No 1 THE AUDITION
The day had come; we were off! We hopped on the bus to Eltham Well Hall, where Edith Nesbit had lived, then took the train to Blackheath, my favourite part of South East London. When my mother lived near here as a girl, she had had piano lessons at the Blackheath Conservatoire; now my time had come and my parents were taking me there for my own audition to see if I could emulate her experiences.
The Blackheath Conservatoire! It sounded terribly grand, and indeed it was, a most impressive building to a little boy. I considered it most distinguished and superior, perched right on top of the hill at the southern end of the village. We had often seen it, for Blackheath was a familiar place, my parents having several links with it. Consequently, I felt quite at home and comfortable about what was in store, being too young to fully appreciate the true import of the occasion; I didn’t feel especially daunted. Although I was only just six, my mother was convinced I had a ‘gift’ that should be utilised and developed. Besides, we had moved very recently from Westerham in West Kent in order to exploit the educational opportunities and advantages that would be available to us in London; my audition was therefore all part of the plan.
All we knew as we walked up from the station was that I would play something I had prepared and felt happy to perform. Well, I hadn’t actually prepared anything as such as I had had no guidance, no music lessons; that’s what today was all about!. So there was no elegant little minuet by Haydn or Mozart on the cards for example. My musical education, such as it was, consisted of three elements; first, the old 78rpm records that had belonged to my granny, played on a wind-up record player, complete with scratches from the heavy-duty needles employed on those old-fashioned His Master’s Voice machines with their curiously listening dog trademark. A good proportion of the records comprised 1920s foxtrot dances or ghastly third rate Victorian sacred pieces, morbid and miserable!
Second, my mother would often play me to sleep at bed-time, which was not only comforting but made me feel profoundly secure. Mum’s pieces were not especially advanced or challenging as she never had the opportunity to make much progress, her father dying when she was just thirteen years old. Consequently, she found herself abruptly sent out to work at that age, her whole education being curtailed accordingly; that was the end of the Blackheath Conservatoire for her. So typical examples of Mum’s repertoire included comparatively straightforward preludes by Chopin, her favourite composer, Brahms’ lullaby, ‘From Foreign Lands’ by Schumann and other pieces from his book for youngsters, ‘Scenes from Childhood.’ The inevitable ‘Moonlight Sonata’ would probably put in an appearance, and she was terribly fond of musicals, such as ‘My Fair Lady’ and especially Ivor Novello. Sixty years later I still find his ‘Glamorous Night,’ her all-time favourite, unbearably poignant.
Thirdly, Mum was a great fan of the BBC Light Programme, the somewhat superior forerunner of Radio 2, music usually playing in the house all the time, albeit of this lighter type, so there wasn’t too much Bach or Beethoven. Typical music which I heard often and liked was ‘Elizabethan Serenade,’ by Ronald Binge, very popular at that time; I can hear it now, playing in my head. Then there was ‘There’s a Summer Place’ which had a theme running through it that I found fascinating, a one note tune with four shifts of harmony underneath. It should have been deadly boring, but wasn’t, a bit like the ‘One Note Samba.’
My parents never pressurised me in any way about the audition and so the piece I chose to play was eminently unsuitable! Looking back, it is hilarious that I chose such a piece, namely ‘Side-Saddle’ by Russ Conway. But it revealed some authentic childish innocence and genuine enthusiasm, because I really liked that piece and could relate easily to its style. I very much doubt if it had ever been heard before within the confines of the Blackheath Conservatoire, or if it was ever heard there again!
So how was it that I could play it so easily, along with so many other pieces? I can explain what I could do, but not how I did it. This is exactly what my parents wanted to discover.I wasn’t just playing tunes picked out in a stuttering, hesitant fashion with one finger, they were all fluent, accurate performances, although inevitably a little simplified compared with the music which I couldn’t yet read; in any case, my hands were still small and I wasn’t tall enough to reach the pedals. Mum said I had this ‘gift’ but what did that mean exactly? It was a bit mysterious because for me it was the most natural and straightforward thing in the world to listen to something on the radio and then go and reproduce it instinctively on the piano, not just the melody but the harmonies too.
So having played my Russ Conway, I was asked to play it again, but starting on another note - in other words, to play it in a different key. I had never played it in any other key, because it had never occurred to me to play it in any other key than the one you heard on the radio. I found I could do what had been asked. It was effortless. I didn’t have to think, it was instinctive. I was asked to repeat it, starting on another note. As before, my fingers knew where to go without me telling them. Same result. This was fun! I liked it. Then we had some more tests. The Director asked me to sing various notes of chords he played on the piano. That was easy. I was able to sing any of the notes in the chord, starting anywhere, and sing them and refer to each of them by name. The chords became more and more complicated; I could still do it. I didn’t have to think, I just KNEW. The Director and his assistant became increasingly jolly and excited. There was a wonderful happy atmosphere in the room; I loved all this.
From all these tests the Director deduced that I did indeed have a gift; it’s called absolute or perfect pitch. It meant I could effortlessly sing any required note straight out of the blue; I didn’t have to think. It meant I had a highly developed sense of harmony, an in-built independent system of pitch where I already instinctively knew things that others would never be able to develop. It would mean I could take huge short-cuts, and instinctively be able to improvise and best of all, compose out in the middle of nowhere if I wanted. In short, I had an enormous head start, a complete down-load, if you like, of instinctive knowledge.
It says an awful lot for the Director of the Conservatoire - particularly at that time - that he was so accepting of what I did. I can tell you for a fact that a great many people in that position would not have been. But Dr Fussell, as I believe he was called, was clearly no ordinary music educator.He was from the outset so warm, friendly and natural; I liked him immediately. He could so easily have adopted a pompous manner and been cold, superior, condescending, forbidding, severe, uncompromising and downright dour! All these adjectives fitted the well-known examiner who took me for my grade four exam a year later. He took great exception to to my age, and astonishingly gave me a ludicrous low mark for my aural tests which were accomplished effortlessly. The effect on me was that I determined i would NEVER be like that with anybody. My piano teacher went to the trouble of writing to me personally to offer explanations and encouragement, which is what we all thrive on after all. It’s no good being like Scrooge; It was a bit harsh for a seven year old, for goodness’ sake!
So I was successful at the audition and started my first piano lessons immediately. Soon I’d passed Grade 5 and went up to the Royal College of Music when I was 8 for an audition to go to their juniour department, all fees paid. The well-known Miss Humby never stopped smiling the whole time. It was brilliant fun.I do hope this doesn’t sound smug, it’s certainly not intended to be, because whilst I have worked hard at music, this whole thing of perfect pitch is something I can take NO credit for and never would; that would be absurd.
It did take some time though, to sort out what I really wanted to do with this genius ability especially within the context of trying to make a living. For some time it was expected that I would be a concert pianist, for example. But actually, I simply wanted to compose my own music, not play other people’s. That of course is why there is the traditional image of the starving artist in a garret
and why so many composers were forbidden to do what they wanted by their families, often finally rebelling in later life, thank goodness.
So Mum was right, all those years ago - it’s a wonderful gift that I had the privilege of receiving for which I am deeply grateful, although it’s caused some acute problems at times. Perhaps I can tell you more in another instalment! Watch out for my next 5000 page epic!
The Blackheath Conservatoire Audition
Something I have not revealed before is that even from my pram I was fascinated by all motor transport, and most of all by those delightfully distinctive London Transport green country buses passing our flat in Westerham. That was a great vantage point as it directly overlooked the Croydon junction where it divided away from the main A25 Guildford-Sevenoaks road. There were four very different types of vehicle to be seen, two of which were very rare, whilst a trip into Bromley would soon reveal numerous exciting, shiny red central area buses.
This photograph shows an off-route diverted 75 taking an unfamiliar corner very enthusiastically in November 1970. I’ve never been able to decide whether the Catford garage driver did it deliberately for a bit of devilment or whether he surprised himself, finding he had bitten off more than he could chew with a corner he never normally encountered.
In my experience the Catford drivers often made these pre-Routemaster generation RT type buses perform in a spirited fashion; coming home from school to our new house in Eltham, the Catford drivers on route 124 thought nothing of overtaking other buses along the Bexley Road, which included a good long straight section ending with a significant hill; regularly achieving 45mph, even 50 sometimes hit the speedometer which I would watch like a hawk, willing it on and on. If my prayers were answered and no-one got on or off from Southend Crescent, 50mph was achievable! That was absolutely flat out, not bad for a governed down seven and a half tonner (over eleven tons full up) and all in a built-up area of course! I specifically remember asking my father if we could thank the driver at the end of one such journey for the marvellously exciting ride he had given us; of course my father, understanding these things, duly obliged.
So I happened to be in the right place at the right time when this particular 75 came charging round the right-angle bend at the southernmost top of a closed Blackheath village. The railway bridge that the 75 would have encountered on its normal route was shut for essential engineering work and buses that normally went over it had to go around the best, most comprehensive diversion I ever came across, including going down narrow roads right over sections of the Heath itself. It was doing a good 20-25mph and made a fine sight; it’s the best RT leaning over shot I ever captured with my camera, heightened by the contrary camber of the road.
Behind the RT is a splendid building, the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music, where my musical career started. Here I received my first piano lessons just after my sixth birthday, having passed the audition by playing a rendering of Russ Conway’s Side Saddle, of all things! The occasion was a singularly happy one, with much fun and jollity all round - remarkably informal, and never forgotten.