From the latest darling of the British folk scene, to the guest house owner in Devon who loves to sing, the Baring-Gould Song School has played a part in the development of hundreds of singers up and down the country.
The annual, week-long school is run by Devon-based music charity Wren Music and takes place in the historic Dartmoor town of Okehampton; a perfect setting for a get-away-from-it-all singing fest where communal support and encouragement combine to create an ideal environment for honing vocal and performance skills.
This year’s event takes place on 27-31 October and the visiting tutor is Janet Russell.
Janet has always sung, ever since her early childhood in Scotland, where she learned the poems and songs of Robert Burns from her father. Armed with a degree in one hand and a love of singing in the other, Janet plumped for a career in music and is probably best known for her work with Sisters Unlimited.
Some 25 years later, they’re still performing, even though Janet has lived for most of those years with her family in Yorkshire – her partner is Jim Woodland, of the Fabulous Salami Brothers. Janet also does a lot of work with choirs and runs workshops.
So how did the Baring-Gould Song School tutorship come about? “The connection goes back a long way. Jim and I have worked with Wren at different times down the years. And I’ve been a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network for about 15 years and Paul Wilson, the musical director at Wren, is also a member.”
The song school is for anyone and everyone who enjoys singing – and Janet, who has worked with degree students at Newcastle University, says there’s no need to worry about what level you’re at: “I’m a firm believer that everybody can sing; there is an infinitesimal number that don’t have any pitch at all, but that is extremely unusual. Bear in mind, if you can talk with expression, then you can hear pitch.
“I’m used to working with lots of mixed ability groups and I think the week is going to be quite reactive, responding to what people would like. We can also talk around any problems that people have with solo singing and if they have things they think they’d like to improve on. We can have 1-2-1 tutorials and I can suggest a few possible solutions to them.”
Janet made her entrance onto the national folk music scene with her typically humorous-with-an-edge ‘Secretary’s Song’ which was the most requested piece of music on Folk on 2 in 1987-8.
Janet remembers the story with a little giggle: “That was quite good fun – and I think that song did get me a fair amount of gigs! I was working as a temping secretary in London whilst singing in clubs and travelling up and down the country and all the things I sang about in that song were absolutely true – and I’m sure many of them still are.
“From what I hear, men who are employed as office boys are now treated in the same way. But if there’s to be a follow up to Secretary’s Song, the blokes will have to do it for themselves!”
One of the singers who walked through the doors of the Baring-Gould Song School some years ago is Sam Lee, who is currently basking in the glow of rave reviews in the national media, including the Guardian.
“It was about eight years ago and I was absolutely brand new at that time,” said Sam. “I had never really sung before and I had very limited knowledge of folk music.
“I got so much out of it. It was a brilliant introduction to the art of singing; the history behind it; the interpretation; the arrangement; and there was so much about the respect for the tradition. At the same time it was modern and I was introduced to a community that was forward thinking, progressive and liberal-minded. Wren capture the sense of community around music really well.”
But the school isn’t just for career singers. Jane Chanter runs the Broadpark Breaks B&B near Bideford near the north Devon coast. Whenever she can, she goes to open mic nights at pubs in the area. Sometimes she sings on her own; at other times, she performs a duet with her husband, Gareth. Basically, she just loves to sing. But there was one hurdle she was struggling to overcome: “I lacked a bit of confidence,” said Jane.
“I just feel very strongly that music, and folk music in particular, is a great way to connect with people and I want to be able to get up there and sing. But I was so nervous that I wasn’t actually enjoying singing in public. Getting that self-confidence is the main thing I got from the school last year.
“I’d never had any formal training whatsoever or 1-2-1 voice tuition so to get these opportunities was brilliant. The voice coaches from Wren were very good and the 1-2-1 session on nerves management was one of the most useful half-hours I’ve ever had in my life.
“What I also really enjoyed was the way that everyone helped each other; it was an incredibly nurturing environment. I think I’ve got a good voice and the school has enabled me to get the most out of it.”
Singer-songwriter Stew Simpson has written a show, Hyem, featuring traditional coal mining songs from his native north-east – but he says it would never have happened without Wren Music and the Baring-Gould Song School.
Stew, who’s also one half of folk duo Hadrian’s Union with Danny Hart (they have their final gig this summer), said: “I used to play in rock bands and punk bands, but Wren Music shifted everything for me. I was just dipping my toe in the folk world to see what it was all about and I thought I’d give the song school a bash about 6 or 7 years ago. It changed my life musically, to be honest.
“The strangest thing happened. They listened to me singing some of my songs and said ‘oh you’ve got a great voice, but why are you singing in an American accent?’ Well, I had no idea that I was! So they suggested I talked through the song and then added the notes – and all of a sudden I was singing with my own Newcastle voice.
“I went to the school because I wanted to meet some nice people and learn to sing a bit better and to control my voice. But I also wanted to be able to explore the music from my own region in the north-east.
“The change as a result has been monumental; without it, I’d probably still be just bobbing along. If it hadn’t been for Wren Music, I wouldn’t even know about coal-mining songs or knowledge of my own roots – I had to go to Devon to learn about Geordie songs! And I wouldn’t have had a respected label asking me to do a traditional folk album.”
We’ll leave the final words of inspiration to Janet: “There’s a big interest in singing – and so there should be. It’s so accessible because you don’t actually need anything. Everybody should be able to entertain one another by singing and dancing.”
The Baring Gould Song School can take around 25 people. For more information and to book your place, visit the website: