by Roderick Conway Morris

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Benslow and the EuroMusica Initiative

By Roderick Conway Morris
HITCHIN, England 16 October 1992


If you dream of hearing your own dulcet tones soaring heavenward in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, of playing your bassoon with world-class chamber musicians or blowing your horn with professional jazzmen, the Benslow Music Trust might be able to turn your fantasy into reality.

The trust takes its name from its home at Little Benslow Hills, a substantial Victorian house amidst lawns and trees, in Hitchin, a pleasant market town near London that, as it happens, celebrates this year the 1,200th anniversary of its founding.

The house has accommodation for up to 50 students, and every year offers more than 100 residential weekend, mid-week and more extended courses for adult amateur instrumentalists and singers, from beginners to seasoned veterans - whether their passion is for sonata duos or brass bands, viola de gamba or sax, close harmony and barbershop, or German Lieder and French chansons.

Making my way to Benslow's small concert hall, I found the Schola Polyphonicapreparing 'Missa Benedicta,' a sung mass (circa 1520) by the Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford, for a performance in King's College Chapel. Conducting the group - made up of singers from seven countries,aged from 17 to 70 - was Michael Procter, the trust's 41-year-old director.

With a ringing 'Gloria in excelsis Deo,' Procter launched the choir into the section they had been working on that morning. The sound they produced was rich, clear, balanced and confident. And, if any further proof were needed that this was far from some kind of upper-crust karaoke sing-along, one only had to glance at another piece they had been working on: Thomas Tallis's '40-part motet' Spem in Alium- before whose jumbo-sized, fiendishly-complex score the stoutest heart might quail.

'People don't come here expecting a holiday - they come here to work,' said Procter cheerfully, over an excellent lunch in the communal dining room overlooking the gardens. 'In fact, it's easy to forget they're amateurs, and we tend to find ourselves treating them like professionals. They have a tremendous appetite for music. And, even with seven hours a day of teaching, they usually spend the afternoon breaks and evenings getting together and singing by themselves.'

The group I saw in action were clearly highly proficient, but, given that Benslow offers courses for such a wide range of abilities and skills, was it a problem making sure that students found the right grade for them?

'Most people,' said Procter, 'have a very good idea of what level they're at. And, in any case, if they or we have any doubts, we talk on the phone beforehand and discuss it - because it would be miserable to find yourself in the wrong course.'

Benslow's origins go back to one of the centers set up by the pre-World War II Rural Music Schools Association, set up to foster the practice and appreciation of music in the days when state-educated children had few opportunities to learn to play instruments at school. But by the 1970s Benslowhad apparently lost its purpose in life, and was threatened with closure and demolition.'Until,' said Procter with a twinkle in his eye, 'the trustees discovered that any money made from the sale would have to be spent on building a new music center.'

There can be no doubt that Procter, who combines immense dedication and energy with charm and good humor, has been primarily responsible for Benslow'srebirth and blossoming. And, although the institution is entirely self-financing,looking through the program it is clear that they have no difficulty in attracting first-class teachers, singers and players to tutor courses - as much as anything, said Procter, because those who come to teach enjoy the experience so much. The fees, too, are extremely reasonable - mostly less than £100 (about $170) for a weekend, and around £225 for a week, all inclusive.

Increasing numbers of foreign students coming to Hitchinand successful Benslow tours abroad inspired Procter in 1980 to found EuroMusica, an 'international fraternity of like minds' that is already responsible for organizing 21 summer schools all over Europe (and soon will expand into Eastern Europe as well).

One of next year's numerous EuroMusica events is a sung mass on Trinity Sunday in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. 'Even if people are not regular churchgoers, it's a moving experience to sing sacred music in church,' said Procter, 'and, of course, it makes much more sense of the music.'

Anyone who goes to hear them perform will almost certainly be surprised by what dizzy heights amateurs, with expert instruction and encouragement, can scale, and some perhaps - who knows? - may even be emboldened to unlock their own hidden musical talents.

For information: Benslow Music Trust, Little Benslow Hills, Benslow Lane, Hitchin, Herts, SG4 9RB, England. Tel: 0462/459446. Fax: 0462/440171.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023