Archive for July 25th, 2010


Inspirational teachers

Searching the internet for something else, I stumbled across some chatter concerning my old organ teacher, Michael Austin. Someone somewhere had a vague recollection of an old LP he had recorded on Birmingham Town Hall and wondered what had ever become of him. A few people had responded with comments which ranged from trying to remember what was on the LP to what had happened to Michael Austin. I had wanted to add my tuppen’orth (as the phrase used to be) but to add your comments you had to register and divulge all that personal information which I avoid giving out over the internet like the plague. But it did set me thinking about the debt I owe to him. I suppose every musician who has been, in some way or another, successful can point to specific people without whose influence his career would certainly not have developed as it had, and I can point to five. I hope it will serve to remind all teachers and performers just how far their influence can extend, and, ergo, how important it is to remember this at every stage.
Michael Austin himself – now resident in Denmark so I learn (and, for the benefit of those who wondered about the LP, I have that and several others of his in my collection, so if you want to know what’s on it, the answer is available here!) – was the first really influential organ teacher I had. He was then organist at Wimborne Minster, a fine church a little to the northwest of Poole in Dorset, and my parents chose him for my teacher and paid for me to have a lesson with him every month. I used to travel by train from my home in Farnham to Wimborne; sad to think now that that railway line, curving through the lovely north Hampshire countryside between Farnham and Winchester, has gone (although part of it is preserved as a steam railway) and that the trip, if attempted by train today, would need a lengthy detour into the London suburbs before retracing its steps westwards; it would take a couple of hours longer, and cost a few hundred percent more, I’m sure, but such is the strange fate of Britain’s railways. As often as not Michael never turned up – he was always in the midst of some personal (ie love-related) crisis (and in those days organists usually got into trouble for affairs with members of the opposite sex – Ah! how things have changed! It’s almost a badge of honour to flaunt your same-sex preferences in the artistic world these days) – and a note on the organ was all that my lesson involved. When he did turn up it was magic, even if his teaching methods might have been mistaken by less enlightened parents than mine for simple laziness. I learnt just two major pieces with him – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F (BWV540) and César Franck’s Third Chorale – but it’s testament to his teaching that they are still at the forefront of my repertoire. I remember vividly every lesson on these, and the guidance he gave affected my entire musical outlook. In particular there was this priceless piece of advice when he decided we were going to do the Franck. I was told to go away and immerse myself in every bit of César Franck’s music I could lay my hands on. He told me to listen to the Symphony, the Symphonic Variations, the Violin Sonata, the piano pieces, almost everything except the organ music. Then, and only then, I was to turn up for my next lesson not, mind you, having even looked at the Third Chorale, but with an innate sense of Franck’s style and idiom. When that lesson came, I found that it all made supreme sense and I learnt the piece in a matter of days. I have followed that advice with almost every major composer I’ve performed since then and an intriguing by-product of this method is that I can instantly recognise almost any composer, even if I’ve never heard the specific piece before. Would that more teachers encouraged this; that would prevent those hideous attempts at diploma performances I and my colleagues hear as a matter of course, when students clearly have no idea what the composer is trying to say through their music.
It was while I was still a student of Michael Austin that my oldest and dearest friend, Peter Almond, himself a devoted organist (our friendship goes back a little over 40 years), started having lessons in Blackheath with Robert Munns. His was once a very familiar name to organists – he still is highly regarded in Malaysia where his charismatic teaching has inspired generations of students – and is still active on the recital front despite suffering a stroke some years back. Peter and I used to swap organ teacher stories, Peter usually appalled by Michael Austin’s seemingly laid-back approach to giving instruction which contrasted with Munns’s methodical and thorough approach. He persuaded me to attend one of Munnsie’s recitals at the Festival Hall in London, and it was there that I had one of the most revelatory organ experiences of my life. Munns, who commissioned some of the finest works for the organ of our time (and continues to do so – he commissioned the first-ever organ work by a Malaysian composer when Vivienne Chua wrote Journeys for him in 2002) performed Et Resurrexit by Kenneth Leighton. I was beside myself with awe at this fantastic music and, more than that, Munnsie’s absolutely spell-binding performance. I’d heard the work before (and since), but it never had struck me how much an interpretation could affect the result. Munnsy may not ever have been the world’s greatest organist, but he had his moments, and this was undoubtedly one of them. I can remember the performance even as I write this, and I recall my breathless excitement. I gabbled some incoherent praise when I met the great man afterwards, little thinking that in the years ahead he would be one of my ABRSM examiner colleagues and a man whose company I enjoyed on extended tours the world over. That concert proved to me the importance of communication in a performance; it’s not enough to play the notes (in fact, as I recall, Munnsie missed out and cocked up a good few of them), you have to have that indefinable gift of communication which only comes when you, yourself, love the music and, perhaps more importantly are, like Munns, as keen on listening to others play as to play himself.

Then there was Martin Neary – still very much alive and kicking in the US; I meet him occasionally in the UK where his daughter is carving out a career as a brilliant cellist – with whom I went for lessons after Michael Austin fled the wrath (I think) of an irate husband and was never to be seen in England again (I bumped into a relative of his by former-marriage in South Africa once and another one in Norway, so he certainly put it about a bit). Martin was then at Winchester Cathedral (I also owe a debt to his predecessor, Alwyn Surplice, who sat down with me in his house one Saturday afternoon and explained at great length the pros and cons of being a cathedral organist while giving half his attention to the rugby international being shown on his tiny black-and-white television) and I drove down once a week for lessons there, held in the cathedral after evensong on, I think, Thursdays. When I tell people how riveting Martin’s lessons were, they don’t believe me, but I was enthralled by every moment I spent in that dark loft with him. Again I remember learning just two works – Bach’s Trio Sonata No.1 in E flat and Messiaen’s Transports de Joie – but I remember even more the unbounded enthusiasm for music that poured out of Martin at every lesson. We would spend hours on a single note – once famously devoting an entire two-and-a-half hours to the space between the second and third chords that open the Messiaen – and I learnt two important lessons here. One, that any performance worth its salt will have thought out at great length and detail every tiny aspect of the score, from the notes, the registration, the composer’s performance markings, to the rests, the spaces between notes and the speed. And two, that music is fun. Martin’s enthusiasm over the most abstruse musical matters was not only highly infectious, but has remained with me every since. I can discuss two or three bars of a piece ‘til the cows come home; and so could he. If you are that enthusiastic about the minutiae of music, then surely you can convince the world that you have something worthwhile to say.

While at Cardiff, I was asked to take part in a master class with Gillian Weir. I remember that I played Hindemith’s Second Sonata for her, but the only bit of advice I recall from her was to look at photos of Hindemith; “You will see”, said the Great Dame (although she hadn’t been ennobled in those far-off days), “that he always has a smile on his face”. Not quite true, I have learnt, but pretty close; Hindemith, like the Mona Lisa, has a kind of enigmatic smirk which, when you spot it, suddenly makes you realise his music can’t be dull or clinical, but full of subtle humour. Thanks Gillian, you turned me on to Hindemith for life. But the lasting legacy of that master class wasn’t that, but the treatment she gave one of the students before me. Charles Spanner (I bumped into him years later when he was running a music centre somewhere on the south coast of England, I think, doing Trinity exams) had spent far more time than I had ever lavished over my Hindemith Sonata preparing Franck’s Second Chorale for Gillian. For weeks he had bored everyone silly with his questions about various technical aspects and we all had to sit in and suggest to him where his performance could be improved (which, it struck me at the time, rather negated the value of the master class). When he was called up to play you could see the warm glow of self-satisfaction as he prepared to wipe the floor with his polished and accomplished performance. He never played a note. Dame G gracefully stretched out her arm (she reminded me, for some reason, of the Lady of the Lake) and held him poised before the first sombre note. “Why have you chosen those stops?” she asked. And Charles had no answer. He simply had pulled out what had the same name as was on the score, and assumed that was all. Realising this, Dame G proceeded to discuss at inordinate length about registration and choices dependent on different organs and different situations. She called into play her vast knowledge of organs and organ stops and, when that was over, she asked him why he was using those fingers and those feet. In fact, she grilled him by asking “Why?” every time he was about to play. He was duly mortified and we were all consumed with the giggles knowing how much effort he’d put into it, but underneath we learnt a priceless lesson. Always ask “Why?”. I’d love to stop exam candidates and ask “Why?”; Why that speed? Why that dynamic? Why choose that finger? Why play that piece? Why articulate those notes that way? Whenever I’ve done any teaching, I’ve always driven home the point; everything you do in a performance has to be justified. I think that’s priceless advice and it all came when Gillian Weir was talking to somebody else.

And finally the most succinct bit of advice anyone ever gave me. I can’t quite remember where we were, but I was driving Nicolas Kynaston to an organ recital he was about to give. Chain-smoking in my car – the only person I ever allowed to smoke in my car – he ran out of fags and begged me to stop at a newsagent to buy replacements. I think I may have suggested that he might do better without – I hope not – but he did confide in me that he became cripplingly nervous before any performance and the fags helped. Suddenly I realised that everyone got nervous; I had assumed I was alone. If as inspired a performer as Nicotine Nic got nervous, clearly it was no big deal. From that moment onwards, crippled as I am by nerves before any performance, I console myself with the knowledge that it is part of the territory and is expected of you. I don’t turn to the fags, but the prospect of a healthy imbibation after a performance usually helps steady the nerves long enough to get through.

July 2010