Conductor helps young Scots to find their voice

Christopher Bell is the man responsible for changing Scotland from a country bereft of choral ambition into a land where four national and 14 local choirs regularly lift their voices in celebration of their passion for singing.

Bell grew up in Belfast. Playing the piano from an early age, his real musical awakening came when his father met the organist at Belfast Cathedral, who suggested his sons try out for the choir. Both Bell and his brother were successful and a love of singing began. Studying music at Edinburgh University, and conducting in Belfast and Vienna, fuelled that passion. An accomplished musician, he plays the oboe and pipe organ, having also been a church organist.

Conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union gave Bell an insight into just how little singing experience people in Scotland had. ‘The people who were auditioning hadn’t done a lot of singing, many of them didn’t even sing in school,’ explains Bell. ‘It seemed that singing had fallen off the agenda.’

This, coupled with the fact that there were only three Scots in the Youth Choir of Great Britain, drove Bell to set up the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Today NYCoS regularly tours the USA and Europe, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Along with the National Youth Training Choir, the National Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs and 14 local choirs across Scotland, NYCoS has an education department, a publishing remit and runs mini music makers classes for 0–3 year olds.

All of this came from the formation of one choir, which is now in demand to sing at the Edinburgh Festival, the London Proms and together with members of national and local choirs at events like the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where 700 singers came together at the Glasgow Concert Hall and the Caird Hall in Dundee. The National Girls’ Choir will release a CD, recorded with their patron and renowned soprano Karen Cargill, in January 2016.

Bell is the artistic director of NYCoS and has been regularly recognised for his encouragement of young Scottish singers. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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This feature was originally published in 2016.