Local musicians, as well as the much wider Eastbourne community, have been shocked and saddened to learn of the death last week of Shirley Barrell, writes Kevin Anderson.
Shirley was director of the Renaissance Singers, and also renowned organiser, over many years, of a hugely successful series of larger-scale choral concerts with augmented choirs and bands – the last of them as recently as last December. She also spent her professional career in primary education, earning the affection of generations of children and their parents.
Born Shirley Thomas and growing up locally, Shirley taught for several years at Parklands Junior School, where she first met her husband of almost 40 years, Michael Barrell, and the couple shared not only a happy marriage – raising three daughters – but also a love of music and theatre.
Michael is well known to Eastbourne audiences through a string of roles for EODS and Rattonians.
From Parklands, Shirley moved into infant teaching, a happy chance taking her to Pashley Down Infants School.
Veronica Clark, former head teacher, said, “I was moving on from Pashley Down, and my deputy at the time was taking over my post – creating a vacancy. Shirley and I sang together with Renaissance, and it was at the end of a rehearsal that we were chatting – and to my delight she decided to apply!
“She was the perfect appointment, not least for her wonderful musical skills which enabled the school to carry on seamlessly with its strong music education.
“Much more than that, Shirley was an inspired and inspiring teacher. She was committed, caring, full of humour and energy, and had a gift for cutting through all the tiresome bits that sometimes beset education.
“Generations of children and their parents are in Shirley’s debt and they will remember her with huge affection.”
Shirley had been a part of Renaissance Singers for almost the whole of the choir’s 45-year history, singing alto alongside sister Janet (Purcell) and stepping up to direct the group when its founder, Reg Bertin, retired in the early 1990s.
Both to the Renaissance Singers’ specialised repertoire and across the wider spectrum of choral music, Shirley brought a unique combination of expertise and joyous enthusiasm.
Never elitist, always inclusive, Shirley will be remembered for her large-scale choral concerts bringing in scores of local musicians on a sort of ‘Come and Sing’ principle.
But once you were in, there was no escape: rehearsals rang with laughter, and what someone called the ‘Barrell Method’ coaxed wonderful performances, under Shirley’s relentlessly encouraging direction.
The year 2018, indeed, saw St Saviour’s Church packed for one of her Cathedral Gems concerts and then – in what was to be her final stint on the podium – for a glowing Christmas Concert. Without Shirley Barrell, they would never have happened; and with Shirley’s passing, Eastbourne’s musical landscape has lost an irreplaceable lady.
Humane and fiercely caring, irrepressibly funny and buoyant, ridiculously talented yet modest about her talents. A deep well of wisdom and a fountain of bubbly energy.
All who knew her are warmly invited to a Celebration of Shirley’s life on Thursday March 14, at 11.45 in St Saviour’s Church, South Street. The family hope mourners ‘wear as much colour as you like for a lady who brought warmth and colour to so many lives’.