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Sara Holt – A Life In Music and Theatre

Sara Holt

 

Sara Holt (nee Venitt) is a long time friend of my wife and was a bridesmaid at our wedding in 1994.  I always knew she was involved in music and theatre but was never really sure to what extent.  Over the years, living with my wife she often mentioned things about their childhood and I was interested to find out more.

Sara commented on a post I did on this site and it intrigued me enough to decide to get to know her background.  It is a story steeped in family influences and happy childhood memories of music and drama.

Sara and Poppy

Sara and Poppy

Her parents met at a drama group in London and her father taught as a drama teacher.  In the late seventies he took up a post in Strode Theatre in Street in Somerset, which he managed, and also lectured at the nearby college.  Sara was always involved with his work during school holidays.  Her parents were keen lovers of Victorian Music Hall and as she grew Sara became involved in many productions that they  put on in various village halls, accompanying singers amongst other things.  Avid concert-goers themselves the couple also exposed her to other locally produced plays and productions.

While always harbouring a love of acting, Sara eventually became more involved with music and having first picked up the recorder as a small child, she progressed to piano and flute. All the while she was involved with what ever school activity she could find, devouring the inspiration and exuberance of her teachers.  She ended her formal education gaining a music degree from the University of Sussex, which involved lessons at Guildhall as part of the course, and after getting her PGCE went into teaching.  I asked Sara some questions relating to her life in music and drama and her answers say more about her early influences than I could ever express.  She also has some very interesting insights into modern teaching methodology.  I’ll let the interview take on the story from here as it also fills many gaps in my brief introduction to her.

 

Focusing on music in general, what’s your first recollection of being affected by music in some way?
For me it was picking up my sisters guitar because I loved to feel the strings vibrate, about aged 3.

I remember walking down the road with my mum, having started to learn recorder at school, and thinking ‘I know what all the notes are to the tune I am humming in my head, and I could play it on the recorder if I had it with me’. It was a nice feeling.

Your parents, being passionate as they were about the theatre must have surrounded you with a variety of music styles as a child. Does anything stick out as being influential? I personally loved the quirky stuff like Fiddler on the Roof and Gillbert and Sullivan when I was a kid doing shows.

Dad listened to jazz a lot and I knew names like Stefan Grapelli and Humphrey Littleton. As I got older he would buy me jazz piano books. Also we were taken to musicals – Guys and Dolls became a firm family favourite. Music Hall songs are part of my blood, they were a constant presence.

Is there a production that you enjoyed or enjoy doing more than any other? I’m assuming you will have done certain things, maybe “Oliver” for example, multiple times

I love doing Shakespeare though I don’t like watching it much. I haven’t done many musicals as I have 2 left feet. I always wanted to be in Bugsy Malone more than anything.

 

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Your love of music activities as a child at school is wonderful. Do you think that influenced your decision to go into teaching ultimately?

Absolutely, along with fantastic, sparky class teachers who made me feel safe and confident to try things.
I’m sure your own kids are as immersed in quality music as you were as a child. Have they shown any interest in music yet?
I took Poppy to see Tim Minchin’s Matilda for her 7th birthday, which was the most fantastic experience, she is mad on the soundtrack and that of 42nd Street, which we saw locally. She likes to dance more though, I think. The discipline of music lessons does not appeal!
Since Banjo was very tiny he would tap out rhythms constantly with anything to hand, from as soon as he woke in the morning. We got him a tiny drum set which he loved though now he seems to prefer air guitar!

Teaching today, is there any aspect of it that hangs over from when you were a child or has it changed as much as popular music production has changed in those years? For example, my year doing O – level was the last curriculum of all “classical” music, the years below me we’re studying The Beatles amongst other things.

I taught music curriculum part time in a middle school (age 9-13) for a year. I was seriously impressed with the quality of lessons – great, exciting topics including film music, world music, regular opportunities to compose and the depth and breadth of what was being taught was amazing. I’m back in primary now though, and just keen to make it exciting and fun; something to build on.

What are your thoughts on the “fame at any cost” culture that seems to be prevalent these days? I’m talking about the X Factor and similar talent shows. We’ve all been cute 7 year-olds on stage, but very few of us make it to still be involved with music in our 30’s and 40’s (and getting closer to 50’s in my case, yikes!).

I can’t bear it. As somebody famous once said (no idea who! Tony Bennet perhaps?) performing music should be about communicating with your audience, it is not an Olympic sport! The need to sing louder and emote more than anyone else is not about musicality it is just ego. As a musician you are kind of a vessel more than anything. In my opinion!

I think many people underestimate the commitment that goes into learning an instrument. How do you keep children interested over long periods of time?

Good question, don’t know the answer to that one. Try to keep practising short and focused. Help them to discover their musical interests. Keep it fun. Also encourage playing with others. Inspire them with older children’s progress, seeing performers etc.

When you see children taking up instruments at a young age, do you think it’s important for them to get as much of the scales and theory behind them while they are unaware they are really learning it, or do you think formal training is off-putting to children?

I really don’t know the best way to do it. I was brought up in a very liberal environment where exams were not the goal. But as a teacher I am rigorous and really care about the detail of technique. I probably just put everyone off!

I hated doing scales but really wanted to be a pianist so I kept it up, but I see many kids coming for lessons more because their parents want them to play. Do you see much of this?

Yes a bit, which is why I don’t teach individuals much. I have recently started teaching 2 adults and it is wonderful as they are so committed to practising and interested in the theory etc.  and the progress is fantastic!

 

Parents seem to expect results more than they are willing to help their kids practice, they’ll spend hours out in the cold watching a kid kick a football around, but wont spend 20 mins a day sat on a piano stool next to them. What’s with that?

I don’t know. My Mum used to sit in the room with me when I practised every single day, doing a jigsaw usually just so I wouldn’t be on my own! What a wonderful example of non-intrusive, supportive parenting.

Ha ha, my Dad did the same, only he would read a book spread out on the sofa, occasionally whistling along if he recognised the tune.  He also got me out of much washing up after dinner by telling my Mam, whilst winking at me, that I had promised him an extra half hour of practice if I didn’t have to do the pots.
In your opinion, do today’s teaching methods and the current curriculum work, or is there anything you would change if you could?

There is too much emphasis on measuring and assessing in order to prove you are meeting targets– in Primary certainly, which is where my experience lies. Children are not robots. Most teachers I know are doing a fantastic job but it is in spite of the system, not because of it – the expectation from society is really warped. Teachers want to inspire children, encourage and support them but are not getting the support themselves to do so. Politicians need to stay out of it and let educationalists use their knowledge, skill and understanding to advise teachers.

Music and Theatre often go hand in hand – did you ever have to make a hard choice between being involved with the music, or acting?

Yes often. Right back to having to play the recorder aged 5 at the nativity while everyone else got to wear an angel costume! I never felt as confident with acting, having no training, so music usually got front seat. I have made up for it as an adult though.

Strode Theatre, in Street has been a big part of your life almost all of your life. Given your work and family commitments, how do you find time to remain involved there?

I love being involved there. Now I am working and bringing up my family I am not doing any acting but still have strong links with local drama groups. I can also be involved through my daughter who has danced there, and by taking my family to shows which I hope they enjoy and will inspire them.

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Do you have a piano at home?

I have a new digital piano! It has replaced the second-hand one which I had as a child, and I have played more for pleasure in the last 2 months than in the previous 20 years!

Do you get time to play for pleasure any more, or is the family / work life still too hectic?

More now than before as the kids grow older – also now it is electronic I can turn the sound down!
The Orchestra in a Field project looks fascinating. I’d love to see that, the different fusions of styles with an orchestra at its heart sounds like a lot of fun. How are you and Glastonbury infants involved with that?
OIAF are putting on a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludd (opera about Noah’s Ark) with a professional orchestra and involving 500 local school children as the animal chorus. Our year-two classes are participating – we will have workshops from the director and a music professional and then perform on the day! It is very exciting.

I was particularly moved by the “Paraorchestra” video on the Orchestra in a Field website. You will be sharing the stage with those and many other eminent musicians. How do you deal with nerves in those kind of situations? Do you still get nervous before you play or act?

Yes I get the familiar sweaty palms even when playing piano for children in church. Acting is terrifying especially when my friends and family are watching. But when it is with the children you teach your focus is on them; on giving them the best possible chance to do their best and feel proud of a job well done. I think you have to have the nerves in order to focus.

I know you love to sing above all else, have you written much music for your self ?

No. We just sing all the time at home and it is a useful tool, eg making up jazz riffs with lyrics to encourage one’s toddler to get dressed for nursery/mini opera arias based around finishing up the spaghetti!! I am sure I have a domestic musical in me just waiting to be produced!

Have you recorded any?

Not yet!

Give us an idea of your influences regarding singing. Which artistes presses the right button for you?

I love Amy Winehouse’s voice and musicality. A brilliant musician. Oldies like Judy Garland. Ella Fitzgerald.

I’m guessing your “record collection”, to use an old fashioned phrase, is vast and varied. When doing things round the house, what’s your preferred listening?

Weirdly, I don’t really listen to music. If there is music on I can’t concentrate on anything else. I listen to radio 4! (News and Current Affairs radio in the UK)

I used to dream as a boy of being in an auditorium watching prog rock band Genesis, and a call goes up “Tony Banks has been taken ill, unless we have a keyboard player in the audience who knows the set backwards, tonights gig will be cancelled” cue Marc stepping up to save the day. What would your dream gig either acting or as a musician be?

I love that dream! I think it would be Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

Is the chance to appear in a West End theatre a draw to you, in whatever capacity? I have friends in the pits in some West End theatres and they have a jolly nice life by all accounts.

 

Yes it would be fantastic! I have been a ‘pit singer’ for our local pantomime at Strode twice and loved it – no one can see you, you are just having the best time being creative and with a great team.

 

Do you have any advice for your 10 year old self, if you could go back and whisper in your own ear?

Practise your scales.
Learn a cooler instrument than the flute.
Learn to dance.
Your suspicions are correct – being a child is the most fun.

 

 

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