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From Kenya to the Conservatoire: the incredible journey of a St Mary’s choral scholar

When Macharia Kelvin Njoroge auditioned for a choral scholarship in January 2023, he wowed us with his glorious baritone voice. Now in his final year as a music student at the University of Nottingham, he has been offered scholarships at both the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music. Macharia, as we all know him, sat down with Will Burn to talk about his remarkable story and his exciting plans for the future.

Macharia, you came to Nottingham from Kenya. Would you tell us a little about your upbringing and where your love of music came from?

I was the sixth child in a family of seven. I’ve been interested in singing for as long as I can remember: my mother says I sang before I could speak. She’s very musical, and she taught me to sing hymns when I was little. I would sing everything I heard on the radio, songs in Kikuyu, a widely spoken vernacular language around Nakuru county, where I grew up. When I was born, one of my legs was shorter than the other due to a congenital condition.

When I was around 13, I had a chronic foot ulcer, and my leg had to be amputated. I ended up dropping out of school. I was in a wheelchair, but I still had my interest in music. I started learning piano, and I used to carry a keyboard in my wheelchair from my church elder’s home to church for practice. Then, one day, on my way to church, I met a stranger who took interest in me. This woman was a teacher at Joytown Primary School, a school for learners with physical disabilities, and she voluntarily sponsored me to go there, where I could access teaching and support. I also sang in the school choir.

After finishing my studies at Joytown, I won a scholarship to the M-PESA Foundation Academy, where I met a teacher called Nathaniel Nyagol, a very talented music teacher who had trained in the USA. After my choir experience at Joytown, I knew I wanted to do music professionally, but Mr Nyagol saw my passion for music, and he inspired me to dream even bigger. I wanted to go to America like him!

How did you come to study in Nottingham?

There was a teacher at my school whose wife had studied at Nottingham. She advised me to come and study here, and after doing an online preparatory course, I moved to Nottingham in January 2021.

You became a choral scholar two years later, in January 2023. How have you enjoyed your time as a member of the choir of St Mary’s?

I would start by saying that our church traditions are quite different. In Kenya, my church music experience was a lot of congregational singing, and choral singing was mainly a combination of elements of Western music and tunes from Kenya, harmonising the two worlds. It’s very rhythmic with lots of drums as well. Here, it was clear the standard of the choral singing was very high. It’s a professional choir where you learn a lot of challenging music, but you have very little time to learn it. I would say that’s the main difference.

As a musician, I took on a choral scholarship to challenge myself to improve my sight-reading skills, and that is one area that has improved a lot in a short time. The pace is fast, and there was quite a learning curve for me initially, but it has gotten easier with time. Overall, it has been a great experience. It’s challenging, which is important for you to grow, but it’s also a very supportive environment, and the more experienced singers have been very helpful.

For me, though, the Choral Scholars’ Concert sums up my experience of St Mary’s, collaborating with my fellow singers and introducing something different, a piece written by my teacher Nathaniel Nyagol. People were really open to that, and the scholars really appreciated it. That sums it up for me: I’m learning a lot of different music, but I can also share the music of my own country, which I’m very proud of.

Now you’re coming to the end of your studies at the University of Nottingham and have been offered scholarships to study at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. What was that experience like?

Studying at Nottingham has been successful in a lot of ways. I have been studying singing with Richard Haworth, and during my studies, I have twice won the Department of Music Prize for best music student. Last year, I was awarded the Madelena Casulana Prize for the best performance of a work by a female composer.

Thanks to this experience, my confidence has grown, and I came to believe it was realistic to consider a career as a professional singer, so I decided to apply to the two colleges. It was quite a challenge as you do not know what the outcome will be, and they are both very competitive. Nevertheless I truly enjoyed auditioning for them, partly because I was well prepared and partly because it was a nice environment to perform in. Getting to sing in the recital hall at the Royal College was like another dream coming true for me. I haven’t made up my mind yet about where I want to study, and there are still some challenges to overcome before I can accept one of the offers.

What are they?

I was offered partial merit scholarships at both institutions which cover quite a considerable amount of my tuition fee, but funding remains a big challenge for me. I’m working hard on that at the moment, but the practicalities of finding sponsorship will decide where I can study. My current scholarship ends when I complete my degree in Nottingham, so after that, I will have to find a new source of funding.

You’ve been invited to give a recital in Southwell Minster on 5 April. What will you be performing there?

I want to focus on spirituals as an art form. I performed some at high school, but I took them more seriously at university. I was particularly inspired by the five spirituals from Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time. I have been studying their history, and I find them so rewarding, not only in their music but also in their religious and philosophical dimensions. This is a chance for me to share my interpretation of the art form.

Your Christian faith is very important to you. How what role does it play in your life today?

I would say my Christian faith underpins everything I do in my life. It gives me hope and a moral compass. It forms the basis of how I see the world. I came from a very Christian home, and I grew up singing hymns with my family. I see God in every challenge I have overcome in my life so far, and that’s why I have a very strong faith in Him.

Looking ahead, what would be your dream role in opera and which singers have particularly inspired you?

Rossini’s Barber of Seville, no doubt. He’s such an interesting character, so energetic and out there. In terms of singers, I was really inspired by Michael Spyres, who calls himself a “baritenor”. He has an amazing voice, and he overcame many challenges in his career. His interpretation of Rossini’s Figaro is so interesting. I also really admire Miriam Makeba, a singer from South Africa who sang South African music around the world. She was deeply political, and she was able to bring that music to a considerable level of respectability on the global stage.

Another thing which is very important to me is working with singers in Kenya and giving something back to them, particularly singers with disabilities. I think they’re often forgotten in the arts, so I am very passionate about addressing accessibility to music for people with disabilities. That’s what my dissertation focuses on, and whenever I go back to Kenya, I go back to Joytown School to teach music, conduct the choir and coach other young singers.

Thank you, Macharia. It’s been a joy to sing with you in the choir at St Mary’s and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.

Macharia will perform a programme of spirituals at Southwell Minster on Friday 5 April at 1.30 – 2.15 pm.