Mary Ingham: interview with Kate Halsall


As its 25th anniversary celebrations continue, Highlights turns the spotlight on its own creative engagement officer, KATE HALSALL

What Kate Halsall loves most about her job is seeing the reactions of children at Highlights workshops; “the effect of amazing quality art happening in their school hall or classroom”.

Kate is a professional pianist, music educator and teacher who joined Highlights in 2019, taking on the new part-time role of creative engagement officer. She heads up Highlights’ Participate programme, which enables young people and community groups across Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland to enjoy workshops tailored to their educational needs or interests and held mainly in schools or village halls.

“We get the Participate programme out in early June, which allows schools to plan ahead,” says Kate. The artists leading the workshops are touring the area as part of a Highlights season or are based in the region. “We’ve grown a network of top quality companies and individuals in our counties,” says Kate.

Newcastle upon Tyne rap artist and actor Kema Sikazwe, aka Kema Kay, whose film credits include Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, started working with Participate last autumn.

“Kema has worked with over 150 children, in some of our smaller rural schools, creating new writing and rap songs, where children collaboratively develop creative ideas,” says Kate. “The feedback is always fantastic and Kema has been an inspirational role model. The kids have been blown away by his fame and he is able to draw them out and think about issues which mean a lot to them, such as kindness and what that looks like.”

In letters sent to Kema after his workshops – three in each of the schools he visited – one child wrote: “When I heard we were going to be singing I felt a bit nervous as I have never been confident in singing but you taught me that everyone is unique. Dreams can come true if you believe.”

Earlier this year Maddie Morris, a touring artist from Leeds who won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2019, held workshops in primary schools in Cumbria and Northumberland for more than 100 youngsters.

“She has a gorgeous voice and a lot of workshop leading experience,” says Kate. Maddie talked about the folk tradition and brought instruments along, encouraging the children to play them with her. “Some of the schools hadn’t had a workshop before and Maddie was really inspiring.”

In 2020, Birmingham’s Sonia Sabri Company, who were touring their dance show Same Same… But Different, led workshops in Castle Carrock, Kirkby Stephen and Brough primary schools. “The feedback was so positive that we organised a two-day workshop residency with performances at Shilbottle Primary in 2021, post lockdowns,” says Kate.

During the lockdowns, Highlights ran some successful workshops online including with Highlights board member and circus artist Kaveh Rahnama and My Minute of Listening for World Environment Day. Talks with teachers since the lockdowns suggest that children have lost confidence and find it more challenging to take part in school performances and assemblies: “A lot of schools we’ve not worked with before are getting in touch,” says Kate.
Workshops are also held for community groups or individuals of any age, who are interested in a particular art form such as writing, theatre or dance.

Brought up on North Stainmore in Upper Eden Valley, Cumbria, Kate learned piano and violin and, while at Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, joined the Penrith youth orchestra with John and Mary Upson and chamber groups through her piano teacher Pat Shackleton. She started performing regularly around Cumbria and in festivals further afield.
She studied Performance at the Royal College of Music in London, also gaining a teaching diploma and going on to work in many schools. After graduating, Kate worked as a freelance musician, performing across the UK and internationally for diverse audiences. She was based in London for 25 years, before moving to Manchester then Newcastle and, in 2019, to Cumbria, where she lives near Penrith with her partner.

Kate has taught at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, at the University of Kent in Chatham and at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire of Music and has been involved in educational projects across the UK and overseas. She is currently a tutor for the keyboard department at the Young Musicians Programme at Sage Gateshead and teaches piano at Dallam School in south Cumbria. She is part of the Music committee for Lit & Phil Library in Newcastle and the North of England committee member for the ISM (Incorporated Society of Music), the UK’s professional body for musicians and subject association for music.

The collaborative nature of music making, which meant so much to her growing up in rural Cumbria, remains central to Kate’s life. She performs and commissions new music for piano and other keyboard instruments, has released music on several labels, including with Cobalt Duo – with co-pianist Fumiko Miyachi – and last year released her first solo album, Breathe in me. Kate is also the pianist and manager for electroacoustic group Galvanize Ensemble.

More recently Kate has started composing: “I’ve worked with a lot of composers and improvising musicians and I am always interested to find out people’s different ways of working,” she says. “Composition is a great way to get children’s imaginations going. It’s important for children to see artists experiment as they go along, to make sounds together. Music making shouldn’t be an ivory tower but something everyone can have equal access to.”
When Kate was appointed to her Highlights role, she was living and working in Newcastle but wanted to be nearer to her parents in Cumbria: “It seemed like a great opportunity and great timing. Highlights was expanding and it was a new role.

“We talked to a lot of schools, colleges and universities to map out what we could offer and we’ve been able to develop it to include young people up to the age of 25. Though broad, Participate offers bespoke opportunities according to the needs of the age group.”

Highlights’ Young Promoters initiative also comes under the Participate umbrella, encouraging young people aged 12 to 25 years old to help programme, publicise and host live events. In the lead up to this autumn’s Highlights season, Participate is running a lot of September workshops including storytelling, dance and puppetry.

Kate is delighted that Highlights has just been awarded funding to become a partner in the third phase of the Rural Touring Dance Initiative, bringing the best dance companies to rural communities from 2023 to 2026.

“It’s really exciting. Growing up rurally is so different – and difficult! – when you want to go into the arts and it’s great that Highlights is focused on providing so much opportunity.”

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