Friday, November 19, 2010

A Few Bars Rest

2010 has, overall, been the happiest of years for me. There have been very few regrettable notes – certainly none I feel inclined to write about. Recently, however, I was told of the untimely death of my former music teacher, on March 17th, aged just 64 years. A talented pianist, organist and violist, he taught at the same school for forty years and founded, often singlehandedly, a variety of bands and other musical groups, in some of which I was fortunate enough to be included.

Aside from his musical genius and boundless energy, he had the ability to see the funny side of everything, however depressing it was. An unrepentant maverick, everyone loved him and his idiosyncratic ways. I remember that he never called me by my name, always just ‘kid’. In fact, he called everybody ‘kid’. If he were still alive, and met me as the 44-year-old I now am, he would still call me ‘kid’, I just know it.

After I failed my very first music (performance) exam as a twelve-year-old, he grinned and told me I ought to learn how to march while playing, as it would be a clever way of escaping from the noise.

‘Maturity, kid,’ he chortled, ‘is when you can laugh at yourself.’

How true. On another occasion, when I asked him to define the musical term ‘accidentals’, he replied:

‘In your case, kid, it means wrong notes.’

So many of his quips and bons mots have stayed with me, still relevant despite the passing years.

Even after I had left school, his presence and sharp humour still coloured my life. We played together for the same cricket club, he as a father-of-two in his late thirties, I as a ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I’ sixth-former with a head full of nutty aspirations. The thing I recall most vividly from our cricketing days was not his tenacity as an opening batsman, but the grubby red cap perched on his bald head, which probably had its own eco-system.

His primary passion at school was for brass band music. This was, arguably, because trumpets and trombones are (relatively) easy to learn to play to a reasonable standard. Moreover, playing any wind instrument necessarily involves pulling a weird face. Therefore, he reasoned, if a musician happened to have been born with one, it would not matter, as the requisite embouchure would bring better-looking colleagues down to the same unfortunate level. Conversely, taking up a stringed instrument was not actively encouraged, and I appreciated his insight. Having a Grade 1 violinist in the house must be worse than having a dog: at least your average mutt knows when to stop scratching. Most commendably, he inspired pupils who assumed that they lacked the innate ability to play an instrument. Many surprised both themselves and those close to them.

His funeral was like nothing previously witnessed in the area. His musical friends played in the rain outside a packed church. Former band members carried his coffin after the service. Within forty-eight hours of his death, an online Appreciation Society, consisting of 1,500 members, had formed on Facebook. The collective response to his premature death, I think, surprised no one.

Initially, I considered naming this piece ‘The Day The Music Died’, after the line in Don Maclean’s 1972 chart-topper, American Pie. The reason I discarded it was simple: the music did not die on March 17th. It never will. There will be a brief, respectful silence, before the band strikes up once again. The title I did choose seemed a much more accurate reflection. Inspiration given so passionately and generously by one provincial music teacher will reverberate down many future generations and in places far from the unremarkable English village where this wonderful man once lived. You will, of course, notice that I have not mentioned him by name. What matters is not who he was but what – and that can be ascertained from a single photograph (Figure 14.1).

Music is not essential to human life, and it contributes nothing to political strategy or scientific advancement. That I concede. Consider this, though: where would we be without it?

So rest in peace, our dear teacher: you gave us an ‘F’ in tune (Figure 14.2).

Figure 14.1: Mr H spent his life playing and teaching music with a smile. Whenever I think of him, I smile, too. Always.

Copyright 2010 Facebook

Figure 14.2: Concierto de Aranjuez (with apologies to Rodrigo)

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

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