Our Director of Music, David Elliott, was a little glum when we spoke to him.
Right now being a music teacher is just about as hard as it gets during a global pandemic in the world of education.
The restrictions are highly prohibitive. No singing, no wind or brass instruments, no close-quarter individual tuition.
It’s no wonder that David, who is in his 17th year at the helm of our much-celebrated music department, is understandably missing the at scale making of music that makes life in maroon sound so sweet.
When you see over 250 pupils and wider members of the Watson’s community bursting with enthusiasm as they deliver a stunning rendition of Highland Cathedral you will understand what’s missing. It is quite a sight. And sound.
Music has a unique place at the heart of life on our campus at Colinton Road in Edinburgh. Being in one place means that pupils from as young as four are able to participate in the magic of music.
Curricular music starts in Preschool; and our youngest can also start individual music tuition based on the Suzuki method to learn violin, viola, cello and flute. This approach, pioneered by Shinichi Suzuki promotes not only an accelerated way to learn an instrument but also helps a child’s development. At Watson’s, we have seven specialist Suzuki teachers.
The opening of our new John Martin Building in the Junior School last year marked a significant investment in music facilities for the Junior School. Two stunning, airy music-making classrooms and six individual tuition spaces have put music physically at the heart of our primary school. A clever space as you come into the new building provides a ready-made platform for performance, too.
With a staff team of 11 full-time colleagues and more than 50 individual music tutors - every one teaching their instrument of specialism, no other - Watson’s is equipped like few schools anywhere in this country. Many of our staff are professional performers as well as teachers. Each week (in normal times) pupils attend over 1,250 individual music lessons.
The Music School Auditorium is one of the unique sights on campus. Built in 1964, its roof arches like a harp floating in the sky. It’s beautiful to look at, but importantly it delivers the most extraordinary acoustics, a platform and freedom for our pupils to perform - regardless of their age.
At the centre of this performance space is an original Steinway Model C Grand Piano, recently gifted to the school by a former pupil. By touch and sound, it is an absolutely extraordinary instrument.
Earlier this year, we also inaugurated a brand-new three manual organ in our Senior School hall, replacing the previous which had served the school for decades.
The whole school approach to music ensures continuity of learning and opportunity. ‘Senior School’ music staff spend time in the Junior School, and so there’s a real feeling that music is a journey you can be on from every one of the 14 years you might spend at Watson’s.
There are music groups, ensembles, quartets, octets, bands and orchestras all the way through school. Some are designed for all, regardless of ability, others require an audition for admission. Each has its own place, style, genre or focus.
Our pupils can also sing their heart out with choirs throughout the Junior School, and half-a-dozen to choose from at different points in the Senior School. Every pupil also has an opportunity to join a choir, too, without the need for an audition. Our Ex Corde Choir is for Senior 1 and Senior 2 pupils and the College Chorus for pupils in Senior 3 onwards.
Whilst so much attention is on the enrichment or extra-curricular opportunities delivered by music, we shouldn’t forget that through to Senior 2 it’s a compulsory subject with thematic based projects connecting to other curricular areas.
From Senior 3 onwards it’s a certified subject with SQA accreditation available at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher. We also offer A-Level music, which we believe provides the right platform for those intending on studying music with the aim of embarking on a professional career
To help on this journey, our pupils benefit from the newest digital technology to help make music and one of the broadest range of instruments available at any school, anywhere!
As part of our commitment that every pupil in Senior School should have an opportunity to travel internationally, music has afforded some young people a platform to perform across Europe with trips to countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Poland.
Music also works extremely closely with our Drama department. The annual Watson’s musical is a highlight of over 30 years. Under the brightest of (professional) lights, young actors, musicians, stage crew (covering various roles) participate in a standard of production that invariably stuns first-time attendees.
But what makes music at our school so special? We believe there are two things. Firstly, the volume of participation is staggering. There are few pupils who don’t take to the stage at some point to play or sing. Our scale creates opportunities for everyone. The second is no less important. Standards. In David Elliott’s near two-decades at Watson’s he has sought to raise standards every year. In short, what you hear at one of our concerts or performances will live with you long beyond. It’s that good.
As is Watson's culture, we believe it is for our pupils - with great support - to find their own way. If it is music they want, they will find the freedom to perform and to excel in remarkable ways.
We hope those moments will return very, very soon. Then we’ll all be smiling.