Sue Sykes, Musician and Band Conductor

Sue’s dad was a lorry driver and her mum a cleaner. Her father was a POW in Poland for three and a half years having been captured after Dunkirk. In the camp her father began an education programme and found he was able to absorb information at a high level. This opened up a world of new possibilities for his family for the future. He vowed at the time that if he survived his ordeal and had a child after the war then that child would be educated. Sue’s mum had been in service from the age of fourteen, and had seen how middle class, educated people lived their lives.

Sue was born after the war, an only child, her mother having suffered the birth of a stillborn son before the war. Sue wonders whether, as a girl, she would have been given the opportunity to study to a high level if her brother had lived. In working class families at the time where some might see the value in educating their sons, it was more of a rarity to educate girls beyond a certain level. Sue’s father suffered ridicule from workmates for “educating a girl”. 

The family owned a piano and Sue was keen to learn at the age of four. She was a bright child and the first in her primary school to pass the eleven plus. At the age of thirteen she became assistant organist at the local church, playing for services, weddings and funerals. At the same time she performed many concerts as accompanist for the prestigious Leeds Girls Choir. While in the sixth form Sue was selected, as a gifted musician, to take part in advanced music classes sponsored by Leeds City Council. These were held in the Civic Theatre after school and tutored by prominent local musicians including Ronald Perrin from York Minster. These were academic classes dealing with advanced theory, aural, history of music and composition. After sixth form, she studied music at Hull University where she discovered she had an aptitude for conducting. 

Since 1981 Sue has performed in local theatres as a member of the pit orchestra. The vast majority of these have been in York Theatre Royal and the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. For quite a number of these she has been the only woman in the orchestra. Sue has been the anchor accompanist for York Light Opera Company since 1980.

Sue became head of music at Oaklands School in 1985. In one previous appointment, she was turned down for promotion because the other candidate had a wife and children to support (she had a husband and three children). As a teacher, she: put on shows with a professional orchestra made up of local musicians playing alongside outstanding pupils; ran a concert band which performed at EuroDisney; ran junior and senior choirs; and put on Arts Week for the whole school with input from Jude Kelly who was then at Leeds Playhouse.

Around 1996 York Concert Band decided that they would like to put on a joint concert with a school band. Oaklands was chosen. It was a great success. After Sue took early retirement in 1997 she was asked to become deputy conductor of York Concert Band. After a short while she was asked to become the conductor of the band and has done this for 20 years. It is a fairly common occurrence when the band arrives at a concert venue for the organisers to be somewhat fazed by the fact that the conductor is a woman. There has been an instance where a new band member attending his first rehearsal decided that he could never play in a band with a woman conductor. They have played in venues across Yorkshire including  Parliament Square and the Barbican. A high spot of the year is the Christmas concert at Askham Grange prison. For many years, York Concert Band acted as the regimental band for the Palestine Veterans Association when they held their annual national service at Eden Camp.

When she was approached to conduct a specially created all women brass band in a  concert to celebrate York International Woman’s Week she was both excited and somewhat daunted as she had never conducted a brass band. The concert was a huge success, and there was a follow up concert a year later. Sue very much enjoys working with this group ‘Femmes Fortissimo‘.

Andy Hillier former pupil at Oaklands School, and now a professional trombonist and band leader says:

“I was eleven years old when I first met Sue Sykes in September 1991. It was my first week at Oaklands School. Sue had an air of authority about her which gained my instant respect. She was never nasty or unreasonable  and never made anyone feel small. Because of her natural  ability, music lessons were fun. All were encouraged to participate and treated equally whether musically gifted or not.

I had always wanted to learn the trombone and the school offered lessons. Unbeknown to me, the brass teacher eventually suggested that I should have lessons from a professional trombonist. Through Sue and the headmaster  Eric Robinson, I was awarded council funding to receive these  and I have Sue to thank for it. I have often wondered where my life would be if Sue had not seen my potential and helped to nurture me in those important developmental years. She did this for many of us, sharing her own love of music in such an inspirational way.

I like to think that the Oaklands School Concert Band was one of the happiest and best school bands in the country. I have a cassette tape and a video which prove that we really were very good. Sue ran the band with amazing professionalism and skill. We were always incredibly well rehearsed for every performance. The repertoire was always interesting and diverse, set lists were well thought out and her conducting skills gave the band clear direction and energy. Sue was always keen for us to have a true professional experience.

Not only is Sue a very talented conductor and teacher, she is also a very gifted pianist. She has played in many shows around the York area. When Sue is playing in the pit orchestra you know that she will  always be well prepared. She is an absolute professional in whatever she does and in my opinion is an unsung talent of York. Myself and many others have a lot to thank her for”       

Sources: Interview with Sue by Kate Hignett.  Notes from Andy Hillier. 

Image: Femmes Fortissimo – Sue is standing on the front row on the right.