I always enjoyed recognising, fostering and helping to develop individual musical talent when I came across it in the schools I taught in.
My talent was recognised and fostered by Mr Senior, my music teacher: his assistant “Froggy” White was less enthusiastic: insecure and lacking in natural musicianship he regarded me as a threat, and therefore someone who needed repressing rather than promoting. I swore that if ever I became a teacher it would be my role to encourage and enable.
Howard Goodall was an extremely gifted student when he joined the sixth form at Lord Williams’s School in Thame and I discovered for the first time that while I was tutoring a student more talented than myself, I still had a useful contribution to make towards his general musical development.
On arrival at Marlborough I found that musical talent was not only recognised, it was rewarded with various Scholarships, Bursaries and Exhibitions. There seemed to have been no proper check kept on the 14 or 15 existing award holders, indeed there was even an element of doubt as to exactly who they all were and whether they were aware of their obligations. Some were not earning their keep: missing music lessons and not even featuring in the premier choral and instrumental groups. In time my colleagues and I were able to clarify their status: music scholars were issued a kind of contract, allotted music tutors, had practise cards to fill in and termly goals to aim for. The annual Concerto Concert was created as a vehicle for them to perform movements from Concertos, accompanied by the First Orchestra. Things gradually improved and in time the number of music award holders doubled, but it remained a challenge to keep them all on side.
Some were former choristers with instrumental skills: having sung at King’s Cambridge or Salisbury Cathedral they were used to high level music-making and singing from the College choir pews with their contemporaries seated on either side was much less appealing. Former Head chorister Richard was introduced to me at a House party for new boys and their designated Tutors. He was self-confident, to put it mildly: “I suppose you have been chosen as my Tutor because you are musical” he began, and then, once I had recovered from this jaw-dropping opener, he came up with “We are bound to end up talking about music, which is fine, as long as you don’t mention John Rutter!” “What’s wrong with John Rutter?” I ventured, to which the reply came “His music is really cheesy!” I suppose he was thinking of “The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”, so I pushed him as to where he had formed that view. “All the Lay Clerks say his music is cheesy” he went on, so I asked him if he knew Rutter’s Gloria, his Requiem and “The Falcon” and of course he didn’t. My message was not to be judgemental when you are not fully versed with the facts and it did eventually register. When he left 5 years later he gave me a musical book with a little message inside:
“Dear Mr Nelson, thank you for knocking the crap out of me! Richard.”
Dorian from St John’s Cambridge still had a fine treble voice in his first year and was a good cellist. He had a passion for cricket and had for the previous two summers always missed cricket activities because of choir commitments. Would I please let him off First Orchestra duties so that he could attend cricket sessions on Wednesday afternoons?
We made a deal, and he joined the ranks of First Orchestra more willingly the following summer term. Some years later he developed a fine Baritone voice. His rendering of Vaughan Williams’s “Turtle Dove” on tour with the choir in the San Maggiore Church in Venice was exceptional: the priest had opened the church doors because of the heat and as Dorian’s solo floated over the hummed accompaniment the choir looked down to the lagoon with misty eyes as vaporettos and other light-assisted water transport glided silently over the dark waters.
Oliver had been a Quirister at Winchester Cathedral and arrived after a troubled final year in the choir. There had been discipline issues and the choirmaster had shown his displeasure when a particularly important solo contribution had gone badly wrong and nerves had taken over. At his Marlborough choir audition, on the advice of his sister, he made frog-like noises in front of one of my colleagues to avoid selection and the resulting weekly drudgery of yet more choir practices. I caught up with him and persuaded him that his voice (which in the end merited an Exhibition) was still all there and people would want to hear it. I made several attempts to get him to take on solos, but he was often too apprehensive to do them justice or even accept the opportunity. On Remembrance Day he was due to sing a Pie Jesu but pulled out at the last minute and it was taken by a girl Soprano instead. At the end of the service I asked him what he thought of the soloist. “I think she was good Sir, but with just a little bit too much vibrato.” His parents were still in the emptying chapel and so was the Chaplain, the Organist and Headmaster Gould. “If the organist will agree to accompanying you” I said “why don’t you do the solo now for your parents, and without the vibrato?” He agreed to do so and time stood still for three minutes: it was a beautiful performance and brought me and the others near to tears. Oliver came good at Marlborough and is now a member of the acclaimed vocal group BLAKE.
The pianists were often highly strung. Warren came from Hong Kong already a very accomplished player, still heavily under the influence of his high-powered former pedagogue. H e was not happy with the more relaxed style of teaching on offer at the College and I guess he was homesick too. He got as far as Heathrow Airport before his Housemaster brought him back: we tried to accommodate his musical needs, which included some protected time for piano practice. In due course it was discovered that he was an ace at Basketball and after he played a solo at a school assembly at a hundred miles an hour he became a bit of a cult figure. I can claim him as one of my successes, for I encouraged him to take up the organ, play concerto movements (which he did with distinction) and try some conducting with the chamber orchestra. He grew to love his time at Marlborough and I am still in touch with him, now married with two children and accompanist to some of the finest instrumentalists in Hong Kong.
James was a misfit socially but a gifted pianist with innate musicality. He also played at an assembly, at a time when things were a little rocky at the College. He was due to play some Rachmaninov as a curtain raiser for an upcoming concert, and as he stood in the wings of the Memorial Hall Stage he said “I hate them, I really hate them and what they all think!” So I said “Well it ‘s a pretty angry piece, so just put that into your playing.”
He played percussion in the orchestra and I joined him at the back of the stage when a colleague was conducting and I was deputised to fill in a missing part. “Where exactly are we James?” I said as I joined him. “Haven’t a clue” he replied and moments later he was fiercely clashing a pair of cymbals. It was clear he just knew the piece and where his part fitted in, without having to count the bars.
It was good to hear when these scholars went on to high level music-making. Laurence played the French Horn, a notoriously difficult instrument to master. Music was in his family and in his blood but he was lazy, a typical “laid back Marlburian.” Once in the sixth form he decided he wanted to study horn at music college, but was labouring with his academic workload. His enlightened Housemaster engineered his release from History A Level and he suddenly “took off.” He gave his Horn a much-needed polish and when it came to orchestral rehearsals he was ready and accurate with every entry. He went on to the position of principal horn in at least two London Orchestras: what a transformation!
Toby Graffety-Smith was not only laid-back, he was horizontal! At Marlborough he didn’t fit the scholastic image: he was a talented pianist but preferred improvising to practising scales and arpeggios and he created diversions in his viola lessons by discussing the niceties of blues harmonies with his string teacher rather than playing over what he had failed to practice. Urged on by his father I was bidden to set Toby some tangible goals to justify his position, so it was decided he should study and perform the first movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto. With a fortnight to go to the performance I was invited to sit in on his piano lesson and conduct his solo part while the teacher played a reduction of the orchestral accompaniment. He came to a halt partway through and said “I haven’t really learnt this section yet” and we moved on. To be fair he did well on the night, though the left-hand chording was sometimes approximate. How could I possibly have guessed that he would become Toby Smith, pianist and composer of the famous rock band Jamiroquai?
It was not always easy for the girl scholars entering at sixth form level to slot in, however impressive their musical credentials. Katherine was an earnest oboist with a strong northern accent: alongside the svelte and glossy Sophies and Samanthas she didn’t stand a chance, and visibly wilted in her first term.
Staying the course was a challenge for all of these musical youngsters. William was from King’s Cambridge, not an ex-chorister but someone who played a very useful instrument- the Bassoon-and that is what earned him his Exhibition. For whatever reason he went off the boil. Orchestra rehearsals were a trial for him and he missed lessons and chamber music assignments. I brought the parents in, who were understanding, and it was agreed he should be relieved of his Exhibition. Interestingly, within a couple of terms he was back in the First Orchestra, playing well, enjoying his lessons and progressing with enthusiasm.
I asked the Bassoon teacher whether he should be reinstated as a Music Exhibitioner in view of his progress. Oh No…she was quite definite in telling me that it was because he was freed from his position as an award holder that he had regained his natural musical interest.
Over 21 years I calculated that more than 500 of these musical people passed through the doors of the music department, many of whom continued their musical activities but went into other fields. There were some who auditioned but never came for various reasons. Jennifer Pike came with her father and we looked at the possibilities of finding her required 2 or 3 hours protected practice time a day, something a specialist music school could accommodate. We had an enjoyable hour or so and she played quite beautifully but Marlborough was not the right school for someone destined to become Young Musician of the Year in 2002.
Sometimes I felt the 90 minutes spent on a pre-audition, followed by a detailed write-up on each candidate was over-generous and we would sometimes find that as Marlborough was second or third choice we would be offering free advice to parents intent on sending their little darlings elsewhere.
Sam Wesley was going to Winchester, but he auditioned with me for a backstop place at Marlborough. He was a good pianist and bassoonist and would have been a fine scholar with us. On a sudden impulse I played him a dramatic chord and asked if he recognised it. “Yes” he said, “that is from the middle of the anthem “Blessed be the God and Father” written by my great, great grandfather Samuel S Wesley.” And it was, just as he said!
Robin Nelson, May 2020 to be continued……