A life in song 24 May 2018

David Vinden, winner of the Lifetime Achievement award at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence, speaks to Alex Stevens about a life of putting sound before symbol

If ever there were a lifetime devoted to the power of singing, it is that of David Vinden. Winner of the Lifetime Achievement award at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence in February – an award sponsored by the Incorporated Society of Musicians – Vinden has committed his life to singing, and its place at the heart of musicianship for all.

He has also, at several of the UK’s musical institutions, found innovative, effective ways of introducing the Kodály approach into British music education, developing a joy in musicianship that for many pupils will last a lifetime.

‘The most formative years I ever had were those as a choirboy at Truro Cathedral,’ says Vinden. ‘I was there from 1959 to 1964, from when I was 8. It was just amazing because we were singing twice a day – in the morning we had an hour’s rehearsal and then in the evenings we sang evensong. The weekdays were boys only, and then the weekends the men came and sang as well. So we were performing every day, and that was one of the most amazing experiences.

‘That kind of tradition of choral singing: there’s nothing like it anywhere. You learn repertoire, you learn to listen, you learn to look, you learn intonation, being reliable, coming in on time – all those musical things: you name it, you learn it. And it’s the best training you could ever get, I think.’

Vinden’s original plan had been to become an organist: after his voice broke, he spent time in the organ loft at Truro, with Guillaume Ormond and John Winter – ‘turning pages, putting music out, that sort of thing’ – followed by A-level music and study at the Royal Academy of Music. When problems with his hands forced a change to first-study singing, he had lessons with Joy Mammen and Pieter Van der Stolk, as well as conducting lessons with Maurice Miles (who also taught Simon Rattle). This conversion to singing was again, he says, ‘the best thing that could ever have happened to me’.

Following the RAM, he held a choral scholarship at St George’s, Windsor for four years (living in Windsor Castle), followed by an undergraduate BMus at Royal Holloway: ‘The beauty of that was that I was able to indulge: I started a chamber orchestra and a chamber choir there, and was conducting an orchestra every week. Again, I learned so much from that. I was always making music, and that was the exciting thing.’

Teaching, and Kodály

Vinden’s first teaching job was as director of music at Tiffin Girls’ School in Kingston. ‘You don’t normally go in as the head of music at a grammar school as your first job – that’s not the normal thing! I always say I have a guardian angel looking over my shoulder.

‘What I discovered – because of course I hadn’t been to teacher training college, not that, I think, that necessarily would have helped – was that I didn’t know how to teach!’

It was this realisation that led Vinden to Hungary, and Kodály: ‘I was at a conference in America, and somebody said to me that we were light years behind what they were doing in Hungary. So I went, and 1980 was my conversion of St Paul, my road to Damascus. I went on a one-month summer course, which was pretty full-on.

‘I had Péter Erdei for choral conducting, who is arguably one of Europe’s greatest choral teachers. And I had Ernő Lendvai teaching theory. There’s a story that once Lendvai was sent a film of Bartók playing the piano, but with just the hands playing, and no soundtrack. They asked Lendvai what it was, and he looked at it for a few seconds and said that yes, he knew what it was: “It’s Bartók playing his Allegro Barbero… But you’re showing the film backwards.” That was the kind of man he was!

‘I also had some of the best solfege teachers alive: Erzsebet Hegyi, Helga Szabó. Those people were just the world’s greatest solfège teachers. I was thinking I had died and gone to heaven, because I was seeing some of the greatest teaching and the finest singing. I had the critical background to know good singing, and this was the best I’d ever heard.’

That one-month course was followed by two years on an Anglo-Hungarian exchange scholarship to the Kodály Institute at Kecskemét in Hungary, from 1981-83, studying for an advanced diploma. ‘Talk about luck,’ he says. ‘I got an exchange scholarship both for the initial course, and for the two years!’

Purcell school

Vinden returned from Hungary and got a job as a classroom teacher at the Purcell School, becoming director of music three years later.

‘What I loved was the teaching. I instigated early-morning aural for all of the lower and middle school, every day, starting at 8.30 in the morning – and those children had ears, they could really sing. They were of course musical to begin with, but they just got better and better, and I think back with great happiness at some of the lessons I remember giving. There was a middle school choir which I was able to use just a tuning fork to train them – all the choral repertoire, and never touched a piano. And that was as a result of what I’d done and seen in Hungary.’

Vinden stayed at the Purcell School until 1995, by which time he had realised that ‘my future lies in training future teachers, rather than sorting out music lessons and dealing with awkward parents’. He had started lecturing part-time at London’s Trinity College of Music in Kodály musicianship and choral and orchestral conducting, as well as a similar role at Birmingham Conservatoire from 1997-2002.

He had also founded, in 1992 with his wife Yuko, the Kodály Centre of London. This continues to run evening courses for adults interested in learning about the Kodály method, and workshops for schools, colleges, universities and other musical groups.

David Vinden receives his award from the ISM’s Henry Vann

Guildhall School

From 2002 Vinden has lectured part-time at the Guildhall School, where he directs a choir of first-year wind, brass and percussion students. ‘The head of wind, brass and percussion lets me have the first-year students for an a cappella choir, and what is fantastic is that I am able to do things with them too: I’ve just taught Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, again with a tuning fork – so I know they can hear every inner part, because I’ve taught them that way.

‘I’ve had some of them come and say: “I can’t sing”. And I say I don’t mind, I’m not teaching you singing, I’m developing your musicianship. Although at first they may think why are they, as wind players, having to learn to sing – but the whole issue of being a musician is that you can look at the music, and hear it in your head before you play it.

‘And that is what is lacking in so much music education. You can’t sing without inner hearing. You look at the music, you can sing it, therefore you are hearing it in your head. There are some people who are just pushing notes down on a keyboard, and sadly they stick out a mile when they perform: you hear the notes, but what’s missing is that depth of understanding.’

Changing music education

He has also, with Cyrilla Rowsell, produced the Jolly Music primary learning programme, a primary curriculum for non-specialist teachers, based on Kodály. This is nearly complete, after which, he says, he and Rowsell might go on to early years; and after that, perhaps, introducing Kodály to older beginners. ‘That’s not so easy but it’s something that we can do. The issue is always material: finding the good song that will do what it is that you want it to do.

‘Kodály said: look at your own country’s folk song material and devise material which is suitable for use in your country. What I’ve done for Hungary I’ve done for Hungary.’

What one thing would Vinden change about music education? Of course, the answer is singing. ‘To try to educate people to realise that teaching children singing changes them for ever, for the better: because if they can sing, they have got something that is their own. Singing gives you something so special. You’re participating physically, mentally and spiritually in something of which the sum total is greater than the individual. And that is something we need to hang on to and impress on our educators and on our children as something that is so valuable.

‘I hate it when I see instrumental teachers complaining about aural tests: there’s something wrong with an exam where teachers leave the aural test to the last minute. Actually, the aural test should be the way they should be teaching. There’s a sign that something is wrong, that ear training isn’t the starting point.’

Finally, what one piece of advice would he give to fellow music teachers? ‘Don’t be afraid to make your pupils sing something before they play it. Because if they can sing it properly, they’re unlikely to play it badly. If you can sing it beautifully, you will play it beautifully. Everything goes back to: sing it first.

‘I’ve never been to a masterclass in my life where the person giving it hasn’t said: “Could you make this phrase sing a bit more?” How do you phrase a Bach fugue subject? Sing it, and you’ll get the answer.

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