Robin Nelson lives in Avebury. He is a former Head of Music at Marlborough College, currently Musical Director of the Swindon Choral Society, a composer and renowned as an ornithologist. For Marlborough News Online he begins a series of articles on his career in music. His story starts in a distant corner of the ‘blackboard jungle’…
Lord Williams’s School, Thame, of which I was the Director of Music in the 1970’s, was a ‘flagship’ Oxfordshire comprehensive: estate agents featured it in their house particulars and upper middle class parents chose it in preference to the local private schools.
I came to this post by an eccentric route. Having completed five years at Gosford Hill School, I applied for a Director of Music position at a public school in Suffolk, partly I have to admit to be near to excellent bird watching sites in East Anglia where I could indulge in my obsessive passion for stone curlews, woodlarks and avocets.
I was offered the job, but had some work to do persuading my wife that a move to a location somewhere near Thetford Forest, and to a department set in the dungeons of the school, was an attractive proposition.
On the morning I put my acceptance letter in the post the phone rang. It was Geoffrey Goodall, charismatic Headmaster of Lord Williams’s, asking whether I would like to run the music at Thame.
I knew the village Post Office people well enough, and though they protested that it was now the property of Her Majesty the Queen, they opened up the letter box and I was able to tear up my letter of acceptance for the Suffolk job.
Set on the site of Lord William’s Grammar School for Boys (founded in 1570), and in 1971 linked with what had been the secondary school at the other end of town, up to 2,300 pupils were scattered over three locations: Upper School and Lower School West in one campus and Lower School East in the other.
I was energetic and enthusiastic enough to cope, for at any given time there were only two full time and one half-time music staff covering a relentless round of music lessons with unstreamed junior classes for the first three years, as well as the four C.S.E. and A Level sets.
I can remember struggling to drive my red Renault 4 during break time to teach at Lower School East: a doughnut and a cup of coffee perched on the dashboard, my right pocket full of unchecked monies for Associated Board Exam entries, a bunch of keys in the other.
Twenty-four manuscript books on the passenger seat usually slithered to the floor as I jerked to a halt, they came to rest alongside two dozen copies of ‘Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat’. The pupils were waiting…………
It was with the junior classes that I realised what an impact two or three musical children can have on a mixed ability set.
However one set was dubbed ‘unmusical and unruly’. I remember a cheeky lad I had detailed to hand out ‘Enjoying Music Book One’ saying as he tossed them across the desks “Enjoying Music? That’s a laugh for a start!”
Then there was a different class with a talented violinist, a pianist and a lad with a pure treble voice: suddenly this became “the really musical set” and I would get them to perform to each other. Though never quite achieved, I remember discussions as to the possibility of offering Music Scholarships in a state school which still had a boarding house on site.
It was a time when class singing was still the norm, and this included shanties, folk songs and folk ballads such as ‘The Titanic’ which were linked with project-based lessons on themes such as The Sea, Animals and Weathers and Seasons.
Geoff Goodall called me in to set me some serious objectives: While the warden of New College Oxford, Sir William Hayter, was still Chairman of the school’s Governors how did I feel about performing a great choral work in the New College Chapel – if he could fix it? And talking of great choral works, what about doing the Verdi ‘Requiem’?
As to the tenor section, would I be happy to include Goodall himself, alongside his three sons, all former New College Choristers?
The middle son, Howard, was a music scholar at Stowe, destined to move to join his brothers. Once he had settled into the sixth form at Lord Bill’s, would I prepare him for an Oxbridge application?
While this might seem a rather daunting set of parameters, I rather welcomed it all, and Geoff Goodall helped in many practical ways to make it happen.
I was given a window in a school assembly to advertise rehearsals for the Verdi. The sound system boomed out the Dies Irae and I did my sales pitch. As I took my seat the Deputy Headmaster congratulated me warmly: ”Well done Robin, that should bring them flocking!” “By the way” he added, “your flies are undone…..”
Coming next: comprehensive successes with major choral works – and Mr Bean on percussion