Spotlight On: Kathleen McKellar Ferguson – Lecturer in Vocal Performance
April 28th, 2020
Where are you?
I’m in the village of Kippen, ten miles west of Stirling, overlooking the spectacular hills to the north.
Current work wear of choice?
Same as normal. Lippy is on but I have an extra accessory….a set of very glam bluetooth headphones!
How are you connecting with your students for teaching?
To begin with it was a mixture of things but now mostly Zoom.
What’s on your reading list right now?
I’ve just finished two great books, Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (about Palestinian refugees) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (about three music students who lived through the trauma of the cultural revolution in China). I’ve just started Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende which takes me to the Spanish Civil War and Chile and then I hope to embark on the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May.
What are you watching/listening to online?
Listening online to Reflections Then and Now by the Christian writer Henri Nouwen. Watching lots of Netflix movies (I love true stories and thrillers) and, for now, the TV series Belgravia and Liar.
How long have you been at RCS?
I started teaching at RCS in 2001 although I studied piano and singing at RSAMD ‘down the road’ in the old building from 1976-1982.
What drew you here?
After nearly 20 years living and working in London I came ‘home’ to marry the boy next door who I’d known since I was five! (Long story!). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for work when I came back to Scotland but Chris Underwood gave me a job at RCS. He had already asked me to come back to work at RCS a few years before but I wasn’t ready to leave London at that time.
What do you most love about your role?
Many things but in two words – music and people. It’s a joy to be involved in making music every day. I love that. I’m always discovering new things about the repertoire. I also especially love being with, and working with, young people. They have so much aspiration, so much to learn and have everything to look forward to in life. They also make me laugh and keep me up to date with all sorts of things! Many have become very good friends.
What drives and inspires you?
These days I try not to be driven. I’ve been there in the past and it didn’t serve me well. I’d rather use the word motivated. What inspires and motivates me is seeing the young people I teach grow, not only as musicians, but also as people. What a privilege to invest in their lives through the medium of music. Hopefully the seeds that I endeavour to plant will enrich their lives and the lives of others in years to come.
Describe a typical day at RCS and now.
RCS day: Alarm goes off at 6.30am and I’m up by 7am. Get myself organised, have a rushed breakfast then leave the house around 8/8.15am. Drive to Stirling and get either the train or bus to Glasgow. It takes about an hour door to door. Teach from about 9.30/10am until 4.30/5pm … sometimes later. I usually have lunch in the coffee bar with colleagues from the piano and wind department except on Thursdays when I go out for lunch with singing colleagues. Home around 6.30/7pm. Dinner. Emails. Bit of telly. Bed around 10/10.30pm. Always tired!
Lockdown Week 1: Up around 8.30/9am. I’m loving a slow morning. Slow coffee. Slow quiet time. Half an hour of yoga online with Adrienne. I’m really enjoying having time to spend in nature just now so I take the dog for a long walk in the beautiful countryside around us here. I play around with my camera and often take photographs of what I see around me. Before having a relaxed lunch with my family, I try to have a chat online with a friend who I haven’t been in touch with for ages or call someone who I know is on their own at this difficult time. In the afternoons, I’m in touch with students and do some teaching but I’ve also had some days off as it’s now officially the Easter break. I’ve done lots of gardening, housework(!), more creative cooking in the evenings (my husband is loving that!) and I’m looking forward to starting my writing again which has been on hold for the last year! I’m not at all bored and I’m more rested than I have ever been. Never tired!
Lockdown Week 2&3: How things have changed. Finding it hard to fit in my yoga. Seem to be online a lot trying to work out the technology. Practising with two colleagues using Zoom and Microsoft Teams and experimenting with Webinar and other platforms … with or without headphones? Trying to get the sound right. Keeping in touch with students especially those who are on their own. Managed to arrange a worldwide Zoom party with students in Brussels, Adelaide, Michigan and all over the UK. We all loved it. It’s been quite intense and I’m getting headaches and a stiff neck teaching online. I’ve made recordings for the students to practise their technical exercise. All time consuming! I’ve also been trying to connect with people in our village who need some help. Had some good Zoom time with friends on the evenings. It’s all leaving me feeling ‘brain fried’ at the end of the day. Managed to continue gardening, which has kept me sane. Definitely going to unplug over the Easter weekend. Feel like I’ve not had much of an Easter break. Not complaining. We are all in this together.
Lockdown: First teaching week of term
Four days’ teaching which has spilled over into five days. It’s been good, different, satisfying, productive, intense, hilarious and much more! I am completely ‘Zoomed’ out. The students have been fantastic and I feel very appreciated. I love mentoring them but I am completely drained at the end of the day.
Lockdown Week 6: We are getting into a completely different way of living. It’s not easy at times but there are some good things. This glorious weather is wonderful and now my only commute is to the piano, the garden or, on a Saturday, to the village shop to buy a weekend newspaper. This is when I enjoy a little bit of social distance chat with the locals.
Teaching seems to be going really well but it is still tiring on the eyes and ears being in front of a screen all day and listening to varying qualities of computer sound. I have a Zoom lunch every Monday with my own students and, although the BMus2 lieder class is officially finished, we have kept our slot in the timetable on a Thursday morning for those who want to meet for a Zoom coffee as there are some students who are on their own. I’m loving getting to know the students much more and they all seem keen to keep the connections going outside of lessons. Really nice!
Finding yoga harder to fit in these days and definitely haven’t had as many walks in the woods behind our house. Forget any housework! However our garden looks great after all the TLC it’s had. We are looking forward to lots of home grown vegetables and hopefully a blaze of colour in the weeks to come. We are very blessed.
What sparked your love of the arts?
My whole family are very musical and there was always music and singing in our house. Both my parents are music lovers and encouraged all four of us siblings to play an instrument or sing.
We always had musical sessions and family singsongs around the piano. My granny took me to concerts and taught me to play the piano until I was about 14 and, from about the age of eight, granny and mum took me to see the Messiah in the Usher Hall every New Year’s Day. I loved it and have known this piece backwards since then.
My dad passed on his love of words, writing and visual art. I was also very involved in the music at our local village church where I first sang in a choir and was fortunate to have had very good music programmes, which I loved, at both primary and secondary schools. I’ve never known a life without the arts.
What do you recall about your own training?
Self-discipline. Practise. Practise. Practise. Then practise again! Always be thoroughly prepared. (I nearly always was). There is no substitute for hard work. (I was a first study pianist for four years at college then did a double first in singing and piano for postgrad).
I was also extremely fortunate to have had very caring and nurturing piano and singing teachers who loved their craft and exercised great patience with me. They also cared for me as a person. They each taught me not only about music but also about life and, without exception, they all became very good friends who I respected and admired in so many different ways. Their care for the whole person has always stuck with me and I try to do that in my own teaching. I hope I do.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The same as I now give my own students. (Hindsight is a great thing!)
Life is not a competition. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy being your unique self. Celebrate the differences between you and other people. It’s okay to make mistakes. Put your blinkers on and run your own race. Take time to smell the roses along the way. Slow down. It’s not a sprint. Look after yourself and believe in yourself more.
Who influenced you?
In terms of life skills, definitely my family.
Musically I always loved and admired Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Gerald Moore (“the unashamed accompanist”). I also had three wonderful singing teachers who nurtured me through my early days as a singer and my subsequent career but my last and most enduring teacher, Margaret Hyde, was my mentor, friend and ‘singing mum’ for over 25 years until she passed away in 2010.
I had my last lesson with her when I was 50 and she was 87! She was a wonderful lady who was a straight talker. She had so much wisdom and knowledge, a very firm hand and a huge heart. I miss her so much but try to live out what she instilled in me as both singer and teacher.
She came to all my concerts and first nights but loved more than anything that I was carrying on her teaching and passing it in to others. I try!
There were many highlights. I travelled the world for starters and saw places in Europe, USA, Middle East and Far East that I would never otherwise have seen. Although I sang in opera, the concert platform was always my first love and where I felt most at home. I loved recital work and will never forget my Wigmore Hall recital debut in 1991, which was very special. I’ve sung countless Messiah’s and Bach Oratorios and I never get tired of them and I will always remember singing the first performance of the Messiah since the Russian Revolution in the Symphony Hall and Hermitage Theatre in St Petersburg.
The first time I sang some of the mezzo ‘dream’ works (Sea Pictures; Dream of Gerontius; Verdi Requiem; Das Lied von der Erde) was hugely exciting. I have many special memories singing at some big events in the Royal Albert Hall in London and I will never forget rehearsing at Sir Yehudi Menuhin’s house in Gstaad, Switzerland for his 75th birthday concert with the RPO. (I loved the rehearsals more than the concert!).
In opera, I always loved hearing the overture before the curtain went up and working with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at Zurich Opera House was wonderful. He was a lovely man.
To me, the real work was the process and the highlights of the performances seemed to pass in a flash. My favourite thing ever was the weekly ongoing work I did with my teacher, accompanists and coaches in the studio trying to perfect my craft so that I could always do my best when the big moment came.
My most memorable RCS moment?
Goodness. That’s a hard one to answer. I have many anecdotes, some of which are hilarious, however graduation is always lovely. I always love celebrating with my students the culmination of all our hard work. It’s always a really good day.
My advice to students at this moment?
This time shall pass so make the most of what you have for today and don’t worry about tomorrow. Do what you can, not what you can’t. Count your blessings. Stay positive. There is always someone worse off than you.
Describe RCS in three words.
Colourful. Eventful. Challenging. I love it. Sorry, that’s six words!