Making music in the ancient Dorset hills

Conductor Esther Yoon in action at the Canford Music Summer School                               Pictures: Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles           

Surveying the cheerful scene as dozens of musicians enjoy a morning coffee amid the clatter and chatter of Sherborne School refectory, Malcolm Binney smiles broadly. He has good reason to look pleased. Players of strings, woodwind, piano, percussion and brass swap stories with choristers, composers and conductors, catching up with old friends and exchanging information about their lessons. The happy, creative atmosphere is a testament to a success story that Malcolm Binney has been inextricably involved with for his entire adult life. 

It is nearly 60 years since the famous Canford Summer School of Music was established and 45 since, as a precocious young student, Malcolm suggested that he might just be able to run it better than the people in charge. He was only 20-years-old at the time, a young violinist and student conductor with confidence, ambition and just enough naivety not to realise how badly his proposal might be received.

In fact it worked a treat. Malcolm, now a respected conductor and composer, and long established as director of the Summer School of Music, climbed into the driving seat almost straight away.  Relating this tale today, he seems almost embarrassed by the audacity of his younger self. “I was totally, totally precocious” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

The director of music at the time took a pragmatic approach to this undoubtedly talented upstart questioning his abilities. In fact he seemed positively relieved that someone else was going to take on the donkey work... just so long as he kept his title. 

We are chatting during the second week of the 2010 Music School. I ask Malcolm if the students know about this intriguing aspect to his history. “Probably not, “ he says. “They know that I’ve been a steward ( it was how he paid his way in the early days) and they know that I know what the business is about. I’ve done everything in the summer school.  But I doubt that many of them have a clue that  I’ve actually organised it since I was 20 years old.”

What they also don’t know is that this is the very last time it will be known  as The Canford Summer School of Music.

Even though it outgrew it’s first home at Canford School in 2005, moving across Dorset to historic Sherborne, it retained its original name. Until now that is.  Some months after our conversation Malcolm emailed to say that from 2011, the Summer School will finally bear the Sherborne name.

For participants not much will change. It will continue to run over three weeks with a programme of 23 courses covering everything from orchestral music to jazz. There will also be more than 40 concerts.  

The breadth and quality of the work carried out at the Summer School quickly became clear during my visit. Many of the lecturers involved are international names. 

The annual school is organised by Malcolm and administrator Maggie Barton Wilby (pictured with him above) with a small, loyal team of highly efficient assistants for back-up.  Between them they manage to not only deliver three weeks of cutting-edge tuition but also arrange everything from food, accommodation and sometimes transport for the teachers, visiting musicians and hundreds of students from all over the world. 

Although both have been involved in the event for decades, Malcolm and Maggie formally took over the annual School of Music some 24 years ago after buying it from its then American owners. The company, which had inherited the annual event as part of a series of business take-overs, were only too pleased to cut the deal.  

 “The Americans had no concept of what it was.They barely knew it existed,” explained Maggie. “ So when we asked if we could buy it  they were glad to get shot of it.” From that moment on they had total control and Canford really began to thrive. 

Throughout its gradual development there have been many changes but some things have stayed constant. There is Malcolm Binney of course and also the man who taught him conducting during that first summer visit back in 1964. International conductor George Hurst, now 85, has been teaching a masterclass at the school for an astonishing 52 years. It has worldwide recognition.

I meet one of his students, Esther Yoon who has jetted in from Manhattan specially for  some one to one tuition. Newly appointed assistant conductor with the Greenwich Village Orchestra, Esther tells me that the guidance and advice offered by George and his team has been invaluable.

“It really opened up a different world, a new way of approaching music as a conductor. It’s a unique experience of the kind that you hardly ever get the chance to experience nowadays. I feel privileged to have a chance to learn in this way.” 

Talking to George however it is clear that his prestigious course - attended over the years by such illustrious students as Simon Rattle, Andrew Davis and John Elliot Gardener - almost never got off the ground. When he originally approached the sponsors back in 1959 and suggested a conducting course, they weren’t keen at all. 

“They said they’d tried it before and it was a disaster,” says George.  Undeterred he urged them to try again promising to go  50-50  on any loss.  Fortunately for the penniless young conductor the gamble paid off. "I couldn't possibly have paid them," he admits.

Although the summer school attracts musicians of the very highest calibre it is also open  to instrumentalists, conductors and composers who relish the chance to hone their talents amongst world-class company. 

It certainly isn’t for slouches.  I fall into conversation with String Orchestra conductor David Curtis who has been putting his students through a particularly daunting Michael Tippett score  -  Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.

“It’s an extraordinary work,” he tells me. “Incredibly complex and beautifully crafted. As an example of the composer’s art, it’s an intellectual virtuoso showpiece.  I like to stretch people a bit. That’s why they come here, to be challenged and learn new ideas and new music.” 

It’s not all top-end though and for some Sherborne School is principally  a beautiful, peaceful and historic  place to spend a week making music  

With roots dating back to the 8th Century, it was re-founded in 1550 by King Edward VI and is overlooked by the North Dorset market town’s famous Abbey.  

“We do get some very high-powered musicians coming here but many people just want to sing,” says Malcolm. “We have five choirs here over three weeks and they have an absolute ball, they also get to sing some huge choral works.”

 Many friendships have been forged at the Summer School as well as a few long-term relationships. I meet newly wed choristers Mike and Martha Chamberlain who first met at Canford in 2001. Romance blossomed and eventually, despite a 25-year-age gap and the fact that they lived in Norfolk and Lancashire respectively, they finally tied the knot last year.

For Mike, 74, and 49-year-old Martha the Summer School will always have a  place in their hearts.  “It has a very special atmosphere,” explained Martha. “We meet lots of people here every year and it’s wonderful.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. Things like age and background are completely irrelevant. It’s just about music.”

*This year’s Sherborne Summer School of Music runs from July 31 until August 21. For further details and information about registration and enrolment go to 

© Jeremy Miles 2022