ANDREW Webb-Mitchell, 43, an English musician, composer and music educator, has just started an ambitious new project, establishing his first choral centre in Zhuhai. Working in collaboration with the Women and Children’s Activity Centre in New Xiangzhou, the Zhuhai centre will be followed by further centres in Zhongshan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macao and Hong Kong, he said.
“The Pearl River Delta is our initial target area, and hopefully we’ll establish further choirs in other parts of China in due course,” he said.
Andrew heads the British Schools Foundation (BSF) Choral Programme, which will set up choral centres in major cities in China and bring outstanding young conductors from the UK. Using a systematic approach to choral training, each of the new choral centres will train young Chinese choristers to the highest professional standards.
“In the future, we will organise wonderful festivals drawing children from all over China, bringing them together into a huge, super choir,” he said. He dreams of getting a thousand children to sing together in one of the great opera houses in China one day.
He was born in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. In college, Andrew majored in composing at what is now Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Upon graduation, he embarked on an international career in music education, holding positions in Kuwait and Taiwan before leading music departments in several schools in the UK and China. He learned to speak Mandarin fluently during his four years in Taiwan.
In 2008, he was appointed Director of Music and Performing Arts at the British School of Beijing, and in 2010 became founding Headmaster of King’s College Beijing.
A well-trained musician who particularly enjoys training young musicians, Andrew felt that his previous role as headmaster inevitably focussed a little too heavily on administrative tasks and the thousands of details that enable large organisations to function. In consequence, he was extremely exited to embrace this new project, returning to his musical roots. He also serves as Composer-In-Residence for The British Schools Foundation.
Two years ago, Andrew was appointed Director of Education at the Tianjin Grand Theatre and was invited to develop the Mulan Children’s Choir. His first time teaching Chinese mainland children, he didn’t know whether he would be able to do it well. However, he was delighted to see the children, most of whom were being forced to learn various musical instruments by their parents, willingly come to his choir. Some of them actually started to enjoy their piano lessons and other musical activities. “It is a great thing,” he exclaimed.
Andrew chose Zhuhai to establish his first choral centre because of his wife, a Chinese national who says Zhuhai is her favourite city in China. Besides, in Andrew’s opinion, Zhuhai is the perfect location to start this huge project. Firstly, the city yearns for such activities since it lacks a well-defined cultural identity. Moreover, people cherish the rare opportunity to learn classical music with a western musician. Last but not least, the city has a deep-rooted tradition of choral contests. Aiming to reach the highest standards and become one of the best choral programmes in the world, which takes years to accomplish, Andrew has decided to settle in Zhuhai for at least five years.
Aside from the children’s choir, which started a month ago, Andrew also works as a volunteer conductor of a government official women’s choir. “That’s my fun,” he proclaimed. “Let’s make Zhuhai a really famous place for culture and art. That’ll be a great thing, and it will happen, I’m sure.”
When it comes to the cultivation of the children’s choir, Andrew has a clear plan in mind. In the first two months, choristers learn to focus through close eye-contact with the conductor. They are expected to learn basic singing skills and make a beautiful sound singing together. After about six months, Andrew expects the children to sing with excellent intonation and diction and will have a few songs in their repertoire. Within a year, the children will have learned an extensive repertoire in several vocal parts with good sound and discipline and will be permitted to attend informal public performances, for example, performing one or two songs at shopping malls or accepting invitations to perform at special events.
“When they reach the second year, I hope they can start being involved in international music festivals, and of course Chinese parents welcome that because they want their children to meet people from different countries,” he said.
“When we reach our third year, that will be my great test, because I want to reach the highest professional standards.” He gave, for example, the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Westminster Choir in London. “That’s what we aim to do,” he declared.
“I hope one day we will have the pleasure of collaborating with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, the Macao Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and other leading arts organisations. I think that will take about three years,” he exuded confidence.
– By Betty Lin, Zhuhai Daily