Cambridge Exam and Concert Day

Just in case it was all a big blur, here is a compilation of photos and video from the exam and concert day in Cambridge, to remind you of the trials and tribulations of your Grade-1-athon!

Fund raising still continues until 10 October so please keep your efforts up to ensure that Blue Smile, Home-Start Cambridgeshire and Alf Dubs Children’s Fund get as much benefit as possible from your hard work.

Scrape, bang, bash, pluck and blow, it’s all over!

Congratulations to all Note Race participants and volunteers!!

Please keep posting your photos, videos and experiences to our Face Book group group page. We will upload a compilation of photos from the exam and concert day in the next week or two. In the mean time, a choice few photos can be viewed below and a copy of the Cambridge concert programme can be down loaded here.

2017 Grade-1-thon exam and concert day




A few random thoughts for novice violins from Andrew Watkinson

DSCF8752It is extraordinary how us violinists, who have no difficulty steering a glass of something towards our eager gullets, find using the same limbs and muscles to draw the bow straight across the string so very difficult, but we do!

Amazingly well though everyone managed in the Grade-1-athon lesson, I don’t think any of the brave candidates would have felt quite ready to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto by the end of the afternoon. But I’m sure they’re all queuing up to play it now!



  1. Very hard to hold the bow comfortably unless the right thumb nail is short!
  2. You can tell how successful your bow hold will be by looking at it in the mirror. If the fingers/knuckles/hand/wrist look rounded and soft it will work well. If they look angular and stiff then probably not!
  3. Remember that it’s movement of the bow across the string that makes the string vibrate and produces the sound.
  4. Make sure that the right elbow joint is free to open and shut as the bow moves across the string.
  5. The feel of the bow on the string should range from planing wood (very loud!) to stroking a child’s hair (soft and delicate). Feel the string with the right hand fingers through the bow.
  6. To get a good sound on fingered notes the string has to be firmly and strongly held down by the relevant left finger. Feel that it is the end joint mostly doing that.DSCF8760
  7. Be aware of the big difference between placing LH fingers close for a semitone and wide for a whole tone. The semitones are very unlikely to be too narrow!
  8. Try to keep the left wrist from getting tight.
  9. Be ready to bring the left elbow a lot to the right (further under) when playing tohelp the fingers get into a good position on the string.
  10. Sing lots to help the sound!
  11. Shout lots to get rid of the frustration of trying to play the wretched instrument!


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Cambridge novice flute players, a little help from your teacher…

Brenda Dykes says:

It it is hard to convince professional musicians of the difficulty in making a sound on the flute. It may take days, but that has no bearing on how good you will be in the end!

A mirror is your greatest friend at the start and remember to a) keep your teeth and gums firmly against the lip plate and b) BREATHE!

Here are a couple of pics that might bring a smile to your face! Captions please!

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Recruitment drive, instruments at capacity, and call for instrument loans!

So far we have over 100 signed up in Cambridge (and room for only 20 more), and just over 50 in Oxford. We are on a big recruitment drive to get numbers of participants up in Oxford. If you are part of an orchestra, choir, band or other musical group please spread word! The more players we can recruit, the more funds we will raise.

A few of our registrants still have not set up their MyDonate fund raising page and linked to their team page. If this is you, please do this as soon as possible. You are not fully registered until this step is complete and we cannot invite you to the training/lesson day unless you have these steps have been taken. Instructions can be found here.  If you need help please get in touch (contact Oxford, contact Cambridge).


In terms of instrumentation, the Oxford team might benefit from some additional violinists as well as bassoon, double bass, jazz flute, orchestral percussion, rock and pop drums, snare  and trumpet players. People in or around Cambridge might consider jazz sax and rock and pop guitar! As yet, no one has selected Flugelhorn or Rock and Pop Bass.

If we could recruit these instrumentalists, our composers will have the same parts to write for in each city.  But fear not, the music will be thrilling irrespective of the range of instruments we ultimately achieve!

Harps at capacity in Cambridge, cellos now at capacity in both cities

In Oxford, a stonking 18% of participants want to learn the ‘cello while in Cambridge, 15% want to learn the harp and 13%, the cello.  That is a lot of harps and cellos to find! Because of this we are now closing applications for harps and cellos in Cambridge and cellos in Oxford. But since there are 30 other instruments to choose from, there is still something for everyone!

Instrument Loan

We are doing our best to find instruments for everyone, but if you happen to have an instrument buried in your loft or stashed in the back of a cupboard, please let us know!



Cambridge Violin teacher announced!

Andrew Watkinson violins D4AT8770We are delighted to announce that Andrew Watkinson of the Endellion String Quartet will teach the Cambridge Grade-1-athon novice violinists

“Until now, I thought that diving off the ten metre board, playing solo Bach to a packed Lichfield Cathedral, or the groom’s speech at my wedding were the scariest things I’d come up against, but with Grade-one-a-thon fast approaching I realise these were chickenfeed!”

I was born in Glasgow in 1953 and, though I left when I was ten and haven’t lived in Scotland since, I feel completely Scottish. My years there have left memories of a terrifying (but brilliant) violin teacher, deciding to become a violinist whilst sitting on a bus, and running up and down blocks of flats with election leaflets.

I left to go to the Menuhin School, then quite new and without any rules, where I spent four mixed years, the first two very happy and the next two miserable because my wonderful violin teacher left! It was a shock to return to a “normal” school but I found entertaining if useless ways of passing the time!

Then aged just 17, and intending to take a gap year before going to Cambridge, it was arranged that I should disappear to Switzerland to learn from the legendary and ancient Joseph Szigeti. It was a strange year for someone still a boy and afterwards I definitely needed something more normal! This was provided by two years at the Lucerne Conservatoire with the wonderful Italian violinist Franco Gulli.

I then thought that the greatest school of violin playing was to be found in Russia, so I obtained a scholarship to study in Leningrad. I didn’t find out much about the Russian School but after an extraordinary year I knew a lot more about survival! Not able to return to Leningrad for my projected second year because of complications with the KGB, I stayed in London and started to earn a living whilst having some postgraduate lessons with Yehudi Menuhin and Yfrah Neaman. It was a quite frantic time, freelancing with most of the London chamber orchestras, learning new solo repertoire in the breaks of recording sessions and (especially after winning second prize in the 1976 Carl Flesch Competition) rushing around playing concertos and recitals.

Around this time David Waterman rang me up out of the blue to ask if I would like to have a quartet reading session with some mutual friends. We enjoyed playing together and repeated the experience fairly regularly (with different middle players) until we started to think that it might be an idea to form a regular group and give some concerts. It took us some time to find compatible players but on January 20th 1979 we had our first serious rehearsal.

We were lucky enough to win second prize in the Portsmouth International Competition within three months of starting up and with the help of our enthusiastic first agent our career was hectically launched!

That was nearly a quarter of a century ago and I’m not sure what’s happened since then! In 1980 I married Shuna and a few years later we were lucky enough to have two sons. Neither of them wants to have anything to do with music! The quartet has travelled all over the world and played about 2500 concerts. I have also spent a lot of time directing orchestras and playing as a soloist. It has been an incredibly rich life.

I suppose the unifying thread through all this has been the fantastic music I have had the privilege to learn and play. There have been very few days in the last 25 years when I have not had the joy and the challenge of struggling to fathom the bottomless depths of a late Beethoven quartet, or trying to empathise with the tortured emotional switchback of Schubert’s late chamber music, or attempting to turn into sound the perfect simplicity and joy of a Haydn quartet without getting in the way I believe that anyone who has the opportunity to absorb this miraculous music can only be healed and enriched by it.


Sebastian Scotney to teach novice Clarinettists in Cambridge

Sebastian Scotney


I was thrilled to be asked by Naomi to help the Grade-1-athon clarinettists. If by the end of an hour we are all just a teeny-tiny bit happier (or even just a bit less impatient and stressed) with our reeds, our-set-up, our breathing and the sound we make than we were at the beginning, then it will all have been worth it. Here are a few LONG NOTES I did earlier . Looking forward to meeting you all!

Sebastian Scotney

Oxford Note Race 2017 is Launched

Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis

In the afternoon on Sunday 30 April a group of keen musicians, friends from Cambridge, valued supporters and Home-Start Oxford trustees met over tea and cakes at the Jacqueline du Pre Building in St Hilda’s College.

Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Alison Scott welcomes guests and speakers

After time well-spent making new friends and greeting old ones, the assembled company moved into the auditorium. An impressive line-up of speakers was introduced by Alison Scott, Chair of trustees for Home-Start Oxford.



Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Thanea Hodges

The first to take the stage was Thanea Hodges, the dynamic and engaging music teacher from Cambridge, instigator of the Oxford and Cambridge Note Race. Thanea explained that in previous years Cambridge musicians had participated in Grade-1-athons and raised over £200,000 for charity. This year, she wanted Oxford musicians to join in and to compete with Cambridge to see which city could raise the most sponsorship, with money raised here going to Home-Start Oxford. In Cambridge three charities will be benefiting. Apart from raising money for deserving causes, Thanea explained that the Grade-1-athons enabled musicians from all parts of the music community to come together, as well as providing the opportunity to develop new skills and perhaps even fall in love with a new instrument carrying it on to a higher level. For those who were teachers, it also provided a reminder of what it was like to be a pupil facing their first music exam.


Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Christine Cairns

Enthusiasm for the project was strongly endorsed by the next speaker, Christine Cairns, the mezzo soprano, who with her husband, John Lubbock MBE, founded the charity Music for Autism. Christine spoke movingly about the impact that music had had on their autistic son and the joy they had experienced in bringing music into his life and the lives of others with autism. Christine teaches singing and both she and John will be making guest appearances at the concert to help the musicians get their act and their voices together for the choral and orchestral pieces. Christine is also planning to learn the ‘cello for the Grade-1-athon.

We next heard from Jill Pellew, a member of the Advisory Council of the Oxford Philharmonic. Jill explained how members of the orchestra were involved in outreach in Oxford, bringing music to school children, people with learning difficulties and those with dementia. She said that the OP recognised the great value of the work done by Home-Start Oxford and that some members of the orchestra were volunteering to take part in the Grade-1-athon.


Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Prue Reynolds takes the rostrum

Prue Reynolds, who has been involved with Home-Start for over 30 years, and is the longest serving volunteer, then spoke about the charity and her experience. She stressed the enormous importance of the role that trained volunteers played in befriending, supporting and providing practical help to families in crisis and welcomed the recognition, to say nothing of the additional funds, that being part of the Oxford and Cambridge Note Race would bring.


Next, Alison expressed her delight that we had managed to capture one of the Cambridge musicians who has joined our team. David Bourne is a Grade-1-athon veteran who lives in Bletchley and has volunteered to come over to the other side and share his wisdom and experience with us. His account of the afternoon’s events can be found below.

Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Alex Tester

She also warmly welcomed Alex Tester, Director of Music at St Edward’s School, which has generously allowed us to use their fantastic new Music School for the training day on 9 July and the exams on 10 September. Alex has been a hugely active supporter and recruiter, persuading his own staff to join him in signing up and getting teachers at other schools to come on board.


Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Ben Norbury

The formal session ended with questions, most of which concerned the exam and were ably fielded by Ben Norbury from Trinity College, London which is generously providing the exams and examiners for the Grade-1-athon.


As a grand finale, the speakers on the platform joined hands and the Note Race was formally launched.

Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric MellisHowever, it was not all over and guests lingered on a while longer with more cake, tea and chatter.

Gradeoneathon launch:  Picture: Ric Mellis
Katharine Barber and Naomi Yandell share a joke with one of the musicians

If you weren’t able to join us we are sorry you missed out on the opportunity to hear the inspiring speakers and get to meet the wonderful committed musicians who are joining Team Oxford but that was just the start.

There are now a number of ways in which to get involved. First and foremost the musicians amongst you can learn a new instrument and seek sponsorship from friends and family. To register please visit our Information for Musicians page.  For those for whom this task is a step too far, you can make a donation via the Team Oxford MyDonate page. If you were able to sponsor an aspect of our programme, for instance, the hiring of The Oxford Town Hall, where the grand concert finale will take place on 10 September, we would dearly love to hear from you! Equally we are seeking volunteers to help out at the concert and also on the lesson day on 9 July. Please contact Team Oxford if you are able to help in these or other ways.

Photographs by courtesy of Ric Mellis

David Bourne writes: Sunday 30 April

Thanea Hodges met me at my parents’ home in Bletchley, where we had lunch and headed across to Oxford for the launch. A pleasant journey through the Vale of Aylesbury soon lead us to Oxford and we found St Hilda’s with ease. The Jacqueline Du Pre memorial centre has a croquet lawn on its frontage and two students were having a game. Quintessentially English. On arrival at the JdP in Oxford preparations were underway for the launch and we chatted with our new found friends and enjoyed a cup of coffee. The meeting was introduced by Alison Scott, Chairman of Home-Start Oxford. Once underway there were talks by Thanea about the Grade-1-athon, Prue Reynolds about Home-Start, Christine Cairns (who oddly enough I had worked with on a tour of Mahler’s third symphony in 1991 in Scandinavia but had not seen since!) about her experiences with her own son who is autistic and Jill Pellew from the Oxford Phil, some of whose members are keen to participate.
I was at the podium for a question and answer session but in truth Thanea probably knew all the answers far better! A talk was given by Ben Norbury from Trinity College London regarding the exams themselves. We adjourned to the conservatory on the front of the building and enjoyed more coffee and delicious cakes and there was much chatter and excitement about the times to come and those past… it turned out that Christine was also going to study the ‘cello like me. We had a photograph taken by the Jacqueline Du Pre statue in the conservatory. I hope she will be proud of us. We said goodbye to our new friends and Thanea drove us back.