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Q&A with Russell Hepplewhite and Helen Eastman

We’re very excited to welcome Russell Hepplewhite and Helen Eastman to the second in our composer “Q&A” series! Russell and Helen are the composer and librettist of recently published The History Express, a brilliant selection of catchy songs that are perfect for primary schools and youth choirs to learn and perform. Here, they discuss their inspiration and writing process, as well as their experiences working with children and young people in theatres.

Full details of The History Express and available teaching resources, with a link to sample pages and backing tracks, can be found below.

Can you please tell us how (and when) you became engaged with music, writing, theatre… and any other art forms? Earliest memories – at home or at school – and earliest influences?

HE: I was lucky to have lots of opportunities at school to become involved in numerous activities and, although I was especially interested in dance, what I really loved was having the chance to experience so many different things. I think this is why I now enjoy it so much when people come to perform and enjoy creative activities.

RH: At the age of 10, I took part in a local amateur dramatic society’s production of Oliver, but the experience made me realise that I wasn’t someone who wanted to act or sing in a show! What really grabbed my attention was the amazing sound of the orchestra and the fact that someone had actually written and created the whole show. The idea of being the one making the work was hugely inspiring to me.

I know you are both very experienced in working with children in both music and the theatre – do any projects (which might have had a bearing on the target age group of The History Express) stand out? 

RH: We first started working together at the invitation of English Touring Opera and we ran a number of in-depth projects with them, including working with Special Educational Needs students. We learn so much from these experiences ourselves and we feel we have developed a style that allows us to create music that gives participants an opportunity to express themselves fully according to their age and experience.

HE: Sometimes we will tackle quite deep issues, including subjects such as racism and climate change. Presenting such important topics in a musical context seems to us to be a great way to introduce children to contemporary issues and allows them an extra means of expression. One of the reasons that we chose the topics that we have for The History Express is to encourage classroom discussion on subjects as diverse as politics, war, technology, science and nature that might go beyond what can ordinarily be achieved in a lesson.

The History Express

What inspired you to create The History Express? 

RH: The idea follows on from a commission we received from Jubilee Opera to write a stage piece for performance in 2019 that would involve professional singers and local schoolchildren in Suffolk – this became The Casket Girl – and we were delighted that they came back to ask for a follow-up item which could be sung solely by children as the first half of the show. So we came up with The History Express as the subject matter neatly complements The Casket Girl, but we purposely designed the 10 songs so that they could be performed either as a sequence or as individual stand-alone items in a public concert or in school settings.

HE: I was really keen to find a subject for the opera that would link with local interest in Suffolk, and so I was hugely excited when I discovered a story of a young Anglo-Saxon woman whose remains had been discovered during an archaeological excavation in 2013. For this follow-up we decided that, rather than writing about a specific event or person, it would be fascinating to explore different points in history, peeling back the layers of time right back to the beginning of the universe!

Were you writing with a particular age group or age span in mind?

RH: Our starting point was to write and compose for Key Stage 2 level children (7-11), but we aimed to produce songs which would also be attractive and fulfilling for children who are in age groups slightly above and below. Most of the songs are written in unison but some of them have two-part writing. Anyone purchasing The History Express will also have free access to backing tracks and lyric sheets to facilitate classroom and home learning.

HE: Even though we were creating a project for a particular age range we didn’t let that restrict us. We still find that we can be imaginative and playful with the words and music, and we are hoping to inspire young musicians to come together in a spirit of celebration and to enjoy the collaborative process of performing.

So how did you decide on which topics would feature in the collection, especially when there is so much ‘History’ to choose from? And what was the next step?

HE: I knew that I wanted to start from the present day and go back to the beginning of time, but in assembling a list of potential subjects to explore I found myself with a shortlist of 25 topics which I then had to narrow down to a manageable number (10)! To start with, I looked at the Key Stage 2 curriculum and I gave some priority to overlapping subjects, but I also wanted to feature some stories that have too often been under-represented and to portray more familiar topics in a fresh light. Hence the star of the song about prehistoric beasts is a very, very small dinosaur!

RH: It is lovely for me that Helen’s poems are always so dynamic – finding a musical hook that can work with a text can take a lot of time, but with this selection the ideas leap off the page. Even so, Helen and I have to be sure that there is plenty of variety throughout the collection, and there are a number of ways we can achieve that, such as by varying the speed and mood of songs and by alternating unison and two-part numbers.

HE: By way of illustration, we chose the Wars of the Roses as a topic partly because it features in the History curriculum and also because the arguments between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists offer the opportunity to split the choir and have the singers engage in a musical ‘debate’. Working out how we would feature the Second World War posed a significant question – just how and where do you begin? We decided that the fascinating story of the Codebreakers of Bletchley Park would be both age-appropriate and musically intriguing as we represented the frantic energy, whirring cogs and tapping sounds of the machines the scientists used.

And finally ...

Which historical figure would you like to have been?

HE: Aphra Behn (d.1689), writer.

RH: Neil Armstrong, first human to walk on the moon.

If you were not alive now, in which period in history would you most like to be living?

HE: Ancient Greece.

RH: The Tudors.

… And what kind of life would you like to be living at that time?

HE: Working on a comedy at the Theatre of Dionysus with Aristophanes.

RH: A fly on the wall at the Royal Court.

The History Express includes short notes on the lyrics, ideal for introducing the songs in concerts and school assemblies, downloadable backing tracks for rehearsal or performance, and an appendix with suggestions for group and class discussion.

Each individual song is also available as a separate download resource, sold with a licence to print copies of the full music, melody sheet and lyric sheet, plus access to helpful melody teaching tracks.

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