As an incoming student to the prestigious University of St Andrews, you will almost definitely have been forced to watch that video of ‘St Andrews From Above’ the uni loves to plaster all over the internet. With the intense, wailing choral music filling your ears as the camera pans dramatically across the town from the sky, you get this feeling that St Andrews is like something from a film.
The surrealness only increases upon arrival in town. You’ll be walking down South Street and feel suddenly, bizarrely patriotic, as the imposing sound of God Save the Queen emanates from a nearby church spire. Sometimes you’ll be in the Union and accidentally walk into a room full of people standing in a circle ‘doo-wap’ing and ‘boots and cats’ing – at which point you’ll start to feel like you’re going mad. You aren’t, I promise. You’re just experiencing one of the things that makes St Andrews so special.
There are so many opportunities to hear, experience and make music at St Andrews that there really is something for everyone. Because of this, however, it can feel pretty overwhelming trying to find the right type of music to suit you. But have no fear, I am here to help.
For students, music is largely split into two categories: student-run and faculty-run. While St Andrews doesn’t yet offer a degree in music, we have a brand-new University Music Centre that is expanding each year and offering new academic music modules all the time. The Music Centre also supports numerous musical groups, including Chamber Orchestra and all of the Chapel Choirs. They also give out instrumental and vocal scholarships to students who are more experienced in music, entitling them to free music tuition and some other perks. The Music Centre also works closely with the Byre Opera company, who put on professionally run productions each summer.
That ominous and imposing soundtrack to that ‘St Andrews From Above’ video is a recording of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, titled the flagship choir of the university. I don’t really know what flagship means, but it sounds impressive so we’re pretty happy with it. I have been in Sallies chapel choir since first year, and while it has undoubtedly been one of the best things about my time at university, it has also been the most time-consuming. All of the groups and scholarships funded by the Music Centre are auditioned, so these might not be what you are looking for if you’re looking for something a little more chilled out.
So, while the music centre offers some great opportunities for young musicians, it is by no means the only way to get into music in St Andrews. If the thought of rehearsing four/five times a week in church or spending plenty of time in practise rooms doesn’t appeal to you; do not worry.
Music Society is one of the oldest and largest student-run societies in the university. It comprises six music groups, all of which offer unique and fun ways to make music. These groups offer an equally sophisticated level of music-making as those mentioned above, but are almost entirely student run. Information about each of the groups and links to the MusSoc website for more are as follows:
The exception to the ‘student-run’ rule, St Andrews Symphony Orchestra is the largest instrumental group in the town, and is currently lead by professional conductor, Iain McLarty. Despite the professional leadership and the fantastic range of complex repertoire, Symphony auditions are quite informal, and the orchestra is made up of a very welcoming and friendly bunch.
The Big Band of the University of St Andrews, affectionately known as Big BUStA, is ‘an ensemble of players formed to play both the classics of the swing era and contemporary funk and modern jazz.’ I totally stole this description from their Facebook page, because really the best way to get a feel for Big Band is just to watch the recordings of some of their performances, which will all have you boogying in the first few seconds.
Wind band differs from the rest of the MusSoc ensembles as it is the only un-auditioned of the six groups. In no way has this stopped them from upholding the fantastic standards of music St Andrews is used to. The band plays a wide variety of music, from film scores to purpose-written wind band tunes.
With all this action for the wind, brass, and percussion sections, there is, of course, something for the string players too. St Andrews Strings are an unconducted string group of around 16-20 players. Despite only being made up of one family of instrument, St Andrews Strings never fail to surprise and delight with their extremely varied repertoire and wonderful blend.
Conducted by yours truly, the University of St Andrews Chamber Choir is a group of around 24 auditioned singers. It is also obviously the best ensemble in St Andrews (totally unbiased journalism), and you should all definitely sign up for an audition. The choir focuses mostly on Western classical music, but we do occasionally branch out if we find a really cracking arrangement of some Billy Joel. What separates Chamber Choir from any other choir in the university is that it provides students with an opportunity to sing in a secular context, which hugely opens up the scope of possible repertoire.
Ukelear Fusion are self-proclaimed as the group who ‘are here to pretend to be rockstars and occasionally play songs.’ As someone who used to jump on their bed whilst pretending to be a Beatle, I can very much relate to this. They are the University of St. Andrews’ resident ukulele band, who are forever making people smile with the magic they create with their teeny tiny guitars.
The Music Society also works closely with the Music Centre and with the other music performing arts societies in St Andrews, such as the Opera, Just So and Gilbert and Sullivan Societies. It is common that MusSoc members will perform both as vocalists and instrumentalists in the pit in student productions. So, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a thespian, any one of these societies could be the right one for you. There are also numerous other opportunities for group singing by auditioning for the Madrigal Group, or getting involved with any of the A Cappella Society’s six groups – but your life will very quickly turn into an IRL Pitch Perfect if you do.
Generally, Freshers Week consists of signing up to a million things, and then never showing your face there again. It’s okay, we all do it. With music, it’s pretty much the same sort of thing; except you’ll sign up to go to a bunch of auditions and rehearsals that you’ll inevitably forget about until 5 minutes before your allotted time. My advice here is always to just GO FOR IT, because being involved in music in St Andrews as a wee fresher gave me an instant family of wonderful, talented people, who made adjusting to uni life so easy and fun.
Unfortunately, thanks to The Rona™, we do not yet know exactly how musical rehearsals and performances will end up being carried out. However, our Music Centre and Society officials are working very hard to ensure that we are constantly up-to-date with Scottish Government guidelines and restrictions so that any rehearsals or socials will be COVID-safe. It might not be the year we expected, but not even a worldwide pandemic will stop us from filling the East Neuk with song.