Susan Wilkinson, one of the area’s best-known musical educators, has stepped down from leading Huddersfield Choral Youth Choirs – after a 30- year association – but she’s most definitely NOT retiring.
“I shan’t ever retire,” says the woman who has taught thousands of young people to sing. “Unless I’m taken ill,” she adds. “But there’s nothing physically wrong with me. Age is irrelevant – it’s how you feel and what you do that matters.”
Susan, who lives in Batley and has been a member of Huddersfield Choral Society since 1980, was there at the birth of the famous organisation’s children’s choirs, becoming musical director in 2006, but conducted her last concert, a special anniversary event, in July.
She’s still working with the Youth Choirs on the completion of a CD of that concert, but is now pursuing other projects.
Hers has been a life dedicated to music – from teaching piano and voice privately to working in schools, becoming an Ofsted trainer and inspector (often looking into music provision), taking on the role of music examiner and conducting and arranging music for bands, orchestras and choirs. Her achievements are too many to mention.
She’s a firm believer in the power of music to inspire, educate and heal and is saddened that current Government policy doesn’t place more emphasis on the subject in schools.
“It is proven that music helps with other studies, it helps brain development,” she explains.
“And singing has numerous health benefits. But the Government is putting money into other core subjects and it’s very short-sighted.
“Music has been knocked down and knocked down in schools and now there are few primary schools where you have a teacher who can play the piano and there are very few music specialists.”
But she is enthusiastic about the way music is being kept alive in Kirklees – by the music school, recently re-named Musica, and the area’s many choirs and orchestras.
“This is a fantastic area for music,” she says, “there isn’t another town like it in the UK. There are more choirs and orchestras than anywhere else. But that belies what’s going on in schools, or what’s not going on.”
Susan, who is a graduate of the Royal Manchester College of Music, remembers the days when instrumental tuition was free in schools and recalls that the end of the scheme led to a huge drop-off in pupils taking lessons.
She said: “I worked at a school in Bradford at the time and the school orchestra disappeared when the free lessons disappeared.”
However, she feels it’s not just the cost of music tuition that threatens the future generation of musicians: “I also feel that the commitment from families has gone down,” she explained.
“A couple of years ago I went round schools and offered 37 children a place in the Youth Choirs. Only two turned up, but that’s because of their families. And it’s become evident that children have much more say in whether they continue to make a commitment.
“They are not made to stick things out and try for a bit longer, they’re allowed to give things up straight away if they think it doesn’t suit them.”
Susan came from a musical family and raised one of her own. Her involvement with the Youth Choirs began when her son Richard Spreckley became a founder member and daughter Hannah followed suit.
Her second husband Lyndon, who died two years ago, was also a Choral Society member and bass soloist. They had been married for 30 years and Susan still feels his loss keenly. “We were a team,” she says.
Her work remains hugely important and she will continue teaching voice and piano as well as playing a full part in the musical life of the area.
She is the musical director of Gledholt Male Voice Choir and recently accepted the position of president of Huddersfield Singers.
Leaving the Choral Youth Choirs after three decades will undoubtedly be a wrench, but Susan says that forthcoming organisational changes in the society to include musical direction of both the young and adult singers by the senior section, made it the right time.
“I leave calmly, with no regrets, so that the organisation can begin a new era,” she said at her final concert.
Susan’s successor as musical director of Huddersfield Choral Youth Choirs is Alison North, another of the area’s well-known musical educators. Alison is conductor of the award-winning Lindley Junior School Choir and a 170-strong Community Choir with ages ranging from six to 80.