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Monday Memories: Beginnings #9 – Musical Interlude

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For a while in the early fifties a small shop in the village traded as a draper, run by a couple from London. They were Salvationists, the man playing euphonium in the Hereford Salvation Army Band. No doubt attracted by their common origins in the capital, they became friends of my mother and at some point, perhaps when they were packing up to leave, she acquired an upright piano from them. She enrolled in a correspondence course and began to learn to play.

A rather battered upright piano is pictured surrounded by bioxes bearin the Yamaha logo.

The staff at Reed’s included a music teacher whose principle role was as organist and choirmaster. The school operated with a strong Anglican ethos: we attended chapel on alternate weekdays and twice on Sundays. In addition to leading the singing of hymns and psalms, the choir regularly learned anthems which they performed as part of the Evensong Sunday evening worship.

Dr Forster (doctor of music), possessed a beak like nose and wore pebble glasses. We boys christened him “Peck”. In addition to his work with the choir, he provided weekly lessons – lectures really – in “musical appreciation” whereby we were enabled to learn the evolution of classical music from baroque to modern. And he offered piano lessons. These were, of course, extra-curricula and necessitated the payment of a fee. No other instruments were taught in the school at that time.

Mum decided to pay for me to have piano lessons. I learned scales and by the summer of 1955 I was grappling with the slow movement from a Greig sonata. The problem was that I was lazy and did not practice. Sometimes I would go with another boy to the practice rooms and we would fool about. Once we stuck copper wires into an electrical socket. It was a miracle that we did not electrocute ourselves. We did fuse all the power in that block.

When the time arrived for my weekly lesson, week after week I would stumble at the same place, a chord sequence I was never able to get right. Eventually Peck became so frustrated that he pulled me by the hair and beat me about the shoulders with his arms before running from the room. I was not the only boy to suffer such treatment. These days it would, if reported, lead to suspension or even the sacking of the teacher, followed by claims for compensation from the parents.

Image depicts mah jong pieces on a green baize cloth. Some are upright in a "wall" one brick high. In the foreground a pair of hands holds a group of pieces.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The truth is that Forster was basically a gentle man, passionate about music and frustrated by the inability of others to take the same degree of interest. A couple of years later he taught a group of us to play mah jong. We would play the game in his flat in the music block of an evening. At the end of the school year during which I tried to learn the piano (ie. Summer 1955) I was, to my surprise, awarded the music prize at the annual speech day. No doubt this was Peck’s way of saying “sorry”.

Mum enjoyed listening to the playing of a popular pianist called Russ Conway and watched the progress of his records up the “hit parade”. In the summer of 1956 we noticed a record entitled “Experiments With Mice” by Johnny Dankworth. Never having heard it on the wireless, we had no idea what it was or what it could possibly be.

Back in school in September one of the boys who was an enthusiastic follower of jazz had a copy and played it. The theme of “Three Blind Mice” was rendered in the styles of different jazz bands; Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others. A number of boys were into jazz by then and had long-playing records featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims and others which I, too, came to enjoy.

One or two members of staff were quite keen on jazz, too, and they encouraged the formation of a jazz club which met weekly to listen to jazz records and discuss the different styles and the evolution of the art – not unlike Peck’s attempts to teach us about classical music, but much more entertaining to our young minds.

In the summer of 1958 the jazz club organised an outing to a concert given by “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in London, a troupe of touring jazz musicians that included Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Ella took several curtain calls. So many in fact that, crossing London to Waterloo, we were too late for the last train to our part of Surrey. The next train was the so called “Milk Train” leaving at 5am. An alternative was a train that left around 1am but only went as far as Kingston-Upon-Thames. It was agreed that we would take that one and walk the rest of the way, about 10 miles!

A classic car image - a white saloon with a red "soft top".
1954 Hillman Minx Californian. Image from https://www.carandclassic.co.uk

Somewhere outside Esher a young man in a Hillman Minx Californian with the top down stopped and offered lifts. About 8 of us crammed into the car, some sitting on the trunk with feet over the shoulders of the boys in the back seat, for the ride to Fairmile where the driver generously turned round and went back to collect the ramaining boys.


7 Comments

  1. annieasksyou says:

    I think you were very forgiving of that gentle music teacher who revealed his darker side to you.

    Are you familiar with J.P.’s blog? He does wonderful in-depth posts of both renowned and obscure jazz greats. I think you’d enjoy them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. franklparker says:

    Thank you, Annie. I will check that out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Phil Huston says:

    Poor old Yamaha. I had a black U1D upright they negated the warranty on. Ah, my short career as a would be Prog Rocker. On that note, and directly related to Experiments with Mice, co-opting styles is sort of a Brit “thing.” Rick Wakeman, who must have practiced when we did not, has a history of performing pop tunes and nursery rhymes in the styles of classical composers. They are all over YouTube. Rick is brilliant, but one is often faced with the moral dilemma of whether certain Beatles songs deserve to be Baroqued to death or not. However the same “4 chords of Rock” haven’t changed much since Beethoven or Mozart or Liszt or Chopin, but they have calmed down. Or dumbed down as some would have it. Personally, sometimes they take the beauty of the melody until it sounds just like a symphony. Beethoven should be Beethoven, Liszt Liszt, McCartney McCartney. But then…Nice one.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sha'Tara says:

    That picture of the piano reminded me of how much I hated my piano lessons. I wanted to play the accordion. I dreamed of it but like many other dreams, if they differed from the powers that be, they were not to be. Eventually I got a violin, but I was too old by then and I didn’t have the wrists for it – milked too many cows by hand over the years. Corporal discipline was the norm for kids in those days. We didn’t like it (and some was over the top if administered by sadistic adults) but it didn’t turn us into monsters either. Not as much as drugs and cell phones…
    Back in the day, if you had a car, giving someone a lift was a boast, and an honour. I was only sixteen when I got my hands on a VW Beetle and I was seldom alone in that car! Remember the 6 volt battery under the back seat? The seat had steel springs and one time a quite heavy girl was sitting back there as I drove over a rough patch of road. The steel springs crossed the battery contacts and set the car on fire! Everybody bailed, I pulled the seat out to the side of the road and filled it with sand and dirt until the fire was extinguished. Then… after covering the battery with a piece of carpet I kept in the boot for emergencies, it was back on the road again… with a lot of laughs! Sometimes they were the good old days.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. franklparker says:

    Loved your story ablout the VW beetle, Sha. I never owned one. My son did though, back in the ’80s when he was trainng as a mental nurse. We followed him from Lincoln back to Cleethorpes one evening and saw it catch fire. Probably the same cause as yours. And, like yours, everyone bailed out and the fire was extinguished.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. willedare says:

    I am reading a biography about Bing Crosby right now. It’s wonderful to read your recollections of how and when jazz music entered your musical awareness in Britain. What a thing to hear and see Ella (and others) perform live! On another note, I was raised in several VWs (a bug, a Ghia and a microbus) and am grateful to say that I do not remember any of them catching fire. The sound of a relatively low horsepower VW engine is still very familiar and strangely soothing to me… Thank you for sharing these musical memories with all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

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