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Prompted by The Violinist to think about what Classical Music means to me!

August 6, 2012 at 10:48 AM

What does Classical Music mean to me?

I am a music teacher in a group of schools in the Westcountry in the UK. Classical music has been a part of my life since birth and to imagine life without it is unthinkable.

My earliest memories are of sitting at the top of the stairs in pyjamas, long after I should have been asleep listening to the sounds of my mother and friends playing the Schubert Octet, the Spohr Nonet, or songs like the Shepherd on the Rock. Visiting my grandfather, Geoffrey Hartley, was always fun, and each evening as we were sent to bed he would play us tunes on a variety of instruments, from flageolets, to a Serpent, and of course on his main instrument the bassoon, for which he had written a fair bit of repertoire himself.

One of seven children, we were all encouraged to play and sing, and as a very young child another memory finds me conducting the rest of my family with a wooden ruler as they performed in a family concert in the Kent Music School. My father enjoyed playing the viola and had a vast vinyl record collection which was never put on as background. If we played a record, we sat and listened!

Joining the local Church Choir at St Luke’s Maidstone, was a big step along the musical road; as was starting to play the violin, with my first teacher Priscilla Doe, a fine baroque fiddle player, and the first piece of music I remember playing was ‘Busy B’ using the first and second fingers on the A string. Playing in my primary school orchestra is only a distant shadow in my mind, but I do remember being sternly spoken to when I accidentally plucked an E string during the prayers or talk or something! From church choir I went on a course run by the RSCM, which eventually led to gaining a music scholarship to Kings College, Taunton; the school at which the course had been held. I can remember one of the lasting memories of that course being the high incidence of vomiting which spread throughout the choristers, although the musical element music have been good too as it spurred me on to try to audition as a boy treble for St Paul’s London, which was a step too far!

However gaining the scholarship to Kings opened the door to a wide variety of musical possibilities, from the Chapel Choir with plainsong, Tudor and Renaissance anthems up to modern choral settings, to improvising on the violin with friends, one Mark Benham, a largely self-taught jazz pianist who was a little frowned upon as I remember, but who had such enthusiasm and spirit, and with him I can remember going into a local primary school, St John’s, and spreading that enthusiasm amongst the children there.

Formative as I progressed were the opportunities to develop my orchestral experience at the Orchestral Courses that ran at Bradfield College, where my mother was a clarinet tutor. It was at one of these courses that I managed to scrape my way through Beethoven’s second romance with the orchestra backing me, and then stand back and watch my younger sister shine in a Mozart Violin concerto. Music Camp was another arena in which my knowledge of repertoire grew and I particularly treasure memories of Andrew Parrot, who gave me some very sound advice on conducting. Playing Brandenburg concertos in the open air, and taking my turn with reveille, where we had to musically awake the camp each morning all added to the enjoyment and rich variety of experience. Here I also had the chance to sing in great works like the Sea Symphony; Vaughan Williams is, incidentally, a distant cousin, and the Rio Grande. More orchestral experience came with the Kent Youth Orchestra, where I had already started to double on the viola.

Living as I did in the South East I didn’t realise how lucky I was, with opportunities to play or sing coming from every side. I sung and played with a group called the ‘Rochester Concord’ on a tour of villages in the South of England, played in the ‘Lydian Orchestra’ for the Schumann Piano Concerto amongst other works. Performed all the Strauss Waltzes with Cranbrook School and played in the Maidstone Symphony Orchestra, two highlights of which were a concert in Chatham with Vladimir Ashkenazi and providing the orchestra for a performance of messiah in the Albert Hall with a chorus of more than a thousand. It was also a privilege, for a number of years in the eighties, to be part of the St Endellion festival, directed by Sir Richard Hicox, mostly in the chorus, but once as a viola in the Rodriguez Guitar Concerto. Here I was also involved in a first performance of a work by the composer John Tavener, the Ikon of St Seraphim. I can remember giving him a copy of a short anthem I had written, but never heard any more back from him! I expect he must get a lot of people doing that! It was an opportunity to get some people together to record an Evensong Setting, something I had written as a reaction to my first temporary teaching position in Tewkesbury Abbey Choir School. Somewhere I have a cassette tape with that music on. I must look it out!

My classical background has led me in all sorts of directions, conducting orchestras and choirs, singing in Maritime folk groups, and being invited to conduct a minor regional amateur orchestra. I have applied my classical technique into different areas of violin and viola, enjoying the repertoire of the Irish Jigs and Reels, and other tunes and airs from all over the British Isles. In many ways, however, living in this part of the South West is a great contrast to the more populated area of my youth, and opportunities are fewer and further between. Distances make getting groups of players together a more challenging prospect, and there is a lack of priority given to this by schools, who look more now towards technology and the drums, guitars and keyboards that serve better the music they see to be more popular with their pupils. I fear for the future of understanding notation, the loss of comprehension of the complexities that make a baroque concerto sparkle, a romantic symphony pull at our emotions, or choral anthems raise the hair on the back of our necks.

Maybe the development of orchestral work through film soundtracks will be the lifeline that will maintain a momentum for these genres, maybe also the development of notation software will bring the skills of composition more into the reach of those who would wish to perpetuate them, I know how much the computer has helped me develop my own compositions. I have been lucky enough to have had work published by Orpheus Music of Armidale, Australia, including string chamber music and a student violin concerto, and have also enjoyed sharing music on the YouTube site, as ‘KirbyFiddler’. I do know that whilst I am a teacher I will do my best to introduce as many children as I can to experience of the rich heritage from medieval chant, through the baroque, the true classical era of Mozart and Haydn, through the romantics into the modern era. It is unlikely that they will choose to find out about them unprompted.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 6, 2012 at 5:53 PM
I loved your vivid descriptions of music in your home and in your life. I'm sure the music your being to your students will profoundly affect their lives as well!

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