Launched in 2015, the National Youth Choir Fellowship Programme aims to create the most highly skilled and multi-talented choral singers in the UK. Each year, 4 singers aged 22-25 are selected from an intensive three round audition process to benefit from a comprehensive, remunerated training programme which develops outstanding skills in performance, education and leadership.

Photo: Ben Tomlin

NYCGB Fellow Milette Riis mulls over an October Composition Workshop with celebrated composer and producer Toby Young.

We started the day at 9am and spent the first hour warming up in the chapel and singing through the pieces. The aim of a composition day was to inspire GCSE and A Level music students to explore this avenue, and our job was essentially to facilitate this without getting in the way.

After the students filed into the chapel, composer Toby Young (who runs these workshops) introduced us and a few of the fellows ran a warm-up for the students. This was really beneficial in getting everyone involved from the get-go, and in raising the students’ energy levels. We also gave them a short introduction to the various voice types.

We then performed a selection of music, from Tallis and Morley to Rachmaninoff and Pärt to a very catchy Toby Young arrangement of ‘Kelele’. The idea was to demonstrate how different musical techniques have been used throughout history, and how these techniques can affect the overall feel of the music. Throughout, Toby would ask the students questions about the pieces, things like how they differed from one another and what sort of effect a change in tonality, or tempo, or dynamic had on the listener.

After a short break we gathered around the piano, a short text was handed out, and Toby ran through not just the tools we have at our disposal as composers, but also: where to start? After much deliberation we decided the words were rather a good place. We discussed the mood of the text we’d been presented with, and what might correlate with this in terms of melody, structure, texture, and so on.

The students were split into four groups, with two fellows in charge of each group, and we proceeded to start writing in our groups. The job of the fellows was to facilitate writing, and to encourage the students to express their ideas. Although the dynamic varied from group to group, they all made steady progress, and after two 45-minute sessions either side of lunch, four hastily composed scores that were still being transcribed (by hand) on score paper in what felt like the last few seconds of an apprentice task, were ready to be photocopied and sight-read in front of fifty teenagers.

Somehow, remarkably, despite some semi-illegible notation, we managed to pull it off. The students had seen a piece composed and performed in under two hours. And you know what, we were actually quite pleased with ourselves. So much so that we ended up staying an extra hour to record all the pieces ‘properly’ (on an iPhone). We thought, after all that work, that it would be worth leaving the students with something tangible they could come back to.

Overall, I would say the day was a success. Sometimes you need a deadline in order to really open your mind and be creative, and I think it paid off in this case. I think we all felt inspired to write more, which after all, is the entire point. And if we felt that way, hopefully some of that energy had rubbed off on the students. It would be pretty cool if a future composer had been in that room with us.

Toby Young is a composer and producer whose work explores the space between popular and classical music. He is also a research fellow at the University of Oxford.

The NYCGB Fellowship Programme is supported by Principal Programme Supporter ABRSM with additional generous support from the Ofenheim Trust, and by programme partners Making Music and AOTOS (Association of Teachers of Singing).