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’…
My initiation as music master in a boy’s grammar school in Lancashire had left me battle-scarred but unbeaten.
My brief attempt to escape by knocking on the door of the director of the Manchester Library Theatre and asking for an acting job was doomed to failure. Wirrallian-born Tony Colgate recognised me as ‘one of the musical Nelson brothers from Calday Grange’ and warned me that holding a spear at the back of a stage night after night might not be the best use of my musical talents.
Instead, he set me to writing incidental music for a couple of his productions and I began to think again. The dry academic course at Cambridge had demoralised me, but all the associated music-making had made me believe that music needed to be at the centre of my life in an environment where I could share all my enthusiasms.
Audenshaw Grammar School had not been a good start. The Headmaster refused my request for money to buy a classroom set of plastic recorders. Any spare funds, he claimed, were needed for the new science block – so I paid for them out of my miserable departmental allowance.
I can still conjure up the smell of Dettol on the mouthpieces and the deafening sound of ‘Frere Jacques’ from thirty over-enthusiastic boys.
Next door to my room lurked the Biology master, Mr. Croker the chain smoker. In the main classroom the boys wrote as he dictated from faded University notes and slowly worked his way through a packet of Capstan Full Strength.
A move to Oxfordshire gave me fresh hope: Gosford Hill School was a progressive comprehensive school pioneering Humanities and keen on inter-departmental alliances. Its proximity to Police Headquarters gave me the misguided idea that discipline would not be a problem.
I had an assistant and a good team of visiting music teachers and it was made clear at my interview that they wanted music to develop and flourish. A moving force was the musically inclined Director of Studies, and it was not long before he had started an A Cappella Choir: I joined the basses and he introduced us to an exciting East European repertoire by Kodaly, Bardos and Seiber that I came to love.
I remember sharing early morning duty with him one day outside the sixth form centre. Latecomers were accosted and instead of handing out a detention slip he gave one of them a searching look: “I reckon you have the right lips for a brass instrument – Mr. Nelson here is looking for someone to learn the trombone…what do you think about taking it up?”
I took on all-comers to perform choral works in the local church: the Messiah was first and later Haydn’s Creation. It was the era of Edward Heath’s government and the three-day week. I was rehearsing the opening chorus of The Creation one evening in the large glass-surrounded music room and the famous moment came: ‘And God said, let there be light…’
“Now when it comes to and there was.. LIGHT!” I said, “remember to suddenly change from pianissimo to fortissimo at the word LIGHT”. And when we came to it there was a perfectly timed power cut and the rehearsal ended in pitch darkness and a fair ‘Representation of Chaos’ ensued.
The Head was a quiet spoken, laid-back pipe smoker who took off Wednesday afternoons in the Summer Term to go fly-fishing.
“I wonder what you would think of our putting on a Musical,” I once ventured – and he dreamily brushed it aside. A month later he called me in. He had had a thought…what about staging a Musical production at the school?
“What a good idea!” I said, and set about writing ‘Poop, Poop’, a musical version of ‘Wind in the Willows’.
The principal parts were taken by staff and all the rest by pupils – something that would not happen today-but it was a lot of fun.
Then there were ‘The Jongleurs’, a keen group I formed to sing and play Medieval music with a motley assortment of instruments, including tabors, recorders, a viol, a gemshorn and a crumhorn.
Two rich Americans wanted us to perform in their Oxfordshire manor house, and funded a set of medieval costumes. It was not long before the French teacher had trained up a group of youngsters to join us: ‘The Danseurs’ became a colourfully costumed addition to our act.
It was a time of creative ideas, like the ‘Music Fayre’, which showcased all the various musical goings on. And it was an exciting time for me, working with some talented and highly motivated pupils in what had become a very rewarding post.