Carrickfergus Grammar School Feature on RTE Album
Carrickfergus Grammar School feature on Choirs for Christmas. Meet Edward Craig, the musical director behind their success
‘There was complete elation from winning it, and shock.’ Edward Craig, director of music at Carrickfergus Grammar School, is referring to the day a year ago when news arrived from RTÉ Lyric FM in Dublin that the choir he conducts at the school had won not only the station’s Secondary School Choir award, but also the overall accolade of Best Choir in the entire competition.
Part of the shock, Craig acknowledges, came from knowing that other outcomes could easily have been possible. ‘I was really surprised,’ he comments, ‘and it was lovely that there was recognition. But many of the other choirs could have won it too, it just comes down to what touched somebody on the day that they adjudicated it.’
Undue modesty? Possibly. What’s undeniable is that Carrick’s victory created opportunities for Craig’s young singers which otherwise would never have existed. ‘It’s opened a few doors,’ he confirms, ‘like doing a recording, and a return invitation down to the National Concert Hall in Dublin, to sing the pieces that are on the CD for the launch. It’s fantastic.’
The recording Craig refers to, Choirs for Christmas, has just been issued on RTÉ Lyric FM’s own label, and can be purchased on its website or via Amazon (see widget below). As competition winners, the Carrick choir makes four contributions: ‘See, Amid the Winter’s Snow’, ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, and ‘Still, Still, Still”, accompanied by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under conductor David Brophy.
Craig remembers the recording sessions, at RTÉ Studio 1, Donnybrook in February 2012, as a not altogether relaxing process. ‘It was a very, very steep learning curve. Singing with an orchestra was a completely new experience for the choir, and a scary experience. They were at such a distance from conductor David Brophy, away up high, spread out in three very long, straight rows, with the orchestra in between.
‘So it was very hard to hear each other,’ Craig continues. ‘When it came down to it, everybody was running late, we were the last choir on, and did four pieces in basically an hour. It was pretty tight going. But kids respond to that. You give them a challenge, and they meet it. They rose to it well, I felt.’
Unsurprisingly, the choir’s success at national level, and its professional recording debut, haven’t happened overnight, nor by accident. Craig himself arrived at Carrickfergus Grammar School ten years ago, and has spent much of his time since patiently developing the choir’s expertise, and its profile in the school community.
‘There wasn’t really a big tradition of singing in the school,’ he says, recalling his early days there. ‘There was no singing in assembly, and when we did a carol at Christmas, the kids actually didn’t know how to react to that. They weren’t used to singing.’
Gradually Craig changed that, gathering together small groups of pupils keen on singing, planting seeds that later came to full fruition. ‘We got started with a small chamber choir,’ he remembers, ‘just a few guys who were interested.’
From the outset, participation in the Carrick choir was non-selective. ‘I never audition,’ says Craig, explaining his commitment to total inclusivity in the choral context. ‘There are no auditions for choir.
‘It’s a principle thing, really. I feel that if they put in the time and the effort, it’s my job to help them to sing, whether they’re strongly gifted singers or quite weak. We’ve found that you can always improve a voice. There’s very few people who can’t carry a tune, and then it’s developing that.’
Developing the vocal talent at his disposal is one thing Craig clearly does in expert fashion. ‘An exceptionally accomplished and gifted choral conductor,’ was the verdict of Suzi Digby, a member of the judging panel when Craig conducted his adult choir Grosvenor in the BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year competition four years ago.
Craig is in no doubt where his own particular love of choral singing and conducting came from. ‘Having gone through Grosvenor High School, I’m influenced by the work of Ronnie Lee. He was choir director there, when they won the Sainsbury’s Youth Choir of the Year back in the 1980s. He died in 1992, I was in sixth form at the time. The choir that I formed, called Grosvenor, was in memory of him.’
When assessing the achievements of his Carrickfergus choir, Craig is also quick to credit the individual singing teachers who have contributed to the development of his pupils’ voices. He particularly singles out the work of Northern Irish soprano Marie O’Sullivan, who died a year ago at the tragically early age of 50.
Craig remembers O’Sullivan’s contribution to the Carrick choir with evident warmth and affection. ‘Marie was a fabulous influence. She was in the school for about five years, and singing teaching took off. When we came out from having our school carol service a year ago, I had a phone call to say that Marie would love us to sing at her funeral. This was in her final few days.
‘So we had the choir here at half seven in the morning, it was still dark, to go and sing at her funeral last Christmas. And it was just the day after that we found out we’d won the RTÉ competition.’ The choir subsequently dedicated its victory to O’Sullivan’s memory.
A year after what Craig remembers as ‘a very emotional time’, his Carrickfergus Grammar School choir continues to move positively forward. The new CD is out now, the school is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and music will, inevitably, be a core part of its celebrations.
‘We’re having a big weekend in March, around Saint Patrick’s Day 2013,’ says Craig. ‘Part of that will be a concert with the current members’ choir, a past pupils’ orchestra, and a guest appearance from past pupil Carolyn Dobbin, who’s now a well-known opera singer, and is coming home to do her star turn.’
Craig will also be continuing his commitment to touring, which he views as central to the development of his singers, and to their broader cultural education.
In recent years the Carrick youngsters have sung at cathedrals and churches in Glasgow, Cambridge, Liverpool, Paris, Amsterdam and Dublin, and will undoubtedly be embarking on further travels in the future.
For all the success and accolades the past 12 months have brought him personally, and his teenage Carrick charges, Craig, a naturally unassuming, sanguine character, remains firmly rooted in the practicalities of everyday music-making.
‘Had we not won the RTÉ competition,’ he explains quietly, ‘the choir here would have been of exactly the same standard as it was before. The important thing is that they realise it’s some sort of tradition that they’re carrying on as singers. It’s their responsibility to keep going to whatever standard they can, after school, at university, and later. A choir’s for life,’ he concludes, smiling. ‘Not just for Christmas!’