Memoirs of a Music Man: Part One

Written by Robin Nelson.


Robin Nelson lives in Avebury. He is a former Head of Music at Marlborough College, currently Musical Director of the Swindon Choral Society, a composer and renowned as an ornithologist. For Marlborough News Online he begins a series of articles on his career in music. His story starts in a distant corner of the 'blackboard jungle'...

I confess I had left it all a bit late...I had extended my time at Cambridge to a fourth year by taking the teacher training course, a soft option and an uninspiring one as it turned out.


Other musical friends on the course had no intention of becoming teachers, but as the year went on I was bereft of ideas, and at the last minute applied for a post in a northern grammar school.  I was pleased to be appointed to the position of Head of Music until I discovered that I was, in fact, the school’s ONLY music teacher.

My first day was not promising. A rotund English teacher, pipe in hand, greeted me at the common room door with a cross look:  “Teachers only in ‘ere lad!” and then, with a jerk of his thumb, “Prefects and Senior boys next door. Thank you!”

There is nothing worse than a group of intelligent, disenchanted adolescents. The previous music man had made them sing Gilbert and Sullivan songs and told them stories of his war experiences. When the going got tough he simply took out his hearing aid.

What hope was there for a young graduate with a posh voice, green about the gills, about to witness his carefully planned lessons collapsing in the first few minutes?
My first encounter with a class of 13 year olds was a harrowing experience.

It was after morning break in a room with 'Stalag 13' scratched on the wall. The sound of the 1966 football chant, with NELS-ON!! replacing ENG-LAND!! assaulted my ears as I crossed the playground. Then exaggerated and extended cheers and applause greeted my arrival, preventing speech for a good two minutes.

The gloss-painted brick walls were dripping with condensation and the smell of stale milk was overpowering. After further hostilities a fat bully-boy piped up: “Give us the Bolero, Sir!”

Give us the Bolero? Well, this gave me a faint glimmer of hope. There were three L.P.’s in the cupboard: Carnival of Animals, Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and yes….Bolero!  I played it and there was total silence.

Mr. Exley, the Headmaster, strolled past the classroom window looking in inquisitively. I smiled back wanly - everything was fine Sir, just fine!  Then the bully-boy gave a nod.

Slowly, and in a crescendo of noise, the beating out of the Bolero rhythm began: hands first, then fists, then desk lids, then feet on desk tops. Mr Exley turned back on his morning round…

That class continued to give me grief. They amused themselves by performing the desk-shunting manoeuvre: while you turned your back on them to write on the blackboard or turn on an L.P. record, they silently shifted themselves and their desks a foot or two forward each time, until I was pinned into the last third of the room.

There were positives to my two year initiation. The pupils discovered that I had a strong sense of humour, was interested in football and was definitely not 'queer'.
I took some of them to hear the Halle Orchestra in rehearsal and in concert, with John Barbirolli conducting.

I had some useful singing lessons too, and wrote incidental music for Library Theatre productions in nearby Manchester. It was not all bad.

In my second year I gave up smoking and became happily married to Sally.  We were living in a dingy flat along with a persistent family of mice.  And back at the school a pupil’s clarinet was shattered by a medicine ball in the gymnasium: the parents blamed me for negligence…

One way and another it seemed like just the right moment to open The Times Educational Supplement and search for an escape.