An insight into composing for the RSNO Youth Chorus with Claire McCue - Royal Scottish National Orchestra
An insight into composing for the RSNO Youth Chorus with Claire McCue

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An insight into composing for the RSNO Youth Chorus with Claire McCue Posted Fri 15 December 2023

Claire McCue is no stranger to working with the RSNO Youth Chorus, both as a Musicianship teacher and as a composer. With the new release of 'Scotland - It all belongs to me!' recorded by the RSNO Youth Chorus, we asked Claire 5 questions about her work. 
An insight into composing for the RSNO Youth Chorus with Claire McCue

Watch the RSNO Children’s Chorus and RSNO Youth Chorus recording of ‘Scotland – It all belongs to me!’ here.

What inspired you to write ‘Scotland – It all belongs to me!’?

Three new songs were commissioned by RSNO, from myself and two other composers –  (which were later first performed at COP26) – and I was asked, as part of my brief, for the song to have a connection to Scotland in some way / potentially the environment as well. At the time, it was lockdown and I was missing seeing nature out-with the city, so I think that probably played a part subconsciously. But mainly I wanted the children to have a song that they could connect with and have fun with.  The song is written through the lens of having imaginary wings / being a bird flying free over Scotland, and all the things it sees / experiences and celebrates some of the things we love about Scotland!

You also work with the RSNO Youth Chorus in their musicianship classes – what is your favourite part of working with young singers?

Yes – they work hard in musicianship classes but we have a lot of fun too. My favourite part of working with these young singers though would be the concert days, when we get to see / hear them shine. It’s also been lovely for me, as a composer, to see them enjoying this song, and hearing them humming it later on their way out…

Are there particular challenges to consider when composing for children and young people?

There are definitely things to consider, yes. Making sure, for example, that the ranges are appropriate for young voices. Lyrics to feel natural, and musical repeats of e.g. verses with different words to be as close as possible rhythmically as well for the youngest singers. I’ve been fortunate to have initially composed children’s songs for NYCoS, where I was given good advice and feedback from conductors there (including Christopher Bell, Alison McNeill, who you see in this filmed production, and Andrew Nunn.)

The most challenging aspect is probably finding / choosing/ writing the text though – either using something existing  (which may be great but too wordy, or tricky with copyright etc… ) or, usually in my case, writing the text as well. I like writing the text and music together, but sometimes just do the text first.

Less technically, it’s about trying to find a connection with the text/music for the singers. With young singers especially, I feel that if they connect with the text and it is appropriately musically scored to match the character or purpose of that, then they’ll enjoy the piece, whether spooky, silly, poignant, a story, or in this case something very relevant to them, with a catchy chorus…  For example, the song the youngest singers really love is “There’s a Dinosaur in my Garden”, which is ridiculous(!), but captures their imagination and is easy to learn, with a fun piano accompaniment.

(Watch the RSNO Youth Chorus’ performance of ‘There’s a Dinosaur in my Garden’ here).

What’s the best part about being a composer?

Good question! I wonder how differently composers might answer this question… I like it when you first hear the piece come to life off the page (usually, but not always, in a rehearsal). But I think, probably, the variety and ability to be creative on lots of different projects and with different people is the best part. Many commissions/ projects / briefs can be very different, some very specific, some with complete freedom. Ultimately, when I see musicians / singers / children / audience connecting with a piece then I feel very grateful.

What are you currently working on / looking forward to in 2024?

At the time of writing, I have a piece “Flicker” (for clarinet, violin, viola, cello) having a performance as part of “The Night With… ” contemporary music festival in December, here in Glasgow, which I’m looking forward to.

In 2024, I’m also looking forward to the National Youth Choir of Northern Ireland Junior Chorus premiering a new song cycle they commissioned,  “The Big folk & the Wee Folk”, with songs about the story of the Giant’s causeway  / fairy forts / trees / a mountain (Slieve Gullion) said to be a sleeping giant.

Another project involving some songs and a score for a short animation,  “The Ballad of Mulan” will also be coming to fruition.

And currently, I’m working on a re-scoring for wind ensemble, and a request for a chamber reduction of my recent double trombone concerto, which the symphony orchestra from NYOS, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, performed earlier this year.


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