Heriot-Watt's first musician-in-residence has struck a chord with staff and students. Olga Wojtas sits in to listen
Steve King is responsible for Heriot-Watt University losing one of its distinctive features. Until now, the 33-year-old university has had no musical presence, but this has changed with his appointment as musician in residence, sponsored by the multinational oil company Amerada Hess.
A composer, conductor, arranger and viola player with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, King has a fifth string to his bow as a musical educationist. He has worked with many kinds of community group, including people with profound disabilities.
He has now set up a Heriot-Watt choir and an orchestra, which rehearse once a week. Each has about 40 members, two-thirds of them students, the rest staff and locals. He describes the choir and orchestra as "a really mixed bunch. There are some really good singers and instrumentalists, and people who are just starting out''.
But he has no problem with shifting from the SCO to amateur groups. "When you're working on the amateur level, the gap between amateur and professional is so vast, you can't equate it, whereas the gap between good and not so good isn't quite so vast.
"There are one or two people in the choir who can't read music and we're trying to tackle that. I've given them tapes of the piece where their part is highlighted and I've got basic music reading for them.'' Evening rehearsals last for up to two-and-a-half hours, and King spends at least two hours preparing.
"You've got to know the scores really well and how to use the time properly to keep it exciting and vibrant and ensure good solid work is done. It's very important not to bore the people who are talented but not to challenge the inexperienced beyond their capabilities. Finding that balance is critical.
"It's very important to me that I get the best out of them, but I don't expect them to have the achievements of professionals. They're there to have fun.'' This is very obvious in choir practice. He breaks up the singing with anecdotes about an SCO tour in the United States and embarks on a convoluted joke about a Scottish tourist and an Indian chief before confessing he has forgotten the punchline.
"It is good, I promise you. Now, Bruckner.'' He runs the choir through its paces for another ten minutes before interrupting: "I've just remembered that story. So the tourist says: 'How!' and the chief says: 'Penalty kick in extra time.' The choir groans in unison.
Rehearsals start at 7pm and can last beyond 9pm. While most of the students live nearby, a minibus brings some participants from Heriot-Watt's Borders campus, an hour's drive away. Nobody resents the time commitment. The general reaction is that King is so entertaining, it is a fun evening.
Andrew Stevens, an architecture student from Heriot-Watt's associate Edinburgh College of Art, says: "I enjoy it, I've always enjoyed singing. I think it's more a relaxation sort of thing, a hobby out of hours."
Sandi Jarvis, a third-year computer science student from Barbados, is equally enthusiastic. "It's a nice kind of break to do something different. It's the only music on campus. We did a concert of The Messiah for Christmas, and everybody loved it. Everybody said we were great.''