Friday, 20 January 2012

If I weren't the way I am, I shouldn't write my symphonies. [Gustav Mahler] - PART TWO

Music was an important part of the curriculum when I was in school and participation was not only encouraged but was, quite often, mandatory. 

First of all, of course, there was school assembly with, in Central Junior School, communal hymn singing (C of E naturally with other denominations being allowed to sit in a classroom in silent contemplation if they objected - multiculturalism wasn't in the school's vocabulary at this time), the singing of the Lord's Prayer in both English and Welsh  and unaccompanied chants of psalms and canticles. In addition, every Friday morning one class either had to recite, from memory, a passage from the Bible or provide a musical performance. This was greatly relaxed in Dyffryn Comprehensive where assembly consisted of two hymns, the Lord's Prayer (four days in English and only one day in Welsh), an address from the headmaster or one of his deputies and a Bible or "inspirational" reading from one of the Sixth formers. These assemblies were accompanied by the school brass ensemble.

Once every week in Central Junior School the 4 foot square (that's 1.2 metres square for the younger readers amongst us!) loudspeaker was ceremoniously carried to the front of the classroom and plugged into the school's relay system amidst murmurings of anticipation from the class. I'm not sure why this speaker was so big as the actual speaker was only about 1 foot (30cm) across and the rest of it was cheap plywood. Anyway, it was seen as an unofficial honour to be one of the two pupils chosen to carry the source of our forthcoming entertainment to the teacher's desk (they still had the old fashioned raised writing desks that meant they towered above us) and place it on it's stand.  

When the speaker was installed and plugged in, we'd then be told to take our "Time and Tune" books (a series that is still running on the BBC) from our desks and open to "such and such" a page (following on from the previous week's episode). Silence would then fall over the class as the appointed time approached. The songs contained within the books had been practised earlier in the week and at various points during the programme we sang these songs along with the narrator. To further reinforce and expand upon the books, our teachers also set drawing, essay and comprehension tests based on the stories.

In addition to class singing and community singing (sometimes in four-part harmony) there was also instrumental music. In our first year of junior school every pupil was expected to buy a recorder (the school sold these, as an extra source of income I suspect) and once a week we had class lessons in playing it. Each class would give a performance once each term before the rest of the school - I'm glad that I can't remember what that sounded like! 

The next step was usually to learn the violin but, unfortunately for me, someone had the bright idea that as ukeleles were so cheap it would be better to teach this as a class project rather than allow selected interested individuals to learn the more expensive violin (I suspect a teacher had a mate who had a load of ukeleles to get rid of as, once again, the school sold us the ukeleles). So, my ambition to learn the violin was thwarted and I ended up  as part of a large group of would-be George Formbys with "my little ukelele in my hand." After a few weeks "tuition" we were formed into a band and with only a few chords (I only ever learnt one!) we gave performances as a demonic strumming backing group to a teacher who could play the guitar and was the star of the show (and had sold us the ukeleles). It has left me deeply scarred (or is that scared?) and with a lifelong fear and hatred of the ukelele!

When we moved up to comprehensive school, with the exception of school assembly, mandatory communal music making stopped. There was a wider range of options for instrumental tuition with the provision of specialist peripatetic tutors (free of charge) and the free provision of school instruments - how lucky we were. 

I can't say why but I decided that I wanted to learn the trumpet (divine guidance perhaps!) and I went along to see the peripatetic brass tutor, one Mr Walter White. Walter was a lovely man and a very encouraging teacher. As well as individual lessons, which were always longer than they should have been, Walter also organised a brass ensemble and encouraged us to get involved in both the West Glamorgan Brass Band set up (lessons and ensembles at Neath Technical College on Saturday mornings), West Glamorgan Youth Orchestra (in Swansea on Friday evenings) and our local brass bands.

Outside school there was also a varied diet of music making. I had been, since about 8 or 9, a member of St Theodore's Church choir, singing for both Sung Eucharist and Evensong on Sundays and also rehearsing on a Thursday evening. From my early teenage years I became an alter boy and helped to serve communion and, later on, to carry the thurible and the processional cross. In addition to Sunday services, I had to take part in a weekly early communion service at 6.30am on Thursday. During this service, in the Lady Chapel, the vicar, Mr Bowen (whose wife had taught my mother in school) and I would prepare the emergency communion that was kept there for the deliverance of last rites and serve communion to any parishioners who attended. For months on end there was just the vicar and myself until one morning a parishioner did turn up for communion, throwing us into panic as neither of us could remember the complete unsung Eucharist!

Even though my faith is no longer strong (I waver from believing that there must be a God to thinking that it is all just a fairy-tale to protect us from the cold, dark, world) and I do not attend church, I only have to hear the music to remember all the words of the Eucharist and they start to have meaning for me once more. Similarly, I am always very disappointed and annoyed if I happen to be in a church and the Eucharist is spoken rather than sung.

As well as at church I sang, for a little while, with the Port Talbot Cymric Male Choir (one of the oldest in Wales) under the late Roger Chilcott.

As already mentioned in Part One of my version of Homer's Odyssey, the main outlet for my extra-curriculum music making was the BSC (Port Talbot) Brass Band. There were two rehearsals a week as well as junior band and it was great fun. Here come two more influential figures - Terry Sheriff and Evan Richards. 

Terry was Principal Cornet of the band and was the most beautiful player I have ever heard. He ruled the cornet section and was quick to jump on mistakes. He was also a fun-loving character and was great with the youngsters in the band. Terry also took the junior band and would give us cornet lessons, unpaid, in his spare time. Tragically, Terry was killed, aged only 23, in an accident in the steelworks. Having just qualified as a welder, Terry was killed when a welding pit filled with gas which then ignited. The fire extinguishers hadn't been checked and were empty and poor Terry was so badly burned that, despite being rushed to Chepstow's specialist burns unit, he died a few days later. This shook the band to its core and things were never the same again and thus began a long, slow decline.

Evan Richards, from Cwmparc in the Rhondda, was the band's conductor and was well known in South Wales as a brass band trainer. I used to have lessons with Evan after rehearsals and he was very patient and kind. He was a good and knowledgeable conductor and the band started to make serious improvements under him. It was his unfair sacking (due to band politics) that made me leave the band and I have only recently returned, almost 27 years later. Evan died in 2011, aged 90, and was mourned by hundreds, possibly thousands of brass players who had benefited from his tuition and kindness.

Carnival of Venice - Black Dyke Mills with Philip McCann

Back in school, moderate success at 'O' level led to the Sixth Form. This was a much more relaxed affair than before. On the very first day we were gathered together and the headmaster announced that corporal punishment did not apply to Sixth Formers - if we transgressed then the only recourse was expulsion (I'd take that any day over being beaten with a stick or bat!) - but we were expected to take on prefect duties and patrol the school during breaks and at lunchtime.

It was a time that was filled with opportunity and excitement. Not only were we starting new courses but there was now spare time for our own projects, playing sports and sitting in the Common Room playing cards and talking to girls! I decided on courses in Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics and, at the start, was full of enthusiasm. Sadly, as time went on, the maths courses became more and more difficult and the teaching less and less illuminating and I spent more and more time playing cards in the Common Room (I've never been very good at talking to girls) or slipping over to the BSC Sports Club (just over the main road) where we drank beer (they didn't care that we were under age and in school uniform) and played snooker. 

Physics was a different matter. Mr Williams, our Head of Physics, was an extremely entertaining and interesting teacher and his classes were never skipped. He was full of stories and we loved to hear his tales about when he had been part of the team that had developed radar during the war and his fascinating asides when discussing various topics during the course.

As part of the Sixth Form we were expected to take part in the school's annual Gilbert & Sullivan performance and also various concerts throughout the year. As a trumpet player I was fortunate to play in the band rather than have to sing or act but, when returning to study 'A' level music I was told that I was expected to take part on stage. Thus, I made my one and only appearance beneath the Proscenium Arch as the Duke of Dunstable in "Patience"

I have to admit that I never thought I could do it but, as part of the deal with the headmaster which allowed me to return to school for another year to get my 'A' level, I had no choice but to take part. I have to say that it was a fabulous experience  and not only did I manage to learn all the dialogue and songs, I got through six performances and even managed to ad lib for five minutes (without a single stammer) when someone forgot to send on the chorus! I love G&S (more people are now appalled!) and have always meant to get involved in an amateur society but it's never happened. 

In Part Three I shall finally get to University College Cardiff and talk about the fantastic musical journey there, the interesting people that I met, the friends that I made, some of the not so good things and, of course, Alun Hoddinott.