Memoirs of a Music Man - Part Four: ...with Mr Bean on percussion

Written by Robin Nelson.


Robin Nelson continues the story of his time as Director of Music at Lord Williams's School, Thame...

Before rehearsals for the Verdi Requiem began, the headmaster, Mr. Goodall would set out the chairs, helped by senior boys, and organise coffee in the interval and minibuses to ferry students home. Then there was all the paraphernalia to be taken to New College…. music stands, drums and the rest.

He was at the forefront of that too, and it went well enough for us to return another year with the Duruflé Requiem and the gargantuan Berlioz Te Deum - an even bigger enterprise the money for which came from somewhere or other.

Howard Goodall has since those days become a famous composer and the presenter of several excellent television music series for Channel Four. I remember him as a talented organist and pianist with a cherubic countenance beneath a shock of golden hair.

We did four part harmonisations in the style of Bach as part of his Oxbridge preparations, in my office, overlooking the girls' netball pitch. His concentration was focused more on the girls' leaps and jumps than on my instruction, but his gifts were special and he could imitate Bach as well as anyone.

I realised then that it was possible to teach someone more talented than yourself and still be effective - offering experience, enthusiasm and personal encouragement. This was to prove useful when I went on to Marlborough College years later.

Howard wrote a number of excellent musicals: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other C.S. Lewis adaptations, with librettos devised by the Headmaster of one of the Lower Schools. They were performed with wild enthusiasm at the school and to a very high standard.

He continued the liaison during his studies at Christ Church College, Oxford and I well remember one production with Howard at the piano, Simon Preston and his Christchurch choristers in the audience and a rubber-faced faced man playing exotic percussion who had us all riveted by his amusing facial contortions: Rowan Atkinson.

The Arts were served by some remarkably talented teachers, including a Head of English who turned out classic play productions and a dance drama teacher who devised amazing choreography for boys who were also members of the first fifteen.

The head of the boarding house wrote a musical with me. Called It’s a Crime!, it was based on an Oscar Wilde short story. His colleague Colin Brookes directed it, stealing the show with his wicked cameo of a lascivious cleric. Ian Crabbe joined me on the music staff, the start of a long and fruitful partnership, and there were several other teachers contributing to all the activities.

It all came together in an ITV documentary about the school and its music,
culminating in a performance of STAR, a nativity cantata I had written with a speech and drama teacher.

I guess it was a rather special time, but I often found myself uncomfortably stretched. One Founders Day I needed to take a harpsichord down to the Church three quarters of a mile away, and had forgotten to book the minibus. I carried it down by hand helped by three pupils, pausing halfway there to play The Entertainer on it, to the amusement of passers by.

Then there was the earnest student from Westminster College who was tracking my lessons. “Could you outline the plan of your next lesson?” he asked, as we hurried towards the music block. “You know exposition-development-recapitulation….that sort of thing?” I realised to my shame, I hadn’t a clue, so we asked the pupils, and they constructed a cracking plan.

I added to the hectic days by joining an excellent choir - Schola Cantorum of Oxford -and conducting the Oxford Symphony Orchestra.  For four years I had the privilege of rehearsing Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Borodin in the cavernous Sheldonian Theatre every Wednesday night.

Home life began to get very complicated. We lived in Brill, just below the windmill, and had a series of daily hoops to negotiate: eldest son to Magdalen College School Oxford, second chorister son to same school different times and daughter to local school, me to Thame and my wife working at a Nursing Home five miles away.

The Morris Traveller was not in the prime of life and didn’t like the snowy days.

Then one morning, Sally planted on the kitchen table an advert cut from the Times Educational Supplement:  Director of Music required, Marlborough College, Wiltshire.




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