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During the early autumn, prior to beginning his Music degree at Cambridge University, seventeen-year-old Ben Nicholls from Hampshire spent a fortnight at Strathmashie House learning the ropes of the music publishing industry.
"Having played music for many years, I was initially interested in work experience at Spartan Press because, quite simply, publishing is not a factor of the music which many people necessarily think about. Performance and composition, which are more obvious to an audience or musician, receive their fair share of debate and attention, but the process by which the notes get from the composer to the performer remain a mystery to most people. I was therefore grateful for having the opportunity to discover more, and curious about what my time at Spartan might involve.
Fortunately, I had plenty of time to muse: the train journey from Southampton, though cheaper than flying, was even longer than it was supposed to be, with numerous stops and delays, and I hence arrived in the pitch dark of night. However, the next morning I was able to appreciate the first unique element of Spartan Press: it is undoubtedly set in some of the most beautiful countryside of the Highlands. Mountains rise on all four sides around the house, with the thick Strathmashie Forest and River Mashie to the South-East and stunning walks and cycles for miles around. My appetite thus whetted for the evenings and weekend to come, I was set on my first tasks in the Forward Stock Room. This is the most public area of the Press: it is where Sandra, as Sales Co-ordinator and Credit Controller, receives orders by telephone and internet, organises stock, deals with the all-important money, and so on. That first morning I was thus able to see Sandra at work at a wide range of these tasks, whilst familiarising myself with the scope of Spartan's work.
From there on my tasks varied until I had a good idea of the whole business, and during this time I was also able to meet the other staff: Tom, in the Print Room and responsible for Spartan's internet arm, Highland Host; Pat Haines and Sharon in the Finishing Room, and of course Pat and Mark Goddard at the management desk. I continued to spend time each day in Sandra's office, pulling orders, getting the post ready for jolly Postie Gordon, getting stock from the various warehouses within the Strathmashie grounds, and processing it via "Zeus", the all-powerful Spartan database. I also spent some time in the finishing room, collating books ready for stitching and guillotining, and Mark demonstrated the folding machine with pride and glee. I found my proof-reading tasks particularly interesting, as they required me to draw on some of the music theory skills which I had lost somewhere along the line between GCSE and now, and the New Issue Meeting conducted by Pat and Mark provided an interesting insight into the very start of the process: what it is, exactly, which makes music publishable. As someone who will doubtless be a desperate and poverty-stricken freelance musician himself one day, I think I learnt some important tips during this part of the process. Much of my time was also spent on producing sample scores for the Spartan website, which provided me with an opportunity to enhance my somewhat basic computer skills.
All that just between 9 and 5, but there was plenty to do in the evenings and at the weekend as well. Whilst Strathmashie House is, in the eyes of the pampered Southerner, "remote" at the very least, the village of Laggan is but three miles down the road and has all the essentials (i.e. shop and pub). One gets a real feeling, in this area, of Community with a capital "C"; it is a place not unlike Camberwick Green, though in the nicest possible sense: everyone knows everyone, everoyne chips in to help out (for example, Pat runs a local running club for mothers and fitness club for kids, and Mark prints the local newsletter)... determined, therefore, to immerse myself in this Community, I ran an afternoon music workshop at the local Gurgask Primary School for the eleven infants, which was a fun reminder of my own earlier childhood (one has to do the same thing so many times with young children...)
And the setting! Not, perhaps, the work experience placement for someone who doesn't enjoy walking, but for anyone (like myself) who does, it is perfection. Each night I simply headed off into the hills (in one direction or the other), through burns and round lochs and up hills. On the Saturday in between my two working weeks I made a day trip walking from Laggan to Ardverikie, the stunning estate where Monarch of the Glen was filmed, which, though five and half hours long and knackering, was unmissable. On the Sunday I visited the local church: a deceptive building which is much larger than it looks, and with a fiercely jolly Scots vicar. On top of that the Goddard family, with whom I was staying, was eternally warm and hospitable, buying many pints and providing much food and pretending that they weren't fed up of me. I feel I learnt a lot more from them than just how to print music: Tess made me feel bitterly embarrassed about my cooking skills as she (five years my junior) provided many a delectable culinary treat, whilst George introduced me to ways of frightening off adders, and broadened my Playstation skills, and Rose (5) impressed me beyond measure with her organisation and business prowess (I think I bought several of my own books from her one evening).
In short (which I'm well aware this news item hasn't been), a varied and interesting insight into a slice of the music world which many would very much take for granted. I would recommend such a placement to any young musicians looking to learn (and earn) an extra thing (or bob) or two, particularly if they take pleasure in twenty mile walks. My thanks to the Goddards and their assorted animals (and of course their pets as well), and to everyone at Spartan, for all their time and patience."