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Background Noises

The musical backdrop to our lives was an ever-present soundtrack, something that quite unconsciously, I internalised over the years: both parents were performing musicians, but because our father taught at The Royal Academy of Music from before I was born, the house in Gerard Road where we lived, resonated with the sound of aspiring pianists all the time that I lived there. It only dawned on me when my father died that I found the family home almost impossible to tolerate when it became silent: not only had all the lights gone out; the music had died too.

Because of the rather unconventional nature of our upbringing, it was necessary for us to become independent domestically at an early age. Part of this conditioning involved the entertaining of students who were waiting for their lessons. These lessons were additional to the ones that they would have had at the RAM; and part of what made my father an exceptional teacher was exactly this – that he would be prepared to give his time unremittingly at weekends and evenings.

Over those years that I was growing up, the community of students who studied with my father often became part of the family, and many of them have become lifelong friends; but at the time, it was simply part of the daily existence we knew and never questioned, that we shared our living space with people in transit. Sometimes the sharing was more extensive than planned: on one memorable occasion, a student who was in a bad way because he had failed his end of year exam, came home with my father to spend the night at our house to be looked after.

He ended up staying three years.

Because time-management was not one of my father’s greatest strengths, lessons used to run on, often ending way beyond the starting time of the next student. I can’t have been more than nine when I was taught how to make coffee and tea – not for myself, but for keeping the waiting students happy. It often seemed to me that the house was alive with students – one upstairs in the music room, mid-lesson; one waiting in the kitchen; and possibly another one, given the wrong time/day, waiting patiently to be fitted in somewhere, somehow. Sometimes he would overlap the lessons, so that two or more pupils would be taught together. On those occasions, the lessons would run on for hours, and would frequently end in either the pub, or our kitchen for supper. Sometimes both. As the music room upstairs had two pianos, the noise was overwhelming at times, occasionally urged on by violent stamping by our (at times impatient) father.

Interesting to think that this would not be allowed now by any of the teaching institutions in London – there are many good things about the new guidelines for clarifying boundaries between the teacher and the taught; but the loss of these golden moments of healthy connection that helped to nurture and inspire generations of students, is very sad.

One of the things I most admire about my father is that he never operated an Empire Building approach to his teaching: he took a person on as a student if they interested him, rather than regarding them as a vicarious fast lane to fame. Sometimes this meant that the talent level was modest, and certainly would have been of no interest to the more steely and ambitious of his colleagues in the teaching world; but ambition never interested him for its own sake – ‘success’ appeared to mean nothing to him.

His outlook on the world was rather individual: I once asked him when I was very young, whether he was happy. His reply disconcerted me considerably at the time: ‘I don’t know. It’s not something I ever consider’; because it felt as though he was saying that his family circumstances made no difference to him.

However, I grew to realise that his answer was rooted in a funny combination of stern Scottish Presbyterianism (one shouldn’t seek happiness as a goal) and a reaction against his own background: he was adopted, and that particular factor inflected his view of ‘family’ to a defining level. It is certainly true that his work was pretty much everything to him: holidays were mostly a barely-tolerated break in real life. He hated the notion of Family Holidays on dull English seaside beaches, so as very small children, we were taken away by our mother for the annual beach bonanza. That changed once we discovered Achill; but even then, his idea of ‘holiday’, was long walks, or trips to visit ancient monuments. At the time, this often challenged my tolerance; but I value the instilling of reverence for both walking and history quite enormously now.

The students who came to be part of our home world were not all from the RAM: my father taught a number of keen adults from astonishingly differing backgrounds and fields of professionalism. I remember a man who had originally come to sell pensions and life insurance to my parents, but who became a really keen weekly client. Very good he was too; I often thought his life must have been bifurcated quite bizarrely by the weirdly contrasted elements of boring sales pitches of mundane financial products, with impassioned performances of the Chopin Ballades.

A very early memory is of a student who seemed to me to be of giant proportions (he probably was over six foot five) with glittering eyes and a rather rictus-like smile: he had a predilection for telling scary ghost stories, or recounting the legends of Dracula. I can still recall the combined terror and frisonnes of delight that often characterised a Saturday morning while he waited for his lesson.

One poor student was given the task of teaching me the piano when I was six: for some time, I had asked to learn, and finally my parents decided that an ideal solution was to put one of my father’s students in charge of me. I still remember the feeling of utter horror when the said student produced a child’s tutor book called something like ‘The Giant’s Footsteps’, which had lurid pictures and enormous notes printed on vast staves. Unimpressed doesn’t cover it…I had blithely assumed that I would be instantly onto Bach, like the people I heard upstairs; and this seemingly patronising rubbish I was being served up with left me colder than ten day old porridge.

I think the lessons lasted about two months: unable to persuade me to come to terms with ‘The Giant’s Footsteps’, the student produced Anna Magdalena Bach’s notebook, (presumably out of desperation) wrote all the note letters over the stave, and allowed me to wreck Minuet in G; but it had become clear that mutual respect had not been engendered, and I was taken away from the student (who was probably mightily relieved) and sent for lessons at school, where the Headmistress (a nun) was also a piano teacher. Funnily enough, I never failed to respect her - her quiet but confident assumption of authority held my attention with no trouble at all.

Then there were the people who came to rehearse with both of our parents: for many years they played in a piano trio, which made regular appearances in London. I developed an early passion for the piano trio repertoire as a result of hearing these many rehearsals, which were often held in the evenings. Going to sleep against a background of Brahms had a very special magic for me then; and when I hear a Brahms trio now, or a Fauré Piano Quartet, I am instantly transported back to a bedroom in Barnes with flowery wallpaper and very rickety melamine furniture.

One of the things that stands out for me in retrospect is that all the people who were part of our childhood world treated Catriona and me as adults: maybe because our parents always had done too; or maybe because people coming to the house were there in work mode, so we were just part of a general landscape.

I have two particularly fond memories of bumping into people at home who, had I known it, were extremely well-known musicians; but of that, I was supremely unaware at the time.

The first occurred when the horn player Alan Civil came to rehearse with my father one evening. Catriona and I heard the sound of the French Horn filling the house, and at one point in the rehearsal, when our father went downstairs briefly, we crept out of our bedroom and peered into the music room to catch sight of the mighty instrument. Civil saw the two little girls silently emerging from the shadows of the landing, and showed us how the horn worked, how it came apart, how to blow raspberries into the mouthpiece...it was a wonderful moment; and had we but known it, completely confounded the reputation Civil had for being an archetypal orchestral tough nut.

The second episode must have occurred when I was about three. One morning, I recall coming out of the bedroom to find a burly chap racing up the stairs two at a time. 'Morning mate!' he bellowed benevolently at me, striding towards the music room. The heavy Scouse accent bemused me somewhat; but it was alright - I mentally assigned him the role of 'plumber' in my mind: during this time, our house was infested with a variety of builders, who changed on a daily basis in the way that builders do; so I simply assumed this was yet another person to add to the dramatis personae of our world.

Later that morning, after the 'plumber' had belted his way through a series of arias at decibel maximus, it became apparent that there was more to this particular visitor than met the eye. Or the ear.

It turned out to be Ramon Remedios,

at that stage just starting to emerge as a serious tenor talent on the London operatic scene.

It wasn’t easy to develop my own way forward as a musician, faced with the enormously high levels of talent that poured through that house, and I often felt intimidated by the sheer brilliance of what I heard; but there is no doubt that inspiration was all about us.

I once described myself as ‘bohemian’ to my children, who instantly fell about with laughter and have teased me about it ever since. However, I do look back at my origins in that house and feel fairly sure that it was as unconventional as you could get.