A case of finding ‘my calling’

British animateur Rachel Leach on stage with the NZSO during a schools concert, The Firebird, in...
British animateur Rachel Leach on stage with the NZSO during a schools concert, The Firebird, in Wellington. Leach will host the same concert in Dunedin. Photo: Phoebe Tuxford/NZSO
Rachel Leach, one of the United Kingdom’s leading orchestral animateurs, is in New Zealand sharing her experience and knowledge of presenting concerts, and devising education projects and teaching resources.  She tells Rebecca Fox about the lucky accident leading to her visit.

In her 25 years as an animateur Rachel Leach has composed more music for the London Symphony Orchestra than any other composer.

"It’s an unbelievable fact because of writing for children, which is pretty cool."

Her concerts and songs have been seen and sung by thousands of children and her teaching resources used by hundreds of teachers across the United Kingdom, United States, Japan and Europe.

In New Zealand, as a guest of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for a month, Leach is sharing her skills and knowledge with the orchestra’s first full-time animateur, Chris Lam Sam, who was appointed in 2023, and leading a series of schools concerts around the country.

Her visit is the result of a "lucky accident" over a coffee in Wellington last year, with a former London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) staff member who now works for the NZSO, when she was on a short holiday while her husband, French horn player Jonathan Lipton (former 4th horn in LSO), was guesting with the orchestra.

NZSO education and engagement manager Pascale Parenteau joined them for coffee and they got talking.

"She just said, ‘do you want to come out and show the orchestra all the things that you do in London condensed into a month?’ She wanted to show off all the things an animateur does. A year later here I am."

While the role of the animateur is a relatively new concept for New Zealand, it has been around much longer in the United Kingdom and they exist in all art forms - dance, drama and music.

The job of an animateur in orchestral music in the United Kingdom was invented by Richard McNicol, a flute player for the LSO, and took off about 35 years ago.

"He decided it was time orchestral players had more of a connection with their audience, especially children, so he created this niche for himself as a presenter, workshop leader, someone who animates the music and allows people to experience it from the inside out."

He became the animateur for the LSO and when he was coming up to retirement trained four others to do the job, including Leach and choir animateur and television presenter Gareth Malone who has appeared on television programmes such as The Choir.

"It’s exactly that animating the music and giving an audience and insight into what’s going on behind it on the stage and allowing people to understand the music by getting hands-on experience and you don’t have to have any musical experience, prior knowledge or skill to do that as an audience member."

Leach, who was born in Sheffield, discovered the role back in the 1990s when she was a student of composition.

"I was studying to be a serious composer, writing all this really contemporary music and I felt a little bit like I was on the wrong course. I was writing really, really modern music nobody really liked and I didn’t like it either. You think ‘why am I doing this?"’

She became an intern for the London Sinfonietta, working with its animateur for a year.

"The first time I stepped a foot in the classroom with Fraser [Trainer] I thought this is it, this is what I’m supposed to do."

The next few years were spent training including with McNicol.

"I was incredibly lucky. It was like I’d suddenly found my calling - that’s why I’d done a bit of composing; that’s why I’d done bit of piano playing. It all came together as a whole. This is it, this is what I want to do and I’ve been at the LSO ever since."

Leach says finding her calling like that was mostly the result of "right place, right time".

"It was the ’90s when it was all starting up and there was a lot of funding for it. There’s a lot of luck that goes into it."

As it was a new concept back then, all of the animateurs were "finding their feet" trying to work out exactly what the role could be.

"We were all learning on the job really. Over the years we’ve solidified various methods. All of the animateurs in Britain have a slightly different style from each other but we all have things in common as well."

Now every orchestra and opera company in Britain has an education team and most have animateurs. There are also many freelance animateurs.

"Richard really did start a kind of revolution ... Now it’s spreading across the world. Australia have them and there’s been an education department at the NZSO for years."

The role in New Zealand is still in its infancy but Sam is perfect for the role, having been a children’s entertainer and presenter for many years, she says.

"Part of my role here is to mentor him and share a few ideas and hopefully he can pinch a few ideas from me and I’m definitely stealing ideas from him."

Leach, who was awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal College of Music in recognition of her education work, is the presenter of the LSO St Luke’s lunchtime concert series and regularly presents children’s concerts and pre-concert events for the LSO, London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), Philharmonia Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal College of Music and Royal Northern Sinfonia.

For her, the role has always involved composing new music for each concert she presents whether it’s for the LSO or LPO.

"I’m always writing songs for children and after 25 years I’ve written hundreds of songs about all sorts of different things - dogs or pigs, all sorts. So I always programme one of my songs."

In that time she has presented to thousands of children but found little has changed over the years - except maybe their attention span is shorter.

"They’re very similar to what they’ve always been. If you grab their attention in the first few minutes they’ll stick with you."

Children are the same the world over, she has found in her travels. Her concerts regularly sell out no matter where she is.

Rachel Leach during a performance of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet with the NZSO at Te Papa in Wellington...
Rachel Leach during a performance of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet with the NZSO at Te Papa in Wellington last month. Credit: Latitude Creative
"Children are just children. If you grab them and take them on a nice journey - at the moment we are doing Firebird by Stravinsky, which has an incredible story as soon as they get hooked into the story, getting hands on, that is crucial, using the same instruments as Stravinsky then they’ll go with you on a nice creative journey."

The unpredictability of children is highlighted in a quote from a child who had done her class: "her shoes were sick man".

"I find that really hilarious that you could have spent an hour bringing one of the finest orchestras in the world to the kids and then at the end of it an 8-year-old goes "I like your shoes". I just think it’s such a lesson to bring you down to earth."

Leach’s musical journey began in childhood, before there were animateurs, when watching her mother play the piano.

"I remember vividly being the height of the piano keys, so I would have been 3 or 4, watching her hands dance up and down the piano and I just bugged her and bugged her till I got piano lessons when I was about 5."

Learning to play ignited in her a knowledge that she wanted a career in music but she did not know as what. Then when she was a teenager she developed nerves and anxiety.

"I couldn’t perform in public - I just couldn’t do it."

Despite this she went on to do a degree in performing arts.

"It was ridiculous thing to do for someone who was terrified at being looked at."

However, it turned out to be a positive experience which helped bring Leach out of herself.

"It was one of those wacky experiences where you had to go out into a field and pretend to be a tree and all that wacky stuff."

During the degree she had to decide what area of the arts she wanted to go into and after her composition teacher praised her work, she decided to take that path.

"Then I composed what we call in England "squeaky gate music", music you really wouldn’t want to listen to, and that’s when I found Fraser."

Her years at the piano have not been lost. She also does opera workshops, often working with people with Alzheimer’s in rest-homes to create an opera.

"In that situation I do play the piano and I play my own music. I’m very good at creating a song out of nowhere. I only play my own stuff in that sort of closed world."

She still gets a little nervous these days.

"It’s a very different gene you have to have to be an orchestral musician where you have to be perfect, get it right. It’s a very precise art and I don’t have that. My concerts are different all the time. I’m constantly changing things. I can’t do the same thing twice."

But the nerves do not really come out when she is standing in front of a group of children as an animateur.

"I don’t know what the psychology of it is. Sometimes I get nervous when I come off stage - I’ll have a five-minute wobble. But usually I’m looking out at a bunch of really friendly faces of children who want to be there and be excited about the music.

"It’s all about the music. If you pick really great pieces you are already halfway there."

Stravinsky is a favourite composer to talk about as he comes with some really incredible stories and sound worlds.

"He works really well with kids and Ravel, a lot of the French composers, they’ve got these amazing things they’re describing. I like those big massive 19th century pieces - the bigger it gets, the better it gets in my book. I love all that. I’ve got a wide taste really."

Children react differently depending on the music.

"You just have to attack it in a different way. Beethoven is exciting but you have to be an adult with a bit of life experience to understand. Anything from Mozart onwards I deal in as the orchestras I work with tend not to play anything earlier."

Modern music can work well with children as they do not see it as "modern".

"They get on board and listen, so it can be brilliant for kids."

In the Firebird concert she is doing in New Zealand she is also doing a new work by New Zealand composer Sai Natarajan, We Long for Adventure.

"It’s really good for us and it sounds like cartoon music - it’s brilliant."

She has also done a week of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet concerts for 5-year-olds in Wellington schools with five NZSO orchestra members. They also did the concert at Te Papa in front of 350 people.

"It’s very up close and intimate and it’s a huge amount of fun for kids as everyone gets up and has a dance."

After the tour with the NZSO, Leach will also do some relaxed concerts for audiences with sensory needs based on the same Dunedin string quartet repertoire.

Despite the busy programme she hopes to see a bit of the South Island when travelling by car from Nelson to Invercargill for the concerts.

"I don’t want it to snow. No snow please."

To see:

The Firebird and Other Music Adventures, schools concert, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin Town Hall, June 13, 11am-noon.