Sunday, 19 July 2009
A great teacher
Mrs T, who taught me to play the clarinet from 1972-82, has retired, even though she hardly looks any older now than she did back then. Six of us from those olden days turned up for the party, and I'm glad we were there to play tribute to a wonderful teacher. I count myself very lucky to be taught by her.
I must have started learning the clarinet at about 8 years old, at which point the instrument would have been almost bigger than me. Both the London Borough of Redbridge and my parents were very supportive of music in schools, and I was given the opportunity to choose what I'd like to play. I first met Mrs T in a little room smelling of old socks and floor polish next to the school assembly hall. D had already started learning the oboe, I couldn't get a sound out of a flute (I still can't) so I thought I'd have a go at the clarinet.
It was some time later that my own clarinet actually arrived, in a black plastic case with the sections held in place by blue foam. It wasn't at all clear how they fitted together. I suspect that the reed showed up a little later in the proceedings. I was very excited. At my first lesson I must have been shown how to get a sound out the thing, and having played the recorder I already knew the basics. I was equipped with a little red notebook where Mrs T would write down my homework, and that first week she suggested I try and play a few things by ear. At home, I had to ask my parents if they knew who this composer was.
The music teacher in my primary school was another brilliant, if eccentric, character. He ran a school orchestra that included any pupil who could get a note out of an instrument. Percussionists weren't overlooked, and he even encouraged conducting and composition. At the age of eleven, I had a go at writing music. He even gave me the opportunity to perform a bit of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in a school concert. By this time, I was deemed good enough to be given a 'music award', which meant lessons on my own with Mrs T, and membership of Redbridge Music School. This was a wonderful organisation, running orchestras, choirs, wind bands as well as music and theory lessons on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
I was desperate to play the piano too, and eventually I was allowed to have lessons, although I've never been quite as comfortable with piano as clarinet. I played in the wind band as well as the orchestra, and went on summer music and activity holidays in the Redbridge outdoor pursuits centre in Wales as many times as I was allowed. We played at Snape in Aldeburgh, at St John's Smith Square, London, and in the Redbridge Schools Choral Festival at the Albert Hall in 1982, where I performed the clarinet solo in Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. That performance was recorded, and I still have the record. That was a high point.
In the background for all this time was Mrs T, teaching, encouraging and supporting. I don't remember ever being told off, although like any youngster there were times when I was less than enthusiastic about practising. In fact, I don't remember Mrs T ever getting angry at all - the abiding memories are of her infectious laughter, her smiling eyes, her encouragement, her enthusiasm.
After I left school, we somehow kept in touch. It was mostly down to other friends of mine - I don't think I would have managed to maintain the contact on my own. Mrs T (or Kath, as we can now call her) moved away to the middle of Essex, and I learned about her work there from the glowing tributes paid at the retirement party. The school music department there has grown from one vandalised piano in a damp music room into a department in its own building with a reputation as a centre of excellence. They were lucky to have her working there too.
Now that she has retired, Kath and her husband, the wonderful Richard, will have time to spend travelling, indulging themselves, and essentially doing all those things that one can't do at the same time as a full time job. I wish them all the best in the world.