I am not sure that the title First Orchestra did much for the morale of members of the Second Orchestra, but that is how they were named.
Compared with the fast turnover of the Chapel Choir repertoire, preparing a concert of orchestral pieces was a more laborious process, a term of weekly sessions resulting in a performance in end of term Jamborees alongside other musical groups.
During my interviews and tests for the post of Director of Music I was asked to rehearse the first orchestra for half an hour at their regular Wednesday afternoon slot. I arrived early to find several members of the music staff and a couple of peripatetic teachers labouring away setting out stands and chairs and putting out the music. When the pupils floated in a few minutes before the appointed rehearsal time I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t educationally quite right. However, I applied the light and humorous approach, which must have been O.K., as it contributed to my appointment.
First Orchestra was different from Chapel Choir, in that it was one of several Wednesday afternoon activity options rather than a simple musical choice. There was CCF (square bashing), “granny bashing” (don’t ask!), baby crêche and community activities, so it had a certain dutiful aura which I tried to dispel. C ivilising actions included providing tea, squash and cakes during their interval, buying a set of posh orchestral folders, and building in sectional rehearsals so that the various String, Wind and Percussion experts could reveal the real truth about what was going on inside the music.
Repertoire was key to enjoyment I felt and it was not always easy to know what would appeal and get a good result. I certainly wanted to avoid simplified arrangements of pieces adapted for school orchestras.
Interestingly, grown-up music such as the Hebrides Overture and the Schubert Unfinished first movement with their classical forces weren’t total hits-maybe with so many good recordings to hand our amateur rendering left us all a bit deflated. The more whacky and richly scored pieces went much better: looking back I had a nerve attempting Copland’s Billy the Kid and An American in Paris, the latter complete with three saxophones, claxon horns, celeste and ratchet!
Bernstein’s West Side Story Overture went down well and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was always a winner, with various piano soloists over the years. The opening of the Rhapsody has the clarinet climbing up to a high note on an upward-sliding “glissando” -produced by half-covering the keys and blowing hard. First clarinet Rob worked on this manoeuvre, until, in the week of the concert, the odds were 50:50. Fortunately, on the night of the performance, he achieved a suitably saucy glissando.
One of the pianists who attempted the solo part was Amanda, from Hong Kong. A week or so before the performance I asked to come in on her piano lesson and conduct a run-through of the piece, with the teacher filling in the orchestral part. She had also had a session with a former music scholar, now a member of the music staff, who had performed Rhapsody with the orchestra some years before. She had a fair old meltdown and said she didn’t want to perform the piece any more. “I talk with my teacher in Hong Kong, I listen to Mr Ridley, now you are conducting me and my new piano teacher… he tells me something else! Sob, sob.” I had to sit her down and say “This is just why you came to Marlborough: taking advice and ideas from your previous and present piano teachers, working with a conductor and an orchestra, and learning from someone who has performed the music before and knows its pitfalls. And putting all these influences to one side you then find your own voice and interpretation!” She was nervous in performance with a slight tendency to accelerate the harder the music got, but it was fine.
Opportunities to play concerto movements were sometimes a real watershed for the soloists involved: Toby, destined for a career in pop music, with his Grieg First Movement, and Lawrence, now the Horn consultant at the College, with his first outing with a Mozart Concerto. It was interesting to see how the general effort and enthusiasm of the orchestral players increased when they were accompanying a fellow-pupil. Warren Lee was something of a folk-hero at the College, not just for his pianistic talents, but also for his skills on the basketball court. There was little doubt that his performance of the first movement of the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto inspired all the players: he demonstrated that special ability of listening and adjusting to those around him, as well as being on top of the notes. Now Warren is a Steinway artist and chamber music partner to some fine players.
Some of the most memorable occasions with the orchestra included an away day in the beautiful Italianate Church at Wilton near Salisbury playing the haunting Butterworth Shropshire Lad Rhapsody and other English repertoire. Then there was the Gala Concert in Salisbury Cathedral, in which, with help from peripatetic teachers and former pupils, we performed Vaughan Williams’s “A London Symphony.” That was inspiring.
Apart from all the extra-curriculum activity I had of course been appointed to oversee the teaching of music, and although it was difficult to give it all sufficient preparation time I volunteered to teach at all levels: unstreamed Shell classes, O Level/G.C.S.E. groups, A level students, sixth form General Studies and the occasional music theory and aspiring Oxbridge student.
With the advent of departmental handbooks and booklets, school inspections, continuous assessment, league tables and all the rest the pressure was on to provide a better structure to what we were up to in the classroom.
If I’m honest, despite all the flourishing music-making going on, we were not fully up to standard in the classroom in my early years. Shell classes were taught in the East Room, a rather antiquated and gloomy room above the Memorial Hall and it was all boys in those early years. The first few lessons would be taken up with voice tests for the various choirs and recruiting and registering instrumental pupils, a real switch-off for most of them. Many had already decided that they would not be studying music after this first year and after whatever happened at their Prep school some were keen to give up individual lessons: with voices breaking or broken it was also a good excuse to “quit choir.” We gave them an opportunity to sample an instrument, offering free tuition in groups for a term, and they were also given a free taster of a Subscription Concert, with a session or two of preparation and discussion.
In class theme-based music appreciation was an obvious route, but wonderful though the scary “Danse Macabre” and “Night on a bare mountain” were, it left the pupils passive rather than active. I still felt singing was worth a try, even if “Down by the Sally Gardens” and “The Keel Row” had had their day. I pulled out a set of 30 copies of Schubert’s “The Erlking” to continue the supernatural theme, and with the changes of characters, the dramatic piano part and the general melodrama of the song it promised to be a winner. Unfortunately, singing it in German, they latched onto the insistent phrase “mein Vater, mein Vater!” with unbridled enthusiasm and hysterical laughter.
Pop cantatas were another option. I remember recording the opening of Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph” with one quite tuneful set and it fitted their vocal range nicely. That was in the autumn term, and just for fun I recorded them again singing the same chorus at the end of the summer term. “Way, way back many centuries ago….”: they belted it out, but by then their collective voices had dropped by an octave!
The Shell Jamboree at the end of the year was a showcase for individual talent and we would perform a whole musical cantata with the entire year group. These became more and more sophisticated and ambitious and my staff would sometimes question my sanity in persisting with these risk-filled endeavours.
In due course, and with the advent of girls in the shell, class singing gave way to class keyboards, a whole set of them, with individual headphones, “splitters” and a much- needed central control switch for the teacher. It only took a few sessions before they were proficient at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” but it was less musical reading, more playing by numbers, and there was always some joker ripping up and down the keys in rebellion, and problems with faulty keyboards and headphones were a headache. But it was involving them in playing, ultimately composing too, and this prefaced the era of the Henry Honey Centre for Music and Drama, with a Music Technology suite, a “music techy” and a theatre cum concert hall.
As for the teaching of exam sets this was more prescriptive and syllabus driven. The advent of G.C.S.E. linked with A Level and all the endless support literature that went with it put us old-fashioned music beaks on our mettle. Listen-Compose-Perform were the watchwords and whether we liked it or not the students had to compose a blues, a set of variations or a descriptive piano piece. Our set works had been Mozart or Beethoven, but now we needed to explore the finer details of Graceland and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
Having our own purpose-built music block raised the profile of music at the College hugely, and I was a little sorry to have such a brief time there before retiring. We had been inspected a few years previously by a former Headmaster of a Liverpool School, who by his own omission was hardly musically qualified. He was far too flattering about what we were doing, and remarked, as he struggled to keep up with me, that my worn shoe leather was down to my constant tramping from the Old Music School (Pianos and D.O.M. office) via the Leaf Music School (Strings) and the East Room (Class Music) to the Band Room (Wind and Brass). We asked for a more detailed inspection from a music specialist and he had some very useful recommendations. Needless to say the foot-slogging was much reduced when we were all ensconced in the same building.
So began a new era and a rethinking of the departmental structure. Now there is an Artistic Director, a Head of Keyboards and Head of Academic Music, a Music Technology wizard, Heads of Piano, Orchestral Studies, Choral Music, Strings and Wind. To all intents and purposes it’s on a par with a University Department-no wonder some students come back and admit it is better than what they have gone on to. It is a wonderful realisation of much that I dreamt of and hoped for: scholar numbers have gone up to 40 and thanks to an inspirational Head of Academic Studies exam results are now consistently excellent.
Looking back now I can reflect on many good times at Marlborough, and some bad ones too. Dealing with redundancies was especially difficult, which involved losing two of our seven full-timers, a painful process for all concerned. I struggled too with the strange, hothouse atmosphere of a private school: internal and inter-departmental wrangling and bitching would reach a crescendo as we approached the end of each term before the sudden departure of all the students left a strange sense of void. I would walk into Marlborough the town and realise I didn’t really have any proper friendships away from the College, or at least I hadn’t given them enough of my time and attention, and that, to a certain extent, went for my family too.
Setting off one day on my trusty bicycle from “Hamelin”, the Director of Music’s House, (appropriately named, for a kind of Pied Piper!) a Great Tit was calling as I passed the orchard. “Tea-cher! tea-cher!” it cried, in what sounded to me like a cynical tone. I thought to myself “It’s not a bad life actually, inspiring students with the joys of music in a beautiful school three minutes away from my home!”
And then, awaiting me on arrival, a stroppy shell class, a boy registering a lost clarinet and a peripatetic teacher tending his resignation because of the apathy of his students, a poor reflection on the department as a whole he implied.
I cycled back with my bike basket full of manuscript books to mark and it began to rain. I got off on the rising track alongside the orchard and I swear that damned cynical bird had changed its tune: “Told yuh!, told yuh!”
Robin Nelson, July 2020 to be continued…..