I help students become more aware of their bodies as the medium of speaking and singing. Helping with posture, voice-production exercises, breath control — all directly benefit performance. Indirectly, these exercises foster bodily confidence: being glad in one’s own skin.
Confidence is crucial: getting familiar with what your body’s doing and feeling, what it needs to be doing and feeling, and trusting it won’t let you down. It’s an important part of self-awareness, not just for singing and speaking. You communicate the message by how you are with your congregation.
My husband is the principal here. We’ve moved 14 times since we married, and in each place I’ve found something to do with music and literature, including in the States, when I was asked by my daughter’s school, where I was volunteering, to become head teacher, to improve their standards and introduce the International Baccalaureate.
It was the West Malling nuns’ vision that brought us from Canterbury to share their home with them. Alan wanted the college to have a permanent home; so we made the move here, which is absolutely wonderful, and we feel very settled.
I really enjoy teaching adults because they’re so motivated, even if they have more obstacles to overcome. When I look at the Church Times appointments and see where they’ve all gone to, it’s very satisfying.
Most of us fear making fools of ourselves, and we fear that all the more because we forget that most listeners in church sympathise and feel for us when we make mistakes. The only remedy is practice and more practice and encouragement.
If I can get a nervous student to succeed once, then they’re well on the way to making that a habit. The strongest resistance comes from those who firmly believe they can’t sing. At an early age, distracted parents told them to “stop making that awful noise”, and unsympathetic teachers declared them “non-singers” and hid them at the back of the stage. People hold on to that judgement; but with patience, time, and understanding, they overcome their fear and discover themselves singing.
Voice training should always be fun. Clarity is good; volume is good; diversity of emphasis and tone is good. I had elocution lessons at school, but it was easier then, because there was general agreement about how spoken English should sound. Sadly, it was class-based, and tossed aside the rich diversity of English accents.
Accents are just different and accepted now, thank goodness, but if you can’t communicate, that’s different. In our church in Atlanta, there was a Danish priest with such a heavy accent I couldn’t understand what she was saying; so, in the end, we went elsewhere. Some students insist that their own congregations will understand their accents. One student said: “You’re just a middle-class white woman; so of course you don’t like my accent.” But he was going to be a curate in a church where sometimes the 1662 Prayer Book was used, and his reading was unintelligible. A Korean student who couldn’t say “w” was going to a curacy in Wimbledon. (She managed it in the end.) Overseas students usually do want to work with me; it’s British students who are more resistant. Very often they don’t come to me till after they’re ordained and they’ve had feedback from their congregation.
Some come to learn some new hymns or carols when they’re changing their churchmanship and they realise that their own tradition lacks the variety they’ll find elsewhere.
Training for ordination here is as intellectually challenging as you want it to be. We have people with doctorates and folk for whom this is their first experience of higher education. Sometimes I’m learning a theological discipline along with the students I tutor. I have a Master’s in literature and theology, but that follows just one path within the most strenuous and exacting of intellectual ventures. What students learn at college is just a first step in a lifetime’s active theological learning.
Most of my work is one-on-one academic support. Some students were badly let down by their school and need the fundamentals of writing a sentence and elements of grammar and punctuation. Others have learning difficulties, such as dyslexia or ADHD. Fortunately, we know a lot more about these now, and they don’t have to be a bar to academic success.
Some ordinands haven’t written an essay since they were at school. Some have never written one. With those I start small, with a couple of sentences, then a paragraph, and we build from there. We practise analysing a question, drawing up an essay plan, reading strategically, taking notes, selecting relevant information, constructing an argument, drawing a conclusion, and so on. I promise them that I can move them up ten percentage points; so I enjoy that personal challenge.
Yes, this demands more skilful teaching than in the past, because the Church of England has taken up the prophetic challenge of seeking vocations from people without the educational experience that was once taken for granted.
It’s easy to forget that, unless somebody is learning, we’re not teaching. We kid ourselves sometimes that learning follows after teaching; so I can tell myself I’ve taught a class even if nobody has learned much. I try one approach after another until my student learns.
My happiest memories of childhood almost all involve either school and church. Home was often scary and unpredictable, because my parents’ mutual unhappiness erupted in melodramatic and self-destructive behaviour. Church was one place where I met adults who were trustworthy, didn’t go off pop, seemed actually interested in me, and were genuinely kind.
My school was similar, allowing for a few dotty and disillusioned teachers. Music and literature were escapes to a larger world. I learned the piano and cello, and once sang with Joan Baez at an anti-apartheid rally. I also discovered sustaining, lifelong friendships. I owe more than I could possibly say to my Methodist grandparents.
Now, I have grandchildren in Worthing and Newcastle, a Great Dane and a Siamese cat, mostly on the sofas, and a husband, who gets everywhere. Time with them is what makes me happiest. Alan and I also live next door to the college’s offices in the grounds of West Malling Abbey. I see students officially four days a week, but often at weekends, too.
At age three, while playing in the garden, I suddenly knew I wasn’t alone. I experienced a presence quite unlike the presence of any person: immutably loving, inexhaustible, and intensely real, more real than real, if you like. Of course, those are adult words, but they convey what I felt, and I knew this was God.
That original experience has remained, and gathered other, later experiences of prayer, worship, love, awe, and holiness, awe to itself. My sense of God has grown as I’ve grown — actually always beyond where I am — and it’s intensified through some very dark times.
Cruelty to children and animals makes me angry.
I’m grateful for good health, of course, after the pandemic, but I’m also proud of how the college has continued through it all. Staff and students adapted to and discovered new ways of teaching, worshipping, and maintaining our common life. I’ve learned to teach over the phone and in the open air. I’ve even done Zoom singing lessons, but those were less successful as it upset the dog.
Lockdown life isn’t my “new normal”. I like teaching in person, especially because voice-work involves posture and breathing, and I’ve missed going to London. I’m more aware of our collective vulnerability.
I love the sound Bach’s cello music.
The gospel is what gives me hope for the future, because it’s hope for heaven and earth. Reducing Christian hope to earthly proportions cheats everybody. Jesus’s death and resurrection is hope for fullness of life struggled for here, and greater fullness in the reconciliation of all things.
I keep returning to prayers for peace: peace as joyful flourishing and friendship, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom.
I’d choose to be locked in a church with Jane Austen. She’s scary because of her sharp eye for foibles, but she was also expert on the human heart, its ambiguities, and the many ways in which we misread each other. Despite her scariness, she wrote comedies: stories in which redemption has the last word.
Suzy Gregory was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.