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Bushey's Purcell School: nurturing musical talent

PUBLISHED: 14:51 18 February 2019 | UPDATED: 14:51 18 February 2019

Purcell graduate Alex Ridout won the British Jazz Awards Rising Star award last year (photo: Lisa Wormsley)

Purcell graduate Alex Ridout won the British Jazz Awards Rising Star award last year (photo: Lisa Wormsley)

Lisa Wormsley

Nurturing talent for success in the modern music industry is the aim of Bushey's Purcell School. With some of the best young stars in the country among students and alumni, it's being noted as a place to watch

You may not have heard of it, but in Hertfordshire we have Britain’s oldest specialist music school. The Purcell School for Young Musicians in Bushey is renowned for producing gifted orchestral players and musicians across the genres. BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 pianist Martin James Bartlett was educated here, as was Royal Harpist Anne Denholm and Oscar and BAFTA nominated film composer Mica Levi.

Last year saw a flurry of successes. In November, 19-year-old trumpeter Alexandra Ridout won the British Jazz Awards Rising Star title, having won the BBC Young Jazz Musician award two years previously. Alex says Purcell was the springboard to her success: ‘It was an amazing place to go, with great teachers. It set me up for music college and professional life. There was loads going on all the time, many opportunities to play both within the school and at outside concerts.

Also in November, Purcell alumni and bassist Seth Tackaberry was a finalist in the Young Jazz Musician 2018 contest, while current students Chelsea Becker and Juliana Niu, winners of the BBC Inspire Young Composers’ Competition 2017, were commissioned to write pieces on the theme of women’s suffrage for the BBC Singers, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Purcell School offers musical studies alongside an all-round education (photo: Purcell School)Purcell School offers musical studies alongside an all-round education (photo: Purcell School)

The list goes on. Last July former Purcell pupil and double-Grammy winner Jacob Collier gave an adventurous BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, at the age of just 23, providing a cross-cultural and collaborative feast of mostly original music, while his second album, Djesse (Vol 1), has just been released. The multi-instrumentalist, singer, arranger, composer and producer has fond memories of the school. ‘I was given the license to ravenously create, draw upon resources of unparalleled quality, and delve deeper into my musical world than ever before. I will never forget the time I spent there, and the ongoing love and support I receive from the people who surrounded me.’

On the classical side, Purcell pianists have won the demanding Young Musician of the Year contest twice. Lara Melda won in 2010, aged 16. Martin James Bartlett won in 2014 and, the following year, became one of the youngest-ever soloists to debut at a BBC Prom, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to great acclaim.

Though the school is named after the 17th century composer Henry Purcell, it is not an old institution. It was founded as The Central Tutorial School for Young Musicians in London in 1962 by Rosemary Rapaport and Irene Forster, was renamed The Purcell School in 1973 when it was in Harrow on the Hill and came to Bushey, on the former site of the Royal Caledonian School, in 1997. Today it delivers a balance between musical studies and an all-round academic education to around 180 students from Year 6 to sixth form, split almost 50-50 between girls and boys (girls currently make up 55 per cent).

The school recently appointed three new members to its five-strong senior leadership team. In September Paul Bambrough arrived to take up the new role of principal. Paul Hoskins, joined from the Rambert dance company as director of music and Adam Wroblewski was appointed bursar.

Purcell School percussion suite (photo: Purcell School)Purcell School percussion suite (photo: Purcell School)

Paul Bambrough was formerly vice-principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire. He is a tenor, harpsichordist, organist and pianist and has been an inspector for post-16 music education. He says Birmingham gave him an insight into what conservatoires are looking for from schools and an understanding of how they are adapting their curriculums to meet the changing demands of the modern industry. ‘The days when somebody could leave music college and sit in an orchestra for 30 years are long gone,’ he explains. ‘Students enter a market which is much more fluid than that now. They will need to seek out and often create work for themselves as part of a portfolio.’

He says the way the art form is created and shared has changed in this century: ‘Music is now created by artists to perform in collaboration with each other. Our students need to be entrepreneurial as well as having traditional musical skills and this will almost certainly involve some community music leadership and use of digital media to get their name and their art out there.’

The school has a very active musical outreach programme. Year 11 pupils partner with local primary schools and projects further afield. Paul says, ‘I’d like the outreach programme to ignite a flame of interest in parts of the community where there isn’t the opportunity for young people to access musical experience.’

In the digital domain, there’s a new live streaming project broadcasting short lunchtime concerts once a month and the school is looking to share other experiences such as master classes. Paul enthuses: ‘I’m keen to use technological tools that are available to us so that people get the opportunity to enjoy our music-making and also see the absolutely incredible things that go on here musically day-to-day.’

Knowledge of digtial recording and production is part of the education (photo: Purcell School)Knowledge of digtial recording and production is part of the education (photo: Purcell School)

Sharing this creativity helps to enhance the global reputation of the school which already has a strong international intake, and introduces Herts residents to a musical treasure in their county. There is a mix of concerts in eminent London concert halls such as The Wigmore Hall and Cadogan Hall, with an equal number locally, as well as regular public events at schools. All are published in the concert diary on the school’s website. ‘Our place in the local community is vital,’ Paul asserts. ‘We have a following of local supporters and I want to build on this by working with people and institutions in Hertfordshire so that the county recognises that it has a school of international significance.’

A private boarding school full of musical prodigies – is Purcell just for posh kids? Not at all, Paul says. Almost all pupils are supported by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme or by bursaries. He adds, ‘The core mission of this school is that financial means will not be a barrier. We do a lot of active fundraising and also have a large number of generous donors to our bursary fund so that we can extend the number of places that we can support.’

Paul believes passionately that it’s every child’s right to have the opportunity to try making music, pointing to extensive research showing that skills developed through musical activity significantly benefit educational achievement across the curriculum. ‘The only people who don’t seem to accept the research are the people who make the policy,’ he declares. ‘We should be investing in every child’s life to enjoy music.’ This, he says, is good for the nation: ‘From a purely economic argument, the music and creative industries in this country generate huge income. Ignoring this and not training the next generation will have an impact economically in years to come.’

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