Friday, 5th May 2017
I have just spent the last few days at the Choir Schools' Association annual conference in Durham. I spent four of my most formative years there in that most stunning of cities when I was privileged to go to University there and it was a joy to be back as it had been a while since I had last been there. I was struck by the way in which the rock seems to be so close to the surface; the city centre, for those who don't know it, is built upon a peninsular in the tight bend in the River Wear which flows down the dale named after it from the high Pennines into the North Sea. The Norman invaders chose Durham's steep hill to make an extraordinary architectural statement to the Anglo Saxon population, building an immense and still to this day unsurpassed cathedral on the very summit of the hill. No Anglo Saxon for miles around could be under any illusion about the power and determination of their new overlords. On its landward side, The Cathedral is guarded by a massive castle from which the surrounding areas were kept under control. To this day, the city retains a sense of early medieval drama – nowhere in England is there such a dramatic site, the massive Cathedral rising magnificently out of the rock.
It was in these glorious surroundings that all the heads of the choir schools met to discuss important issues of the day facing schools with choirs. One lecture we listened to was particularly interesting. It was given by the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at the University, Simon Oliver who talked about the importance of habit. For him, habit is not, as the Scottish philosopher Hume believed it to be, something which numbs the mind, the enemy of clear thinking; instead it is something which allows us to achieve most of what is really important in life and indeed which helps us to be most ourselves. He instanced the process of learning to play the piano. At first, when one plays the piano, everything needs to be thought about but as the player practises, the whole process becomes innate – it becomes habitual and one no longer needs to think about it rationally. It becomes something which your body knows how to do. This then allows you to express yourself through the music and becomes an extension of who you are. Of course his main focus was upon choral singing and the way in which boys, through the habitualisation of singing and all that this entails, are able to achieve at an extraordinarily high level. In education we have to believe that we can affect people positively, that we can help to transform someone and cause them to overcome destructive characteristics or types of behaviour. If we believe that these things are set in the stars, that people's characters are fully formed and unalterable, then we have accepted a counsel of despair. Teaching is as much as anything about helping people to overcome their weaknesses. It seems to me that one of the weapons that we have in our arsenal is habit. If we can promote positive habits, then we will promote positive behaviour and people will become more intellectually healthy, something which will enable them to achieve a great deal. I will be encouraging everyone in the school to promote positive habits. Goodness or ability which is habitual, Simon Oliver argued, is that which is most deeply engrained and important.
The new playground seems to be a huge success – pupils seem to be very excited about playing in it and it does seem to have made the area bigger. In fact one parent announced that they would be sticking around at greater length after school so that their son could play on it! Let us hope that the parent manages to resist the temptation to take a swing!
On Saturday an organisation with the acronym FOCA is having its annual conference at Christ Church – it is the Federation of Old Choristers so former choristers from throughout the country will be meeting here. To celebrate the occasion, all three Oxford choirs will be singing together for Evensong in the Cathedral on Saturday evening, a very rare event and one which is worth witnessing. This has only ever happened once in living memory, two years ago and is not likely to happen for a very long time. I suspect that it will therefore be a wonderful occasion to witness the choirs in action together and I am sure the sound will be magnificent. I hope that many of you will make the time to come and support this wonderful occasion and spectacle. There will be about 100 people in the choir, a not inconsiderable crowd of some of the best choral singers in the country. It sounds appealing to me!