Friday, 9 July 2010

Growing up musical - 2

My parents moved to Norfolk when I was 12, and within a couple of years they started the Brundall Music Club.

This was quite an ambitious undertaking, and it just happened to be the right place and time for it. The idea was to put on nine concerts a year, one a month except in the summer. The concerts were given by amateurs (mainly members and their friends) for members. The concerts were held in the main hall of the village primary school. Nobody was ever paid to perform, though the club would pay for music hire for larger pieces on occasion.

It helped that my parents had rapidly acquired lots of good contacts. They were both playing in the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra, and so had a ready supply of orchestral musicians who were interested in playing chamber music. The village already had an excellent church choir, who would also put on concerts as the Brundall Singers.

By that time I was playing the horn in the Norwich Students Orchestra, and so we also had a supply of good young musicians.

And John Barnett, the head of music at Thorpe St Andrew School, the nearest high school to the village, on the east side of Norwich, also turned out to be very keen on the idea.

Of vital importance to the success of the club was the fact that my mother was an outstanding accompanist and sight-reader. She probably played in over 3/4 of all the concerts - but very rarely as a soloist. It meant that if anybody had some pieces they wanted to put on as part of a programme, but needed an accompanist, she was available for the purpose - two short rehearsals was usually all that was needed to bring the piece to concert readiness.

So for about the next 10 years, through high school, university, and postgraduate studies at the RCM, I had a friendly audience of 100 or so happy to listen to anything I happened to be working on, and an accompanist capable of tackling the piano part of anything I might try!

For the first or second concert of the club, I got together a wind quintet from the Students Orchestra. We played Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties, and a Haydn Divertimento (the one that includes the St Anthony Chorale, which Brahms famously did a load of variations on).

And we also put on all sorts of wind and strings or wind and piano chamber music. On different occasions we played the Beethoven Septet, both the Mozart and Beethoven quintents for piano and wind, the Schubert Octet and various other chamber works. I played brass quintets at the club with some local brass players.

But it was the chamber music in groups that included one or both of my parents that I remember most. It is from them that I learned most about the art of playing in chamber groups. The need for eye contact to co-ordinate changes of tempo. Working out who has the tune at any moment and has to be followed by all the others. Learning how by gesture to start everybody off in a way that they all know what speed is being chosen. Knowing how to gesture to end the final chord of a piece. Learning about how to maintain a steady tempo even through difficult passages - because the rest of the group can't stop and wait for you! (Learning how to cheat in those difficult passages and miss out a note or two so that you can keep up.) Learning whan you are accompanying and should play a notch or two quieter than the written dynamic.

And most importantly, the sheer fun of playing in a small group where you can all make a contribution to the interpretation. Where the other players are genuinely happy to congratulate you on a solo passage played well.

Quite often, when I was visiting home from university, I would be met at Norwich station by one of my parents with the words "Oh good, you have your horn with you. There's a Music Club concert this weekend, and somebody has dropped out. Do you have some music with you we can put on?" So, I would rehearse with Mum whatever I had been working on in lessons, and we would perform it on the Saturday evening. Because she was such a good accompanist, and I had had lots of training in chamber music through performing things at the club, whatever piece we had to hand wouldn't take much rehearsal to put together.

I have in my head vivid memories of perhaps a dozen concerts out of the hundreds I've played over the years. Two of those vivid memories are from the Brundall Music Club. One was that initial wind quintet. All the players were very good (at least two went on to become professional musicians) and a music teacher in the audience afterwards commented to my mother "that was good enough to be broadcast". It all just seemed to fit.

The other occasion was a time when, as sometimes happened, we got ambitious and tried to put on a larger work. The head of English at Thorpe St. Andrew School was a fine tenor, so with John Barnett conducting, the head of English singing the solo tenor part, me on the solo horn part, and strings made up of members of the club supplemented by friends and members of the Norwich Phil, we put on the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I worked on the piece for a good long time with my horn teacher Douglas Moore prior to the concert. He put into my part all sorts of markings (I have them still). As he wrote them in, he would say "this is how Britten asked me to play it". The horn part is exceedingly difficult. At one point there is a pianissimo crescendo entry on a top C. And I nailed it in the performance! There is no recording of the Music Club performance. Probably just as well - it might turn out not to be as accomplished as my memory fondly has it. But that day and for some weeks afterwards, I was walking on air.


  1. How amazing! As someone who grew up around no live music at all, outside of hymns in church, this all sounds borderline magical. Music is like a language, and for you it's your native tongue. Folks like me will have to try the Joseph Conrad route of working to master a language other than our mother tongue.

    One question - is there still this sort of community music making going on? Or is it all something of a throwback to the past, before recorded music began having such dire effects on home made music?

  2. The Brundall Music Club itself has closed. Once my parents decided to retire from running it (which they did for about 25 years), there wasn't the web of contacts, and especially not the accompanist available to hold it together.

    But there is plenty of community music making still going on. In west London where I live, there are at least 4 community orchestras within about 5 miles of me, and at least one chamber music club. And St Mary's Perivale is a small deconsecrated church nearby where there are regular chamber concerts (I played the Strauss Suite for Winds there last weekend in a chamber concert given by members of Ealing Symphony Orchestra).