In October, I attended a four day residential string quartet course at Benslow Music Trust http://www.benslowmusic.org at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Warmly encouraged by my sister, Carole Collins-Biggs, who has been a Benslow regular for some time I was a bit apprehensive because I’m a pretty recent returner to the violin. I was afraid that everyone would be better than me – I’m sure many of us know that feeling. Would I let other people down? Would I look silly? We were told in advance that the set works would be Haydn op 62 and some short works by Kirchner. Well, I did my best with them beforehand but it all seemed a bit beyond what I was used to.
What a lovely place Benslow is! I need not have worried at all. The time is carefully plotted so that you work partly in a quartet – ours consisted of Carole and me, our own Judy Cohen from Ashford on viola and a very congenial and competent cellist named Jill – and partly in a whole course group. The tutors are highly skilled professionals who push firmly but gently with realism and humour. I treasure: “Susan, if you could manage a B flat in that third bar instead of a B natural that would be just great” said with a non-patronising smile. Five of them circulated during sessions so that each quartet got a good chunk of time with each of them. And by the fourth day I really could play Haydn op 62 and amazed myself by sight reading – yes sight reading – most of a Mozart one too. I don’t think I’ve ever made so much progress in four days as that since I started on fiddle at age 7.
The domestic set up works well too. There’s a Victorian house at the centre, part of whose large garden now has modern buildings such as a performance hall, practice rooms and accommodation blocks. Carole and I had a single en suite room each but there are cheaper options for people who prefer to share. The food is all home cooked and tasty and because we deliberately sat at a different table for each meal we got to chat to lots of interesting people too. We went there by train (five minutes from Hitchin station) but there is plenty of on-site parking if you prefer to drive.
Of course Benslow isn’t just for strings. There was a small flute course running alongside ours. Also on offer are piano, singing, wind band, chamber orchestra, big band, theory, various folk options and more – and much of it is run at different times at different levels. There are four day courses, weekends and single day options. My husband Nicholas, a non-player, is there next month for an Elgar appreciation weekend led by Roderick Swanston, my Christmas gift to him. And of course, well and truly hooked, I’m going back with Carole – for a quartet weekend in July and a longer course in the autumn.
If you’re looking for an immersive musical experience through which your skills will definitely improve, I really can’t recommend this enough.