After my inter regnum year at Sherborne School I seemed to be gaining a reputation as Mister Fixit when it came to steering a Music Department from one era to the next.
A Headmistress from a school in Greater London wanted me to cover while her Director of Music was taking maternity leave. Daunted by the travel involved and already battle-scarred from my first experience at this strange juggling act, I declined the offer.
At Sherborne I had encouraged a relatively young organist and musical academic to think about applying for jobs as a Director of Music somewhere and, responding to my strong recommendation, the Headmistress of Woldingham took a gamble. John Padley did well, as I knew he would, and went on to be D.O.M. at other schools, including Queen Anne’s Girls School Caversham.
Ten years after my spell at Sherborne a former colleague from Marlborough days got in touch. James Rothwell, at this point Senior Master at St. Mary’s School Calne, wondered if I might be willing to take over a Department in transition and help to appoint a new Director of Music.
I suppose I was flattered to be asked but I didn’t know quite what I was letting myself in for. The first requirement was to produce academic certificates: O and A Level, Degree, PGCE and the rest, eventually located – moth-eaten and covered in dust in the loft. And did I have an up-to-date D.B.S. certificate allowing me to work in a Girls’ Private School? Was I self-employed or employed by the school and did I realise that after ten years out of the classroom I might just find things a little different….?
One interesting development since my Marlborough Days concerned the staff hierarchy. After the Head the Director of Studies and the person i/c extra-curricular activities had always been key figures. Now there were new Demi Gods: the Senior Mistress in charge of Pastoral Care and Safeguarding and the Head of I.T. (who, if you were not nice to her, had the power to erase all your files with one press of her index finger.)
As for the current state of the music department the highly experienced music administrator had just moved on, two teachers much involved in aspects of the academic and extra-curricular music programme had just left and a key full-time member of the music staff had just gone on maternity leave. Headmistress Dr. Kirk had welcomed me warmly, and bearing in mind the growing state of uncertainty in the department willingly gave her support to shoring up various gaps.
My first lesson was with a Lower Fourth Form Group, already seated in a classroom at the centre of the music block first floor, near to the music office and within sight and sound of various surrounding teaching rooms. No doubt the staff assumed that my arrival and considerable experience would be the signal for calm and stability in the music department.
However, my appearance at the door was greeted with screams, which continued, despite my protestations, for some time. It wasn’t my magnetic personality, it wasn’t my natural charisma: “Look, sir!” one girl shouted as she pointed at the whiteboard at the front of the classroom and there it was, a giant spider, scampering across the board. I grabbed it with both hands, got to the window and let it out, the cue for applause and cheers. There were peripatetic teachers nearby no doubt shaking their heads at someone -never mind the 40 years of experience – totally out of control of a bunch of junior girls!
We urgently needed to appoint a temporary stop-gap to help me with the academic teaching and recently retired Mary Edwards stepped forward and slotted in superbly.
Her work with the junior girls was humbling to watch. Strings of junior girls would be deputised to fetch assorted Gamelan instruments or bulky Caribbean Drums from her car and semi-improvisatory group sessions would ensue, giving the girls both a sense of structure and discipline and a choice in what they did and when.
When it came to a GCSE composition class I told myself this was my territory – being a composer of much music and totally in my element. Then the questions rained down: “Can we log on Sir?” and “I can’t get on Sir, can we phone the techie?” and I began wondering whatever happened to manuscript music, pencil and rubber. The girls were all working at their computers to the exam board’s prescribed briefs: writing a Blues, a minimalist piece, a set of variations, etc. No doubt they were on the road to high grades (which I heard they all achieved) but it wasn’t exactly my idea of inspired creativity.
One girl was really struggling with her Blues and I asked her was it what she really wanted to write. She was a music scholar, a talented pianist and second study cellist with a love of the classical greats – Beethoven in particular. I sensed she was writing something she believed gave her the best chance of a good final mark, and was following safe, prescribed ground rules. After some discussion she wrote a piece for Cello and Piano instead; the result was good, reflecting her personality and once completed she was able to perform it with a friend.
That same class was made up entirely of music award holders, except for one and this girl wanted to give GCSE Music up! When I asked her why she told me she was doing 13 GCSEs and felt it was one too many. I agreed, but why drop Music I asked her tutor, when she was showing a real flair for composition? In the end she carried on and did quite well, but what was well to the St. Mary’s Girls? I got the impression that if the ultimate grade wasn’t an A* it was disappointing; an A was acceptable, anything less tantamount to a failure.
A few of the girls I found quite challenging, and I quickly came to realise that my previous background had not necessarily equipped me well for dealing with them. There were other girls who were struggling to keep up with the level of academic and extra-curricular achievements expected of them, or so they felt, making them unhappy, introverted, sometimes disruptive. I quickly learnt that chastising a truculent pupil in front of her peers was counter-productive; on the other hand, conferring with the Head of Pastoral Care was often both revealing and reassuring.
I became aware that St Mary’s uses the image of a Lily as a crest on paper headings and brochures, even over a doorway; was it pure coincidence that Dr. Kirk’s dog’s name was Lily? A good friend an old girl of the school, reminded me that the School hymn was “Consider the Lilies” and, after some searching, I tracked down both words and music. I arranged the accompaniment for string quartet and with a small band of singers we performed it at a Chapel (the St Mary’s name for school assembly) with my friend present. It must have sounded rather staid and quaint to the pupils: I doubt it has caught on since.
Daily Chapel began with piano or organ playing by a member of the music department, and there was usually a hymn and occasionally a musical item. When I asked the chaplain to give me a list of hymns required for these services he smiled, and pointed out that the choice of music was always up to the girls running them.
It was clear that fostering leadership and individual initiative was a core principle at St. Mary’s and nowhere was this more evident than in one of the wilder events in the musical calendar – The Company Shout. Not unlike the Marlborough House Song competition it involved the whole school, Company by Company, somewhat incongruously staged in the Chapel with garish costumes, make-up and crazy strobe lighting. Musical leaders emerged who shouted, bossed, cajoled and humoured their troops in weeks of frenzied preparation. It was familiar territory for me but nothing had quite prepared me for the noise of 350 girls screaming at the tops of their voices. My decision to wear a set of headphones offered me limited protection from the aural onslaught but by the end of the evening my ears were ringing.
I was amazed at how hard the staff worked at St. Mary’s; the workload seemed to be relentless and unending. James Rothwell somehow found time to help me with administrative tasks that baffled me, despite his 7.00 a.m. till 7.00 p.m. daily schedule. Jo Black worked harder than any Music Secretary or P.A. I had ever known and a love of the school and the pupils went with it. Then there was Bethan Fryar, the charismatic Head of the Singing department, beloved by all the musicians: I lost count of the number of singing teachers, choirs and vocal ensembles she oversaw.
As the end of term approached, a cloud seemed to lift. There was a cluster of musical events, including carol performances at the school and elsewhere. A recent tradition had been established of performing in the intimate setting of the chapel in Bowood House, this coincidental with an adjacent Christmas market. With candlelight, the girls circled round in their blue cassocks and accompanied by a Harpist strumming at the front it was a fine sight. We performed several movements from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, much to the delight of Dr. Kirk who, I had already discovered when we performed his Missa Brevis in D earlier in the term, was a huge fan of Britten’s music.
Decorations went up, people exchanged Christmas Cards, the Christmas lunch was delicious and we even had time for relaxed chats. I had made friends with the Art Department and the Sports people, much as I had in previous schools. I told one sports teacher that I used to play left wing in hockey matches at Marlborough and she asked whether I was still nippy on my feet. I sprinted down the corridor just to show off and it was all round the sports staff in a matter of hours!
We had appointed Rebecca Lancelot as the new D.O.M., daughter of a cathedral organist I remembered from my Cambridge days. I watched her conduct an ensemble as part of her audition, alongside a Governor who confessed to being totally unmusical. After a few minutes he turned to me and quietly spoke: “I don’t know about you but I think she may be the one!” and, needless to say, he was right. I keep in touch, and I understand that Rebecca, now married, is running a department that is flying high, in a school where music really matters.
After over 40 years at the chalk face it was, finally, definitely, time to draw stumps. In the words of a former colleague, usually after concerts:
“I think you got away with it, Maestro!”
Robin Nelson December 2020…… to be continued