EDUCATION / Summer Schools: Native woodnotes wild: Karen Gold visits an adult college dedicated to making music

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The Independent Culture
EIGHTEEN recorders playing ensemble is rarely easy on the ear. Last week 18 elementary recorder players at Little Benslow Hills were working on

a four-part Bach hymn setting. It was called 'One thing, Lord, alone I covet' - in my case that was silence.

'You should have heard us when we started,' said recorder tutor Herbert Hersom. 'Lots of these people have learnt on their own, but they haven't ever played with other people before. So now we're trying to adapt to each other. It's much better than it was.'

Benslow is unique in being an adult college dedicated solely to music. More than 40 different music courses will take place this summer in the Victorian country house in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Ten amateur string quartets will be spread between practice rooms and bedrooms. Near-professionals will come for a saxophone summer school led by John Harle, or a brass players' summer school with outdoor practice in Benslow's woodland grounds. There will be courses in harp, chamber music, guitar and solo singing.

All these are for intermediate to high-standard players. Music courses rarely accept complete beginners, who need one-to-one attention. (There are exceptions: you can take up the viol and lute from scratch at Benslow this summer; also recorder at Knuston Hall, Wellingborough, and mandolin in Croydon. Details are in Time to Learn - see below.) But near-beginners - anyone having had enough private tuition to play at least a few notes - are offered an increasingly varied menu. At Stirling University, they and more advanced players can study the clarsach (Scottish harp) for a week. At Knuston, musicians with a smattering of classical music can spend a weekend learning how to play jazz.

And at Benslow there is a new course for those who 'have yearned to sing in a choir but never dared take the first step', one called 'Musical Allsorts': string, recorder, woodwind, guitar and keyboard ensemble playing for adults who have just embarked on music.

'The problem is that if you are a beginner there aren't many beginner orchestras you can play with,' explains Mabel Brown, 64, pausing from cello-study in the Benslow foundation course for strings (players Grade III and above, but not much). 'You have to be over a certain standard to join an orchestra, then they go belting along and you get discouraged and give up.'

In the elementary strings course for Grades I- III, course members at Benslow stay together in the concert hall, playing quartets with several players taking each part. By the foundation course they are divided into quartets, but with some doubling of parts for moral support and because there are always too many cellos.

The courses are designed so that enthusiasts return from year to year, says musical secretary Helen Marshall. They go from elementary to foundation course; then intermediate and advanced. The same pattern works for piano, woodwind and recorder players. Ensembles sometimes form at Benslow and then reunite year after year.

A typical weekend, costing pounds 80- pounds 100 for residents, will start on Friday night with supper and welcome from 6.30-8.30; then straight into music from 8.30-10pm. Music-making will begin again on Saturday after breakfast, and continue all day, and similarly Sunday, with breaks for lunch and tea. Evenings are theoretically free, says Helen Marshall, though sometimes there are concerts by course leaders or visiting musicians; otherwise participants often practise in the evening too.

The crucial first session has to be carefully handled, says Herbert Hersom. Some of the recorder players on his course have been playing only a couple of months; some usually play the small descant recorder but are trying out larger tenor and bass ones. Some have gone back to an instrument they last picked up 30 years ago - the average age at midweek courses at Benslow is over 50, although weekend attenders are younger.

'The first session can be quite disastrous, unless it's handled tactfully, because there's so much diversity of experience and ability,' he explains. 'The less advanced think, 'We'll never make it,' so I have to aim it at that end while keeping the more advanced players happy. At first people are frightened about being wrong and worried about playing the right notes; whereas by the end they realise they can skip a note they can't play and keep the ensemble together.'

The emphasis is always on playing with other people. It can be intimidating to near-beginners, often accustomed only to a teacher or even a tutor-book. 'When I first came here after I had been playing a year I was so frightened I found a finger-position and stayed with it for an hour,' recalls Sue Powell, 56, from Kent.

'I'd always wanted to play an instrument, though when I started I had no idea what an Everest I was undertaking. It can be quite discouraging listening to yourself, but here you can listen to other people, some better than you and some worse. It makes a tremendous difference: you go home full of enthusiasm for carrying on.'

'Time to Learn: directory of summer courses, April to September 1993', pounds 4.25 from National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 19B De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE

(Photograph omitted)