Every business has its common questions.
A taxi driver gets asked how he or she remembers all those streets
(or more often than not, why they can't), a doctor gets asked who
they see when they're ill, a jockey gets asked if they have any
tips for the 4.30 at Chepstow Park on Saturday. I have two questions
commonly asked of me - usually by clients waiting in the workshop
whilst I perform an 'on the spot' repair to their instrument. The
first is how I got into the business of repairing - but I'm just
as likely to be asked how I started my career as a musician.
It's this second question that has the most curious answer; I did
it to avoid music lessons.
Let me set the scene.
It was my first year in secondary school. I'd never before had formal
music lessons - my previous experience with music in education had
been confined to singing hymns in school assemblies, banging assorted
percussion instruments together and taking the mickey out of Slade
To then find myself having to attend a lesson devoted entirely to
music was quite an odd experience...almost as odd as having to go
to a lesson about religion, though a great deal less scary.
Ah yes, the Great British Music Lesson.
If you had to host a music lesson for a bunch of (admittedly) disinterested
pre-teenagers, where would you start?
Would you perhaps invite theories as to what the very first form
of man-made music might have been? Maybe you'd try to convey the
staggering talent required by a chap called Bach to turn out so
much work of outstanding quality... and still have time to get very
jiggy with Mrs. Bach.
How about trying to convey the culture shock that hit the world
when rock 'n roll was first heard...or the social upheaval that
made Punk a possibility?
What you'd probably, most definitely, almost certainly not do is
pop a scratchy recording of Elgar on a steam-driven record player,
dish out pens and paper and ask the entire class to write down what
the music describes to them.
Even now, with all the knowledge and regard I have for music I cannot
listen to Elgar without seeing those words I wrote come back to
haunt me...."It's all quiet, here comes a black cloud, it's
raining, it's thundering, it's really windy...now it's all calm
I can just imagine Elgar standing in front of me, apoplectic with
rage, screaming "Is that it?? I might as well have not bothered!!"
So you can imagine the thoughts that crossed my mind when one day
the lesson was interrupted by another teacher asking if anyone would
be interested in joining the recorder group.
Silence... save for a couple of giggling girls tentatively raising
The recorder group meets during (and therefore instead of) the music
lesson, we're told.
Slight pause whilst we all figure out the enormity of this statement...followed
by fully 50% of the class raising their hands. To the recorder teacher's
credit she instantly dismissed the eager waving from the 'usual
suspects' - but I'd figured that with just the right blend of fake
enthusiasm, and a suitably angelic look, I could wangle my way in
on this skive.
And so it was that I started my playing career.
I surprised myself, I have to admit.
We were given a book that contained such ear-bending melodies as
'Bobby Shaftoe' (always a great source of amusement, that title),
London Bridge is Falling Down, Three Blind Mice...and the dreaded
Au Clair de la Lune.
We struggled bravely on...the attrition rate was enormous though,
and the class took many weeks to settle down as various people came
and went - having either decided that listening to scratchy Elgar
was preferable to blowing into a plastic whistle, or simply having
got fed up of describing that same bloody storm a-comin'.
I found I got on quite well, even to the point where I actually
practised at home.
It was during one of these practice sessions that I started to tinker
about with a melody I'd heard. It wasn't that difficult to play,
it had a nice bit in the middle and it didn't go on too long (so
there wasn't much to remember).
It turned out to be Bach's "Ode to Joy".
I played it at the next recorder lesson, in the five minutes before
the lesson officially started. The teacher commented on it, and
for a brief moment I dwelt in the no-man's land that is being popular
with the teacher and reviled by your classmates for being a nerdy
It had repercussions that I could never have imagined...and indeed
A few days later I was asked by the recorder teacher to take my
recorder along to the head teacher's office. This I did, and was
mortified to find myself being asked to play into a microphone!
It turns out that the tune was the 'anthem' for some sort of European
Schools Initiative - and the head had spotted a kudos-building PR
moment. This was followed by an even more terrifying request to
play the piece in front of the whole school during assembly. Head
teachers never directly ask you to do such things, they use such
phrases as "Wouldn't it be lovely if..." or "You
know what I think would be a good idea...".
And so I gave my very first public performance.
I think it went down well - at least, I don't recall being beaten
up in the playground afterwards.
Now, that anecdote alone is merely the entrée...
A few weeks later I found myself attending the rehearsals for the
school concert. The recorder group were to play a piece en-masse.
I can't offhand remember the tune, but it must have been either
the theme from Van der Valk (a popular Dutch detective series on
the telly at that time) or Paper Lace's "Billy don't be a hero".
If you're unfamiliar with these melodies you can quite easily replicate
the effect of listening to them by taking a cheesegrater to your
head...when you have a hangover.
So there I was, sitting in the hall, eyeing up the senior girls
in their leotards, when the new head of music came trundling in
(the old one had apparently had a breakdown in class...I missed
it 'cos I was in recorder lessons. Had I been there I might well
have become a psychologist instead).
I remember his words even now...he strode straight over to me and
said "I've got some good news and some bad news". I said
to give me the bad news first. He replied "You're playing it".
The good news was "We've got a saxophone".
I was taken along to a little room just off the music room that
contained shelves of battered cases - and smelt rather of sneakily
smoked cigarettes and that peculiar brand of instant coffee that
teachers drink - and a brown oblong box was placed on a chair in
front of me.
Ever since that day I've tried to recapture the thoughts and feelings
that swept over me as the lid was lifted on the case. Sitting snugly
in the case was a brass instrument of seemingly impossible complexity.
Familiarity with the saxophone over the years that have passed means
that I can no longer feel that same sense of awe at the way the
thing seemed to bristle with sticky-out bits. How the Dickens was
I going to play all of those keys at once?? How the hell do I even
put the thing on?? I honestly don't think I'd ever even seen one
There was another gentleman in the room, the peripatetic woodwind
teacher, and between the three of us we got the thing out of the
case, assembled it and produced the first note. I walked home that
afternoon carrying a brand new saxophone, my arms aching with the
weight of it as I rushed the half mile or so home, wanting so much
to see the look on my parent's faces.
And so it began.
I don't think it's being overly sentimental to offer up a few thank-yous
at this point - after all, it was a moment that changed my life,
for better or worse.
So I'd like to thank Lloyd Harris for bringing me and the saxophone
together, Alf Kendall for teaching me how to play it (and to say
'Gradely', a fine Yorkshireman that he was) and to Mrs. Dorman for
not dismissing me as one of the 'likely lads' who put their hands
up that fateful day in the music lesson.
And Elgar too, who inspired me in such a way that even he could
not have foreseen.