I set off early for the newspapers this morning with the expectation that I would be back in time for the Andrew Marr show which starts at 9.00 am. I give myself the treat to listening to some tracks of Bach and Mozart loaded years onto my (massively outdated) iPhone 4 which I just use nowadays as a type of MP3 player. As it happened, the first track was the cantata ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring‘ which was played on solo trumpet and organ – as such, it did remind me of my old and good friend Clive who played this on his trumpet at our 50th wedding anniversary celebrations three years ago. Sadly, Clive died earlier on this year, just before COVID-19 really hit us hard so I shed a silent tear in his memory.
As I was on my own and in a reminiscent mood, I wondered when my interest in classical music was first aroused. It certainly was not the influence of my mother for whoever I located and tried to play some classical music on the radio, I would invariably get ‘When are you going to turn that incessant row off?‘ Our family dog did not appreciate my attempts to practice on the violin because on one of the occasions I brought the violin to practice at home, our mild mannered little dog threw her head right back and howled like a wild prairie wolf. So I would have to thank the influential music teacher who taught me at Thoirnleigh College, Bolton where I boarded for three years whilst my mother went off to train to be a teacher in the mid-1950’s. His name was ‘Jock’ McGovern and as a Catholic priest was entirely untrained as a teacher. However, he had some interesting teaching styles and tricks. Each week we would have two music lessons -on of the first of these we would do the conventional elemts of musical education (staves, types of notes and so on) On the second lesson of each week, we were taught the life of a great composer. We were told the story of the composer’s life and then played some fragments of music that we would always associate with him e.g. ‘Fingal’s Cave’ for Mendelssohn, ‘Eine Kleine Nachmusik‘ for Mozart. Our homework was always the same – from our rough note books we had to copy the story of the composer’s life into the lined pages on the left hand side of our ‘neat’ book whilst the fragments of music were copied onto the musical staves on the right. And then we were asked to draw, with the lightest of touches and using coloured crayons,a collage of scenes from the composer’s life (e.g. The father and son on horseback in Schubert’s ‘The Erl King‘ ) I have to tell you now that as a 11-12 year old (boys) we absolutely hated doing this activity as it made us think we were being infantilised and treated like little primary school children. But – this is the extraordinary thing. After over 60 years I can call to mind almost every one of those stories, complete with illustrations and, of course, the musical fragments that were completely lodged in my memory. All of this was done without the benefit of an ‘modern’ educational theory – ‘Jock’ just devised the system himself (I subsequently, though, read a tribute to him after he died a few years and other generations of school children has been equally inspired) I thought I was quite good at music always getting a mark of about 95%. Only later did I discover that the lad who came bottom of the class got a mark of 92% and the top mark was 99%. By all thinking we had got good marks, did that make us perform better? What Jock was not was an effete, tender-skinned aesthete – quite the reverse. He was a stocky, rough-and-tumble Glaswegian with a temper that was violent and effervescent – hence we both respected and also feared him somewhat. The school was rife with stories of how Jock has chased a miscreant schoolboy all over the school yard striking him with a violin bow (or trying to) for some misdemeanour. This I did not witness, but the following incident I did witness. The ‘runt’ of the class was a little lad whose (surname) was Harrison and who could never remember the difference between a sharp and a flat. In exasperation, Jock seized hold of Harrison who was facing away from one hand and with one hand under the base of his skull, raised young Harrison several feet off the floor, saying to hime ‘Now, Harrison, a sharp RAISES a note‘ Then he released his fingers and when Harrison crumpled to the floor, he shouted ‘And a flat LOWERSs a note‘ ( I surmise that Harrion never every forgot that distinction ever again) Jock had a 650cc Norton motorbike and there was rumour that Jock had killed an elderly pedestrian whilst driving at 80mph on Blackburn New Road. In the days when car indicators were a little pop-up sliver of plastic, Jock had a special pair of gloves that had a metal contact between thumb and forefinger. Together with the batteries stored inside the glove, the motor cyclist could give a flashing indication of when they were about to overtake by extending their arm and activating the light by repeating pressing and releasing his fingers. We are naturally intrigued by this (in 1957). To conclude, Jock once gave the 40 boarders and 20 religious staff a 20 second lesson. ‘Well, we are going to try some Gregorian Chant this evening. You all know how staves work but this stave only has four lines, each note is a crotchet, a dot doubles the length of the note and every note is a tone apart. Off you go!‘ and so all 60 of us sang Gregorian chant perfectly after the minimum of instruction. My only concluding comment is that somebody of this ilk would not survive for 2 weeks in a course of teacher training and now he would be thrown out after such a series of transgressions.But think of the generations of students that this man had inspired over the years – is there no room for the unconventional in today’s educational system – I must ask the question! I attach a link to an obituary of this remarkable man: