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Inspiring lady behind South Norfolk music group

The inspiring lady behind a South Norfolk music group, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, has spoken of her 30-year battle with ME. Sandie Shirley reports.

Katherine Gray’s life changed forever when she was virtually bedridden with ME nearly 30 years ago and it ended her short-lived career as a South Norfolk primary school teacher at the age of 30.

Despite despair, terrible fatigue and pain, she went on to develop a music career – inspiring both young and old despite having no formal qualifications.  In 1992, she founded the High Oak Music Group - now based in Deopham near Wymondham - which celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer with a garden party and concert involving current and former  members including three founder ones.  

The group brings together a melodious and rhythmic mix of singers and instrumentalists of mixed experience including those who play guitar, recorders, flute, clarinet, trumpet and hand chimes. “It’s like one big family that   currently ranges in age from seven to 70 plus,” said Katherine.

She has prepared musical arrangements and planned rehearsals for more than 200 events including festivals, fetes, holiday clubs, church services and charity gatherings at Christmas. The group, totalling more than 130 members over the years, has also played at the Bishop of Norwich’s charity garden parties and busked in Wymondham.

While continuing to grapple with ME, Katherine’s Christian faith has given her strength, ability and determination not to quit. She has also mounted fund-raising initiatives when necessary and together with donations and grants, there has never been any charge to join the music group.

“I have learnt to trust that if it is meant to happen it will and, from experience, I have seen that I am given unexpected inspiration to write and arrange things that I don’t think I can do and it ends up sounding great,” says Katherine. 

That certain hope and ability also comes in the face of struggle and difficulty during her early school years. “I did not play an instrument, knew nothing about composers and failed all my aural exams despite my interest in music,” recalls Katherine.

But she proved to be a late developer, teaching herself the guitar and passing her A/O level music with the help of a supportive school music teacher. 
While training as a primary school education teacher, with a special interest in remedial teaching, she began flute and singing lessons and became part of a female quartet as well as leading church worship and performing at events. 

Despite no formal training, she also joined an orchestra and played in shows and later learnt the early stages of violin, developed as a recorder teacher and joined the local Society of Recorder Players.

“Because I have struggled, it has helped me become a better teacher. I was not a high-flyer at school so I developed building blocks to help me learn and now I can teach those to others,” she said.

Some group members have since played in local and national orchestras, forged music careers (one with the Household Cavalry) and even studied at the Royal College of Music. She adds: “I see myself as an enabler rather than a musician and more often than not those I teach end up better than me!”

“While she was a teacher, Katherine was struck down with ME: “I realised it was a long-term problem that still haunts me to a degree,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in bed and could barely walk. I was unable to return to my job and I missed the teaching, the school orchestra, the children and the opportunity to help them develop.”

Several years later, while still battling the effects of ME, she advertised in a local community magazine for musicians and singers for a forthcoming Mother’s Day church service. Fourteen volunteers of mixed age and ability met for five rehearsals in her front room in Wicklewood heralding the formation of the music group.

“We often play in church but I have never seen it as a church group since some members have nothing to do with church. It has been important to make church a positive experience and no-one has not come because they don’t want to play in church.

“I know many people of many faiths and none but, to my mind, it is an experience of God that counts and that cannot always be put into words. I became a Christian at 14 following a Cliff Richard youth event at Norwich Cathedral. There were no flashing lights but I knew from that point that God was in charge of my life although things don’t always work out how you think. When my life stopped, I became a new me and now I can see that all things work together for good with God,” says Katherine.
Pictured above is Katherine Gray (far right), performing with the South Norfolk-based High Oak Music Group.

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