Helen Varley was brought up in Yorkshire, an area well known for its prolific banding heritage, and was taught to play by the renowned cornet player James Shepherd.  Having previously played for ensembles such as Hammonds Saltaire, James Shepherd Versatile Brass and Black Dyke, Helen now holds the solo horn seat at the world famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band.  Helen has also featured as a guest soloist, tutor and workshop clinician in various locations, including summer schools in Canada and Germany.

Helen studied Physics with Acoustics at Salford University, and worked for over a decade as an acoustic consultant for the UK’s largest architectural practice, Building Design Partnership.  Her specialism areas were in designing the acoustics of educational buildings and concert halls, working on numerous primary, secondary and higher education buildings across England and Scotland.  Over the years Helen came to realise that, as much as she loved working in acoustics, her real passion was to be inside the classrooms instead of designing them.

Helen made a career move into music, completing a Masters degree in performance at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2017.  She is now forging a career in music teaching, and is currently the Tenor Horn tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire, Chetham’s School of Music, Junior RNCM and Salford University.  However, Helen is particularly proud to be a brass teacher for Bradford Music & Arts Service, the same music service through which she received her own excellent tuition.  Her experiences with BMAS have shaped her own teaching approach, and with her background in acoustics Helen has taken a particular interest in expanding her teaching to include brass teaching for deaf and hearing impaired children.

Helen describes her work on the Deaf Young People and Instrumental Learning project via her brass lessons at Swain House Primary in Bradford:

Since September, Bradford Music & Arts Service (in partnership with Yorkshire Youth and Music) have been providing cornet lessons for the children of the ARC unit at Swain House Primary School in Bradford. The ARC provides specialist provision for Deaf and hearing impaired children from across the Bradford district and neighbouring authorities. The project was kick-started by a workshop afternoon led by Deaf cornet player, Sean Chandler and Deaf violin player, Eloise Garland. The workshop was such a success that it was quickly followed up by a request for more regular provision. Since September, the children have been having weekly cornet lessons with BMAS brass tutor, Helen Varley.

The 12 children are grouped by hearing ability into their 3 teaching groups, which range from children relying mainly on British Sign Language, through to pupils who have an auditory oral/aural focus.  Additionally 3 of the children also take part in the whole-class Year 5 brass lessons with their tutorial groups.

"The teachers regularly comment that “music day” has become the firm favourite day of the week, and the children run down the corridor with excitement towards their lesson."

The teachers regularly comment that “music day” has become the firm favourite day of the week, and the children run down the corridor with excitement towards their lesson.  Lessons focus on the ability to play the correct sounds, rather than the ability to read notation, and concepts of high/low pitch and rhythm are related to demonstration of physical body movements (e.g. tapping the shoulders for the letter E or the head for letter F).  As well as assisting in developing auditory skills, this also helps to visualise the sound they are aiming for.  Concepts such as different speeds of mouthpiece buzzing have led to the development of fun games, such as taking it in turns to ride an invisible motorbike, whilst the other children buzz the corresponding noise relating to the speed of travel!

Brass instruments provide a very sensory-led musical experience, as the children are able to feel the vibrations very physically.  Achievements range from the sheer delight of the youngest pupil every time she manages to produce a note without using her vocal cords, which never fails to raise a huge smile.  At the other end of the age group, the oldest child thoroughly astonished and delighted his tutorial class with the ability to produce the notes C to G at a better pitch than most of his peers have yet achieved.