After Marlborough retirement was going to give me lots of free time…., or so I thought.
As it turned out a number of things popped up to keep me rather busy, including the invitation to take over as conductor of the Swindon Choral Society. My compositions were also getting an airing, including “The Angel Cantata”, a musical portrayal of the twelve panels in the College Chapel depicting events in which Angels intervened in the affairs of mankind-Old Testament scenes on the North side, New Testament on the South.
Headmaster Farrar had commissioned the lesser-known Pre-Raphaelite artist Spencer-Stanhope to produce the panels, hoping the images might distract the Marlburians from more earthly preoccupations. My “Gambian Sketches” were also premiered in the chapel in the autumn term as part of the concert series: I was examining in the Far East at the time, so missed the (one and only) performance.
And it was while I was checking mark sheets in my hotel room in Hong Kong that the cultured tones of Simon Eliot, Headmaster of Sherborne School, sounded out on the ansaphone. My wife had guessed right: something had happened to derail the music department and he needed a wise old fox like me to put things back on track.
Returning to the U.K. I swapped my crumpled tropical suit for a charcoal grey and rather shiny number and we went to meet the Headmaster and members of the music department in late December. Having agreed to a six-month inter regnum it soon became clear I was going to need to be positive and forward-looking with a staff that seemed more interested in talking about the ills of the past rather than the possibilities that a New Year might bring.
And so, after 20 years of knowing everyone at Marlborough, I was suddenly in a new place, Sherborne School, where I knew nobody-an advantage in some ways, but a lonely situation nevertheless, at least initially. I was given a flat on the Lenthay Road and was allowed to return home from Thursday afternoon till Sunday morning, a mostly trouble-free drive along the A 303.
There were a number of reasons why Sherborne surprised a delighted me after my long stint at Marlborough. The differences were obvious: a boy’s school, set in a Dorset market town, smaller and less famous, but the attitude of the pupils was a refreshing surprise.
After one lesson with the 13-year olds one lad said “Thank you for the lesson, Sir!” and then another boy, seeing me struggling with a collection of Glockenspiels, Xylophones, chime bars and other percussion to collect up before the next lesson, volunteered to help me.
I went into break in the common room and spoke to a colleague: “One boy has just thanked me for the lesson, and another offered to help collect up a bunch of instruments. Were they winding me up?”
“No, that’s fairly normal here….” and so it turned out to be.
Some musical activities brought together pupils from both Sherborne boys and girls schools, as well as the young ladies of St. Anthony, Leweston. Over the three academic terms the various Directors of Music took it in turns to conduct the combined orchestra, and carried out its administration week by week. Someone was conducting a symphonic movement which didn’t require the lower brass players-all Sherborne boys. I found the lead trombonist on the playing field and called him over to let him know his team of players was excused half the practice the next afternoon. I had half expected from my days at Marlborough a shout of “YES! Result! Err, sorry Sir, didn’t mean to be rude…etc.” but instead: “Thank you very much for letting me know Sir” he said, and off he trotted. I liked that, and he also asked whether Mrs. Nelson was planning to visit Sherborne.
When it was my turn to conduct I encouraged a young scholar from Hong Kong to attempt the first movement of the Shostakovich 1st Piano Concerto. His confidence increased so much during rehearsals that I granted his and the orchestra’s request to play the sublime second movement as well, extending the concert by seven minutes.
Routine music activities were conducted in a rather cramped and inadequate building, formerly the Headmaster’s House, and in another set of cubicles and a rehearsal room/classroom on the opposite side of the road. There were confusions and changes regarding room usage and headaches caused by noisy adjacencies: on one occasion I tried to carry on a phone conversation with a parent with a deafening trumpet lesson going on in the same room. It was not a relaxing work environment, made even more difficult by the absence of two full-time colleagues for much of my time at the school. A noisy row broke out in a corridor at one point between two teachers making their claim on a room, and I was the arbitrator! No wonder I slept uneasily at night sometimes, ultimately having to remind myself I was only a Temp.
I helped to appoint a new Director of Music, Jamie Henderson, an old Shirburnian, naturally the pupils’ favourite, and a very popular choice all round. The delay in his arrival meant that my six months turned into a year, and so the fun and games continued.
One of the perks of my position was directing the all-boys Chapel Choir and leading them through weekly services in the glorious setting and acoustic of Sherborne Abbey. Performing the music of Tallis and Byrd whilst looking up to the 15th C. fan vaulting in the nave was inspiring. It was a privilege too to provide the music for Robert Ferry’s Memorial service in the Abbey: like me he had served as Director of Music at both Marlborough and Sherborne.
Another of my tasks was to take “Congo” in the school chapel, which could only accommodate all the pupils in the pews by taking them in two halves. Back at Marlborough I had lobbied three different Masters for congregational practice to be reinstated, but without success. Gone, I was told, were the days of “Congregaggers Praggers with Haggers Staggers” (this translates as “congregational practice with Hylton-Stewart”) but at Sherborne the pupils rather loved it. I spiced it up by starting with small presentations: an ex-chorister talked about his musical schedule at St. Pauls Cathedral School, and on another occasion I played the last recording ever made of a castrato…I’m not quite sure why. However, when it came to the singing of the hymns the boys really gave it a go.
I gradually made a few friends. Gussie Miller, former D.O.M. at Sherborne Girls was a real tonic…well actually more of a whisky and soda. She had me in for a meal or two in her cosy house and did much to bolster my confidence, renewing my scant knowledge of etiquette at the bridge table. She put me in touch with an artist, Elizabeth Gourlay, who was writing and illustrating a charming children’s book entitled “The Untidy Blackbird” all about a bird which kept creating nests in silly places on her organic farm near Cerne Abbas-in an egg box, on top of an outside lamp fitting and so on. She was looking for someone interested in birds and music to transcribe three strains of song she had tape-recorded into a fluid strand of melody winding out of the bird’s beak on the front cover. It turned out to be quite a task, but what emerged were three little melodies completely different in mood and character, painstakingly notated by repeatedly playing each strain slowed down to a quarter speed, with the pitch raised accordingly.
The Music Department Common Room had an urn: it provided scalding hot water which tasted as if it had been laced with iron filings. I was dipping my Tetley’s tea-bag into a plastic cup one afternoon when idle chatter about my bird-watching sorties to Weymouth and Portland Bill caught the attention of piano teacher Richard Kershaw. “Are you a birder, Robin?” he piped up, and a new friendship was formed. To this day Richard makes an annual pilgrimage to Wiltshire for our special birds (Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail, Stone Curlew and Quail) rather more often than I motor down to his coastal hotspots for the more glamorous shore and sea birds.
The Head of English introduced me to orchids: Greater and Lesser Butterfly, Fragrant, Bee and Pyramidal, a new world for me and in lovely settings such as West Coker and Batcombe Priory.
As time went on I was able to implement some important changes in the departmental structure. A very talented and hard-working piano teacher and first-rate accompanist was awarded a full-time position as Head of Piano, a fine flautist was appointed Head of Woodwind and a classical guitar teacher agreed to oversee the many pupils wanting guitar lessons. Some egos were fanned and some feathers ruffled!
What was ultimately needed was a proper centre for musical activities and I was delighted when a purpose-built Music School was opened in 2010 and to find that after my time of stress and trauma music was really flourishing at Sherborne School.
On my last day, following the staff Christmas party, I called on the Headmaster quite late at night, a little the worse for wear. I was emboldened to make all sorts of important suggestions as to what needed to be done AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to improve the situation as far as the future of music at the school was concerned.
Simon Eliot calmed me down, told me what a good job I had done and tactfully suggested it was time for me to return home to my dear wife and meanwhile….. to rest assured that the passage of time and many positive influences would bring future success.
The Head of Sport had already wished me well at the party, and put it with characteristic bluntness:
“The thing is with you,” he said, “you’re not like the usual Head of Music…you’re not “up yourself!”
I reckon that was about the best complement I got, all year!
Robin Nelson November 2020…… to be continued