Music For All

Chris Shurety has devoted a large part of his life to enabling people to make music.

In fact, having started to play instruments himself at the age of 40, Chris (OE 1956–1963) founded the whole late-starter orchestral movement in 1983 by establishing the East London Late Starters Orchestra.

In 2017, Chris’s contribution was recognised when he received an MBE for services to Music in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Chris is Artistic Director of Contemporary Music for All (CoMA) – an organisation he set up in 1993 to enable musicians of all abilities to play an active role in contemporary music. Today it has a national network of instrumental and vocal ensembles, an expanding international programme and a unique music collection comprising hundreds of works of new music.

When his MBE was announced, CoMA Chair Tom Service, a leading BBC Radio 3 presenter who also writes about music for The Guardian, said: “No single figure in contemporary musical life is responsible for commissioning as much and inspiring as much new music and music-making as Chris Shurety. But what’s most important is how he has realised his radical vision of a fully open, fully participative musical culture – and how an idea that started with CoMA is now radiating across the whole of musical culture, from schools to professional ensembles. He is one of the essential, inspirational presences in contemporary music, and the most deserving of this recognition!"

As a teenager, Chris loved jazz and was a regular at Barnet jazz club, but he traces his passion for classical music squarely back to Queen Elizabeth’s School, beginning with the time when his Geography teacher, R M 'Sam' Cocks, a member of the Royal Philharmonic Choir, offered him a free ticket to a Prom featuring Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. He adds: “There was no teaching of musical instruments at the School, but my interest was reinforced through a great collection of LPs, probably owned by Music teacher Charles ‘Dick’ Whittington. He also recalls Biology teacher Eric Crofts practising his bassoon while the boys dissected worms and frogs – "It seemed an entirely natural thing to be doing."

His passion for music was clearly contagious: "A small group of us used to set off after school every week for what was then the Radio 3 Thursday Invitation concerts. Lots of contemporary music there!”

Like many OEs, he speaks affectionately of Head of Art Hew Purchas, who died in 2016. "I was the only sailor in School, but amazingly the School had a Cadet dinghy at Aldeburgh reservoir, so instead of the usual sports, I used to cycle there on a Wednesday afternoon to be met by [Hew Purchas], who used the occasions to paint. He was lovely, other-worldly. He was influential in making me into a practicing artist ...and today I have a boat moored on the river Orwell."

Other activities Chris enjoyed at QE included:

  • Geology
  • Walking, especially in the mountains. "I started a Mountaineering Club whilst at school but guess it has ceased to be in this world of litigation..."
  • Books and projects. "I used to organise the school library’s displays."

"I’ve always been somewhat extra-curricular," he says. He adds that he was far from a model pupil: "I rebelled and got regularly punished for it. I was told by my English teacher (Colin Carter) once that I had received more beatings than any other pupil in the School's history – although presumably he meant its recent history; surely not since 1573! As I left, I know the School was putting those days behind it, with the appointment of the new headmaster, Timothy Edwards, in 1961."

Leaving School with Biology, Chemistry and Geography A-levels, he went to Southampton University – chosen for the sailing – initially to study Geology, but he later switched to Botany. "I followed this with research into ryegrass ecotypes at Aberystwyth and into the physiology of serum proteins following trauma, at Odstock Hospital, Salisbury.