazz is growing. “There are only a few jazzers at the moment but things are getting better,” suggests double-bass player Naomi Page. Rock and pop have not made it on to syllabuses, but bands come and go in pupils’ free time.
Fees are a hefty £19,000 a year for boarders. Part of money raised in the birthday appeal will be used to ensure that pupils will continue to be admitted solely on musical ability rather than means. But Nick Rampling, the school’s director of finance and administration, is desperate to tell the parents of Britain’s musical children about the DfES’s music and ballet aided scheme which offers means-tested grants of up to 100% of fees.
“We have been telling the government that this scheme is not well enough known,” says Rampling, equally proficient on calculator and bassoon. “Parents may know of the school – but not know that places are affordable because of the scheme.”
The sound of Falstaff lurches back into the head’s office (with grand piano). “If they are musical, we take them,” says Tolputt. “Then we work out how we can fund them.”
Click the logo for the Purcell School website…