How Hamish Ogston Is Introducing A New Generation To Choral Singing

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The philanthropist’s National Schools Singing Programme funds choral education for state schoolers

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Hamish Ogston is bringing fresh voices to classical choirs – and breaking down social barriers at the same time. 

Hamish Ogston

Hamish Ogston CBE

Who is Hamish Ogston?

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of the Hamish Ogston Foundation. The foundation sits quietly in the news, but only if you know where to look… Hidden in education titles and headlines around the heroic restoration of historic houses. But this foundation doesn’t shout much – which is ironic, given one of its largest programmes is geared towards teaching young people to find their voices. 

The Hamish Ogston Foundation (HOF) was set up in 2019, striving to preserve historic skillsets and the UK’s rich cultural heritage. From a keyboard programme teaching children from state schools how to use the melodica, to training a batch of restoration apprentices helping maintain England’s oldest public spaces, HOF has identified industries at risk of extinction. 

The National Schools Singing Programme is Hamish’s answer to a dying breed of classical choir. 

Why do choirs need fresh voices?

While research from Voices Now does suggest choir numbers are at an all-time high, the majority of these groups are amateur groups, and the repertoire is likely to be modern. In addition to this, the majority of choirs are self-funding, and all too often calling out for more national support. Plus, on the professional end, they’re typically made up of people who were educated privately. Fresh blood is the ultimate goal – and not just bringing in a new generation, but indeed that any such fresh blood should emerge from a diverse range of backgrounds, taking note of a lack of state-schooling representation in these industries. 

The problem that Hamish and his foundation have identified is that this stratification of involvement begins young: that, to solve, choral engagement needs to start at school, and kids from state schools need to be introduced to classical repertoire in the same way their privately educated peers are. 

What is the National Schools Singing Programme?

The National Schools Singing Programme provides tutors, choirmasters and curriculum for Catholic state schools throughout the UK. It teaches choral and church music to young people which enhances existing national curriculum while providing after-school choirs to go beyond.

‘The work we do is about maintaining and developing this country’s choral tradition. We want to make it so that every young person in this country, whatever their background, is able to encounter this incredible culture, develop as musicians… And for some, make it their career,’ says Simon Toyne, music project director for the Hamish Ogston Foundation. 

To this end, the National Schools Singing Programme works with 12,000 children in over 150 schools across the UK, which provides weekly professional free-at-point-of-use tuition schemes. 

St Winefride

St Winefride school, one group of students taught through the National Schools Singing Programme

Caius Lee is one of their choral directors, having ‘graduated’ other programmes on offer by the Hamish Ogston Foundation before studying music at Cambridge. He says they often use the National Schools Singing Programme to identify early raw talent for after-school choirs – children who, like him, might grow up to pursue music professionally. 

‘We spend an hour a week with kids from primary and secondary schools,’ says Caius, ‘and we’ll incorporate the national curriculum where we can. So, in my singing sessions, I might cover basic notation, introduce them to dynamics – but in an interactive way that hopefully inspires them.’

What is the benefit of the National Schools Singing Programme?

‘And then it’s often the kids that you don’t expect that surprise you,’ he explains, ‘shy kids who take up this amazing opportunity and it makes such a big difference to their personal lives, too. Kids who wouldn’t even speak to me at the beginning, their parents will say they’re always singing around the house, can barely be shut up anymore.’

‘And it goes beyond even that,’ says Simon, ‘if you’re a cathedral chorister, you’re surrounded by great architecture, you’re singing evensong everyday with repertoire written for you in mind – it’s to be surrounded by examples of what human beings can do, at the highest level, musically and artistically.’

The end result? Children finding a fresh love for music, a new generation of voices entering music with classical repertoire, and a slightly rebalance of historic lack of representation in this industry. 

Finally, from Simon. ‘This [experience] isn’t afforded to the vast majority of young people in this country – the only barriers that are in front of these children are those that adults have placed there.’

Find out more here, and contact directly to donate.

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