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Shrewsbury Music School - Hats off

Andrew Green, Classical Music

The new music building at Shrewsbury School received a royal seal of approval when it was opened by Prince Charles earlier this year. Andrew Green salutes its state-of-the-art design.

From the outside, the new £1.75m music school is vaguely reminiscent of Frank Sinatra's famous trilby. But Shrewsbury School's musical pedigree is certainly not going to be kept under anyone's hat. And with a list of performance opportunities which includes two orchestras, a training orchestra, wind band, jazz band, big band, chapel choir, concert choir, chamber choir, chamber ensembles galore - and, for all I know, 12 drummers drumming - facilities matter. Hence the trilby.

Director of music John Moore makes no attempt to feign nostalgia for the quarters his department occupied before Prince Charles opened the new building in February. 'It was a converted Edwardian house with creaky floorboards, lead plumbing, round-pin electrical plugs and a boiler that packed up on a regular basis. As for the practice rooms - well, they couldn't have been more porous as far as sound was concerned!'

The architect for the building project was Old Salopian John Pringle, who had a hand in the design of the new Glyndebourne opera house. But he wasn't just left to get on with it.' 'I wanted a building we really could live in,' says Moore, 'so from the start we had an input into the way the design progressed.'

The building's elliptical shape embraces a central shoebox-shaped recital
hall, seating 210, around which are ranged 16 practice rooms, each of which enjoys large amounts of natural light and lively (rather than bog standard boxy) acoustics. The sound qualities of the hall were developed by Arup Acoustics, incorporating a high roof, angled walls at the performance end and variable acoustical drapes which allow the sound to be tailored to particular performers. The wooden panelling in the roof was pre-fabricated in Germany to a computer model provided by the architects; then just slotted into place.

Moore has been fortunate in having the support of a headmaster, Ted Maidment, who is a trained singer. But the music school still had to take its turn in the list of priorities. 'I remember that on my first speech day in 1988 I announced my dream of seeing a music school built,' Maidment recalls. 'But there have been so many other things that needed cash - improvements of many kinds to the boarding and academic facilities.'

That the music school is open for business just months before Maidment's retirement is down to a mammoth fund-raising effort which has pursued not a penny of grant-aid - not even lottery cash. 'It's been the work of our own foundation which for many years has worked on the United States model of a rolling project to find money for all manner of needs at the school, targeting three main sources -legacies, parents and old boys. A tremendous job is done by what you might call "young old boys" who simply get on the phone and talk to people.'

The fact that no lottery money was sought has in part to do with the fact that the school thereby preserved its independence in the design process, but John Moore reckons the school would probably have met any lottery fund stipulations in respect of making the new facility available to the local populace. 'There's a large community choir in
Shrewsbury which is based at the school, and many instrumental pupils from other schools visit us for lessons if this is where their teacher is based.' Already the main school hall, which seats 600, is an established local venue, housing as it does the school's own celebrity concert series, which has presented artists of the calibre of John Lill, Kennedy and Yehudi Menuhin.

More than this, Maidment is adamant that the music school must be put to year round use and must pay its way. 'We'll be appointing someone to run it through the calendar year, selling it as a venue for all kinds of things - conferences, for example.' The design incorporates a recording control room, due to be kitted out shortly. Special attention has been paid to keeping ambient noise in the building down to a minimum and John Moore is hopeful that recording companies can be tempted in.

Maidment and Moore are well aware that a major factor behind the push to have the facility built was the place music plays in school life. (For example, they've been staging a Beethoven piano sonata cycle in which each sonata is played by a different boy.) Moore points to such evidence as the fact that a star oboist and cellist are both in the school's first soccer XI. 'It's that kind of school. Pupils are encouraged to try an instrument as soon as they arrive here, and I'll get someone playing in an orchestra even if at first they can't play better than one note in ten. Boys can sing in major choral works in their first year. And of course we offer breadth - rock and jazz, for example, get every encouragement.'

'The fact that the music stqff convey enthusiasm is so important. We have more than 30 peripatetic teachers coming in from all over the place - we even cater for the bagpipes and the didgeridoo! The end result is that music is accepted as a natural part of school life - so absolutely everyone is thrilled by the new building. I've made sure the foyer is really accessible. It's light, airy, and has comfy chairs, a coffee machine, magazines to read. Boys can relax there whenever they like. The entrance is very near the First XI soccer pitch - so it's great if someone just wants to pop in to get a half-time cup of coffee!'

© Classical Music 2001