To Sing is to be Human: Cyrilla Rowsell Interview

Cyrilla Rowsell teaching music to children through singing
Leading music educator Cyrilla Rowsell inspires both children and adult singers.

Cyrilla Rowsell is a leading light in music education in the United Kingdom.  She’s authored several handbooks for teachers on music for children (Jolly Music), teaches internationally, and inspires many with her energetic teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Cyrilla has decades of experience inspiring learners with the Kodály approach. We were curious to hear how she views the learning of singing for adults in light of her work with children. 

What can adults learn from children as they learn to sing?  

I do first have to say that I don’t teach singing per se – I teach musicianship through the medium of the voice – it’s not quite the same thing!

Point taken! How do children learn differently from adults?

Children are much more forgiving of themselves than adults! Adults come with an ‘I’m an intelligent, capable adult – I OUGHT to be able to do this’ mindset, which can get in the way.   It’s why my classes are full of humour – I learned early on that if you are tense or stressed in any way, it stops you learning – so I always diffuse situations with humour and a relaxed approach.   I think the fact that I myself learned as an adult makes this easier – my adult students know they can trust me when I say ‘been there, done that, got all the T-shirts’!

Sounds like adult singers can learn from children! 

Children are much more likely to just be open and curious and willing to just have a go at things.

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What are the biggest barriers we human beings face when singing or trying to learn to sing?

Don’t get me started! But since you ask…I think we live in the X-Factor culture where the majority of people think you have to be ‘talented’ in order to be able to sing.   I see singing as a basic human function and there are still many societies where singing and dancing are just a natural part of life. I wish we were like that!

It sounds like our expectations for ourselves can get in the way

My main struggle is with the ‘I can’t sing’ or ‘I’m tone deaf’ syndrome.   I once taught a 70 year-old who had been told since childhood (by his father…) that he couldn’t sing. That’s at least 65 years of an ingrained negative mindset… We would laugh if someone said to a child, ‘Sorry, you’re just not talented at reading so leave it to just the talented ones to do’ – but we do this with music all the time.

Good point!  It’s like we hold up ‘musicality’ as a specialist pursuit!

I was someone who grew up with an unshakeable belief that I was ‘not musical’.  I thought music was just something clever people could do.   My friends thought I was musical because I played the piano…I KNEW I wasn’t musical because I wasn’t very good at it.   And I couldn’t sight-sing, or write a dictation, or hear an interval or a chord, or understand key signatures, or theory…so there’s no way I was musical, right? It was only when I stumbled across Kodály that I started to realise that musical skills, knowledge and understanding can be TAUGHT – a bit of a revelation to me (massive understatement!).

What do you feel is a method or system that meets some of these challenges you’ve named?

Well, I just have to mention the ‘K’ word! Kodály is just, IMHO, the best and most wonderful way to teach and to learn music. It unlocked all this music that I had inside me and which I didn’t realise was there. It taught me to be able to do all the things that I couldn’t just ‘do’.

Do you have a fav. Kodály quotation?

‘Many people are looking for the door to the treasury of music in the wrong places.  They obstinately keep hammering on the locked gates and pass right by the open doors that are accessible to everybody.’ Kodály believed that ‘music should belong to everyone’ – and that is my guiding principle. Teaching – and learning – through Kodály is my lifelong passion and complete delight.

A vocal artist who inspires you? 

Can I name two?   Dame Emma Kirkby  and Chris Rupp!

Cyrilla recently worked on a series of workshops with noted US singer Chris Rupp

What is it about their singing that inspires you?

Dame Emma Kirkby: I just adore that pure, clean, vibrato-less sound that so suits Early Music (I’m a bit of a Stone Age Girl) Chris Rupp: his voice is just so appealing across a wide vocal range – it’s just so lovely to listen to – and everything he sings has a shining integrity and is sung from the heart.   I love the soundworld he creates when multi-tracking – it’s most evident in the beautiful ‘I Will Be Here’.

What are you currently working on in terms of your teaching career?

My sister Henrietta and I are currently devising a CPD-accredited course in Kodály, which should be ready to roll in January 2021.  This will be modular and will be suitable for teachers of all age groups, choir leaders and instrumental/singing teachers.  I also want to write more books for teachers, including one addressing the issue of working with older beginners in the Kodály approach (8-11 year olds).

A favorite quote that inspires you

There are SO MANY things that Kodály said that I love, so it’s hard to choose! But as well as the one above, this is rather special: ‘A good musician may be summarised as follows:- 1. A well-trained ear.  2. A well-trained intelligence.  3. A well-trained heart.  4. A well-trained hand.  All four must develop together in constant equilibrium.  As soon as one lags behind or rushes ahead there is something wrong.’

That was good! how about another:

A great Hungarian teacher I had (Ildikó Herboly) often said: ‘Anything not learned properly in the early stages takes its revenge upon a musician later on.’ And I do love this from Professor Keith Swanwick! ‘We are in the position of leading horses to water.  Whether they drink or not is really their affair.  But at least we can make sure that it is to water we are going, and not to a history of wells, or the analysis of H2O, or learning how the word  ‘water’ is written, or hearing from more learned horses their opinions as to the value of one water hole compared to another.’

An object that inspires you

Objects don’t inspire me.   People do.

What are some of your career dreams/goals?

To be able to carry on bringing the joy of music – along with self-esteem and self-confidence – to as many people as I can before they carry me out feet first!

See more about Cyrilla’s new course and her work with the Phoenix Collective:

The Phoenix Collective Website | Facebook | YouTube

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