Alex Laing, the recently appointed Director of Music at Wells Cathedral School, talks about the ways in which young talent and musicianship are nurtured and supported

Could you sum up your overarching vision as the new Director of Music?

Music should be celebrated by all and at all levels. This means everything from the high-profile successes on concert platforms and in competitions such as BBC Young Chorister of the Year to singers and bands appearing at Glastonbury, our two-year-olds learning music through play and all in our school community who love to sing together and support each other at concerts and events.

Wells is internationally renowned for its cathedral choir but embraces all genres and styles of music making. How do you balance traditional and modern?

Traditional and modern approaches enhance each other at Wells. We are lucky to have a large music department that can support all genres equally, and varied concert venues built over 700 years. Music is also spontaneous, with jazz appearing in marquees and foyers as well as on stage. We are one of the very first schools to appoint a Visiting Music Teacher for Songwriting to work alongside our traditional composition teachers. I have heard several tributes from our pop and jazz musicians that their music making has been enhanced by a grounding in classical traditions and techniques.

Wells Cathedral
Wells offers an amazing range of music opportunities to non-specialist and specialist musicians alike – subjects such as Music Technology are popular choices

How does Wells support non-specialist musicians?

Everyone at Wells has access to top quality musical opportunities. Non-specialist musicians outnumber the specialists, and many opt to take GCSE and A-level Music and Music Technology. Over 50 different ensembles and choirs at all levels cater for multiple tastes. Non-specialists can perform at concerts or events alongside specialists or opt for occasions of their own, like our Going Solo series. I have already been heartened to hear how much the non-specialists get from listening to the specialists’ performances.

The school seeks to explore the ‘interface’ between music and other disciplines. Could you explain key approaches here?

It is regularly reported how much music and learning an instrument support and enhance other disciplines. Practical music-making connects neural pathways and encourages thoughtful approaches useful for myriad other endeavours. Of course, our music and drama departments collaborate all the time on musical productions. Music and history combine yearly, with lectures and workshops, putting music in historical context and vice versa. Learning an instrument has parallels with learning a sport, too. There are shared physical and psychological goals: awareness of posture, body-mapping, efficient and relaxed movement and strategies for dealing with performance anxiety. I have often thought that Roger Federer’s backhand is just as beautiful as a great violin bow stroke. Wells puts on regular sessions enhancing these shared messages.

Music is a notoriously tough career path. How does Wells support young musicians’ career development, including building resilience?

This is incredibly important to us, and we like to think that we are providing a model for others to follow. It is no longer realistic to expect to become solely a performing musician. We must all embrace much more varied and exciting musical careers. In addition to being accomplished players, we must now be entrepreneurs, teachers, presenters, administrators. To support this, Wells puts on weekly Professional Practice seminars which focus on building these skills, as well as resilience and strategies for living with nerves and anxieties. The resulting team spirit is clear, and our musicians support each other brilliantly during lows as well as highs. It is lovely that this camaraderie also helps us to celebrate different skills. Wonderful technical performers may not be natural presenters. The peer-on-peer support networks allow our pupils to practise and teach each other in very constructive ways.

Wells Cathedral School's music man Alex Laing
Sharing music facilities and opportunities across a wider community is a key part of Wells’ ethos

How does the school share its music with the wider community?

We have an enormous programme of community events. We regularly welcome pupils from other schools for free sessions, including instrumental skills and study days. We also give around 250 public concerts a year, including our large-scale ‘Event on The Lawn’ which is organised and performed by pupils. Many concerts are free as part of our local outreach. Others are in aid of our activities in Sierra Leone, where we continue to support the building and running of a music school. In the community, we frequently perform at care homes, hospitals and primary schools. We have a huge number of bursaries and scholarships for those wishing to study at Wells. Our goal is that anyone with talent can study here, irrespective of financial circumstances – we can’t always make that happen, but we do our absolute best. At our heart, we encourage in our pupils a sense of communal responsibility, so that in their careers beyond Wells, whether musical or otherwise, they will continue to use their skills and creativity for the benefit of all.

We have a huge number of bursaries and scholarships at Wells – our goal is that anyone with talent can study here, irrespective of financial circumstances

Alex Laing
Alex Laing studied music at Cambridge and Birmingham Conservatoire

About Alex Laing

Alex Laing studied Music at Cambridge, holding a prestigious instrumental award as well as being a choral scholar, and at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Alongside his role at Wells, he works for the Benedetti Foundation as conductor and tutor.

Wells Cathedral School

Further reading: Music champion YolanDa Brown in conversation