MARK HOWLEY INTERVIEW
To some, Bridlington-based Mark Howley is a Classical Pianist par excellence. To others, he’s held in high regard as an inspirational music teacher and mentor because of all the singing, piano and guitar lessons that he gives, as well as all the Youth Theatre projects that he runs with his wife, Rebecca. Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Mark takes a rare breather to talk about his overarching passion for all things music and theatre-related…
Hi Mark, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you so far?
It’s been an amazing year so far! Our work has grown and grown. It started with a huge youth music event in January, which we project-managed. It was called “Let’s Rock,” and it was a Youth Rock Concert at the Spa Royal Hall, involving our own ReMarkable Rock Choir & Orchestra, as well as other groups and individuals from across the region. It was great to get such a variety of talented young people coming together and playing some fantastic music – and even better to be booked by the Spa to do it all again next January! Then we did our seventh full-scale show – “Villains” – with our kids’ theatre group at the Spa Theatre in May, from which we had some great feedback. In April, we launched our first ever adult project – a Rock Choir. This last project took our breath away, as more than fifty people signed up to be in it. We enjoyed a successful launch event at Sewerby Hall, and we have more performances coming up. We have a music studio in Bridlington town centre for music tuition, which is so busy that we have a waiting list. On top of that, both myself and wife Rebecca are busy teaching freelance in schools! On a personal level, we’re expecting our second child!
How long have you been playing piano, and did you enjoy playing it from the off?
I’ve been playing for around 25 years. I didn’t really enjoy it that much when I started; my tutor did the ABRSM Syllabus, which is fairly heavy going! I stopped playing altogether in my teens, only picking it up again in my late teens and early twenties. That’s when I started to take it seriously… teaching myself and entering myself for exams. Right now, it’s my job and my passion — an extension of who I am.
Were you a naturally talented pianist when you first started, or did you have to work hard at it?
Well, I think from the outside, people assume that music is like magic — that you can either do it or you can’t; that you’re a natural or not. I also think that a lot of proficient musicians like to perpetuate this idea, as it adds a certain mystique to the musician. The truth is, playing any instrument at a professional level requires the internalising of difficult techniques. For high-level skills to become instinctive, lots and lots of practice is necessary. Of course, some people acquire such skills quicker than others; to this extent, some people are more “natural” than others. Personally, I come from a very musical family, and I grew up surrounded by music, but I still had to practice like mad! In fact, because most of my progress was made as an adult, I had to practice even harder than a child would. Even a natural has to work hard!
So tell us a little more about your theatre company, “ReMarkable,” which has long triumphed in inspiring scores of budding actors, actresses, dancers and musicians in Bridlington and surrounding area. Whose idea was it to set up the company, and was it easy to set up on a practical level?
I worked at the Spotlight Theatre (on West Street in Bridlington) as their resident Musical Director for around 10 years. I met Rebecca there when she choreographed a show that I was playing for. Together, with a fine chap called John Douglas, we started a youth group at the theatre: Spotlight Kids. When it came time to leave the Spotlight, I found that the group was the one thing I couldn’t leave behind. After a failed attempt to continue the group at the Spotlight, we decided to go it alone and start our own group. I remember us texting all the parents, telling them that we were leaving and setting up our own group, in spite of having nowhere to go, and no money to pay for it! We were a little surprised when every single member chose to come with us. We decided to continue running the group for free, as it had been at the Spotlight, so we instantly had a lot of costs but no income! Luckily, we had sponsors in Lesley and David Jackson, and they made that initial transition possible. We were also lucky to find kind and generous hosts in the form of St. John’s Burlington Methodist Church, who allow us to use their hall for rehearsals. Since then, the group has ballooned to include orchestras, choirs, dance projects, workshops and so much more. We now manage to cover a lot of our costs through ticket sales, though we still have the amazing support of Lesley and David. The core of the group still stands, and all of our projects are free or heavily subsidised
Over the past few years, the “ReMarkable” shows that you’ve produced have got bigger and bigger in scope, with such shows renowned for their original music and tongue-in-cheek humour. Roughly speaking, how long does it take to develop a show from conception to stage-readiness, and which part of the process do you most enjoy?
We usually have the initial idea when we’re finishing off the previous show, be it a theme or a title. The actual writing of the show is very organic; we have characters and ideas, and usually a beginning and an end, but we try to write parts to suit the strengths of our cast, so a lot of the detail actually gets “shaded in” after auditions, once the show has been cast. Before the first rehearsal, we like to have the chorus songs decided and arranged, and Rebecca will have some dances to teach them at the first session. We are fortunate to have John Wilkinson, who builds our sets, and we get down our ideas before rehearsals start, giving John plenty of time to work.
We usually rehearse for just under 4 months, which sounds like a long time, but we only rehearse on Saturdays, so it only amounts to between 15 and 18 rehearsals altogether. During rehearsals, the other details, like costumes and make-up, as well band rehearsals with any young musicians playing in the pit, all come together. Then I get together with our Chief Technician, Ryan Wilson (who’s been with us since he was about thirteen), and our Stage Manager, John Burtenshaw, to work out all of the technical details of the show such as lighting and stage plans. Rebecca and I both enjoy the performance; there’s nothing like the combination of excitement, anticipation and pride (not to mention fear!) generated by watching those fab young people on stage! It’s also great seeing it all come together a couple of weeks before the show, when the scripts are down and the costumes are on for the first time, and you get a real sense of where you’re at and what you’ve achieved.
Do you receive any help from the Arts Council, or are you purely self-funded?
Primarily, we’re self-funded, but we’re lucky to receive support for our youth projects, which are often free to the user, or subsidised. Our main support comes from our Corporate Sponsors, Lesley and David Jackson of Hudson Contract Services. We also have a small grant from June Mitchell of East Riding of Yorkshire Council, as well as funding from “Music4U” for our Youth Music Projects. However, budgets are tight, so fundraising events, donations and ticket sales all help us to continue doing the work that we do.
So what’s next on the “ReMarkable” front, and does there happen to be any space for any new members at present?
A lot of young people would like to join our theatre group, and it’s always had a long waiting-list. Given that so many of the kids return each show (only rarely do we have someone dropping out from one show to the next) that we don’t have new spaces coming up very often. However, this year and next, some of our original members are going off to college, university or into work, so we will have spaces coming up. Some of the kids have been with us since they were tiny; to have watched them grow into adults has been a real pleasure! We do have spaces in other groups we run. What’s more, we’re doing some “Arts Award” workshops in music over summer, which are accredited by Trinity College, and then we’ll be running our Youth Rock Choir & Orchestra again at the back end of the year. We have spaces on both for more young people of all abilities
Earlier this year, you set up an Adult Choir, the first of its kind in Bridlington! It must have been immensely gratifying to see people who had hardly ever sung before to increase their confidence to the point that they were performing in public, some for the very first time…
It was a fantastic experience – for us as well as them. The glow of energy at the end of each rehearsal session was fantastic; there was a real sense of joy, which was contagious. I definitely get the sense that for some of our members it was a journey outside of their comfort-zones, and one they enjoyed.
I hear you’re looking for even more people to join the Adult Choir. Where and when will you be reconvening?
We will be starting back in September after our summer-break. We rehearse on Thursdays, between 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., at the Old Parcels Office inside Bridlington Train Station.
What would you say to people who have always wanted to give singing a go, but have been too scared?
Well, the first session is a no-obligation taster for anyone who wants to come and see what it’s about. There’s no audition, and no-one is going to make you sing on your own. We sing well-known songs in comfortable keys, and we use simple, natural harmonies. It’s a great bunch of people you’ll be singing with. Just come along and give it a go!
Finally, how can people find out more about other “ReMarkable” productions?
We have a “youth” show coming up at Bridlington Spa on 4th November. It’s called “Gothica,” and we’re billing it as “A Rock Opera / Gothic Ballet / Semi-Tragic Comedy!” We also have a concert booked with our Adult Rock Choir for Friday 16th December at SJB on St. John’s Street, Bridlington. We then have our biggest annual event – “Let’s Rock 2017″ – in the Spa Royal Hall on Saturday 21st January. We have a very busy and active page on Facebook, as well as a mailing list. For more details, simply ring 07943 276496.