Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Growing up musical

I've mentioned in a previous blog the inspiring conductors who have been an important part of my musical upbringing. But I haven't mentioned the most important two people who formed my musical outlook - my parents.

They met as a result of both attending the very first Rehearsal Orchestra course in Edinburgh in 1957. The following autumn, my mother came down to London to study at the RCM for a postgraduate music teaching diploma and they both played in the Harlesdon Symphony Orchestra (now called the Brent Symphony Orchestra) under Harry Legge - one of my inspiring conductors.

My father started learning the clarinet at the age of about 15. At the time (during the war) his school had been evacuated away from Coventry (which was bombed heavily, destroying the cathedral) to Lincoln. One evening he heard on the radio a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and was completely blown away by the Allegretto, starting with a simple rhythm all on one note, and then developing all kinds of variations around it. He instantly decided that he wanted to be able to play that kind of music. It being wartime, no new musical instruments were being made, but his parents managed to find a second-hand clarinet for him to learn, and arranged lessons for him with a local teacher.

My mother learned the piano from an early age, and carried off all the prizes for years in the piano classes in music competitions in and around her home town of Fleetwood in Lancashire. She was very tall, the tallest in her class at school, and the head of music at the school asked if she would like to learn the viola. Mistakenly thinking it was a double-bass she would be learning, she accepted with alacrity, to be somewhat disappointed by the outsize violin she was given!

So, my father was a keen amateur clarinettist and my mother was a music teacher, teaching violin and piano and playing viola and piano. All four of the children learned musical instruments: my brother Matthew learned the violin, my elder sister Barbara the cello, and my younger sister Joanna also the violin. (She has gone on to become a professional musician in London.)

I started on the piano at the age of 5, under a wonderful teacher by the name of Mrs Lyndon. Then when I was about 8, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me also to learn an orchestral instrument. At the time, I used to have eczema on my hands, the skin was very dry and would crack and bleed. So playing a stringed instrument was out of the question for me, as it would have hurt to press the strings down with my fingers.

So one weekend my parents got together a wind quintet from players in their local orchestra, and invited them round to have a play through some music. When they stopped for a coffee break, I was invited to have a go on each of the instruments and see if I could make a sound on them.

Afterwards, I was asked which instrument I liked best. I said "the horn", and on being asked why, I apparently answered "it's nice and curly". On such small things are lives changed! In due course a horn appeared and lessons were started with a local teacher.

In those days, both sets of grandparents would visit us over Christmas every year, and the Christmas day routine would always be much the same. A special Christmas breakfast including half a grapefruit with a glace cherry on top. Then church, followed by Christmas lunch (turkey and all the trimmings), opening of presents, and then the family would put on a Christmas concert for the grandparents. We would play Christmas carols arranged by my father for the available instruments, and we would play whatever solo pieces we had been learning.

The photo above was taken during one of those Christmas family concerts when I was about 8 and had been learning the horn a few months. Back row left to right are my father, my mother and my brother Matthew. Front row is me, and my two sisters Joanna and Barbara.

Note my unconventional posture, resting the horn on my crossed legs. It was a heavy Chinese single F instrument, and it was too heavy for an 8-year-old to lift and play for any length of time. It was some time before my teacher insisted that I learn to play with the instrument held up properly.

My younger sister was about 2 1/2 in that photo, and had not long started learning the violin. As a toddler she liked to sit in on Mum's violin lessons, and was found upstairs one day playing a pair of knitting needles as if they were a violin, and holding the "bow" with the correct grip. A 1/8 size violin was soon found for her, which she is playing with great concentration in the picture!

So playing music and especially performing music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't get performance nerves because I started performing when I was far too young to realise that people did get nervous about it. My parents never made a big deal of performing, it was just something you did. And of course, I loved people telling me how well I had played!

I joined my first youth orchestra at the age of 9. I think I was the youngest there by a couple of years, certainly the youngest horn player by a much larger margin. I remember the first piece I ever performed with the orchestra - the March from "Caractacus" by Elgar. Sitting down, my head only came up the the shoulders of the other horn players.

On going to high school at the age of 10, I was immediately drafted into the school 2nd orchestra and the school brass band. I remember my confusion on my first brass band rehearsal. We were playing Liberty Bell, and the horn part was written for an Eb tenor horn, and so was in in Eb. I had never come across this before. (For those of you unfamiliar with British brass bands and their instruments, the Eb tenor horn looks like a young tuba, it is pitched in Eb, has a tube length just over half that of the F side of a French horn, and is played using trumpet fingerings).

I brought the part home, and asked what I could do about this. Dad told me "Just this once, I'll write the part out for you in F. But after this, you will have to learn to transpose!" And that is exactly what I had to do.

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