The Last Week of June

is a week when I always briefly look back. My first ‘last week of June,’ was in 1956 when my career as a musician started if only because my time as a student ceased. In truth, my career didn’t start: nothing happened. I wasn’t prepared for reality, so it seemed less than nothing, if that were possible.

Those were different days. Not the slightest advice was available or offered to the young. Only a few excerpt books were available to a would-be orchestral musician … Richard Strauss and nothing else that I can remember. ‘Excerpts’ from the orchestral repertoire did not figure in lessons except if the student took a piece in that was listed for an Academy concert, while the practice diet was a meagre ration of studies and pieces with the Haydn and one or two scraps of modern concerti thrown in. How changed things are now. I never taught or coached anyone without first knowing (musically and therefore career-wise) where they wanted to go.

So to all young musicians finally leaving the uneasy shallows of just pretending and striking out into the deeps of reality, the fear that swimming in the real world will be as easy as some people make out will seem extremely unlikely. But you will all be well prepared, I am sure. My very best wishes to all of you across the many last weeks of June that I have experienced.

I don’t know what kind of success most people imagine is available to them, but for anyone who wants purely and simply to make money, John Paul Getty’s simple injunction is the way to go: “Rise early, work hard, strike oil.” However, if you want to make music, then oil is just something that one puts on the machinery of brass instruments from time to time, and that kind of oil has made money for only a few (highly worthy, I hasten to add) musicians who have had the sense to sell it in very small bottles at very high prices.

In my day it was oh so simple. As I said above, I left the Academy (The Royal one of Music). I waited a few days … nothing … then went on my first holiday to France with a couple of friends. It began with a few days just wandering around Paris, horrified by having to dredge up the scant remains of my school french, but fascinated by a very down-at-heel city, strangely without any war damage, as opposed to poor old London, pock-marked with bomb-sites. After that a train took us overnight to another different world, of red-roofed houses sunk in vegetation of luscious greens, and a first unforgettable waking-up to a Mediterranean dawn as the ancient train struggled south, station by station.

A world with which we three were about to collide, not so much me … because I fell ill on arrival … as for one of my friends, still a student at the Academy, who was arrowing towards a pretty French girl, what else? He had met her at an Essex swimming pool, and she was this month’s one and only for ever miracle female. Wedding bells across the meadow were already sounding in the young man’s ears, and true love, as instant as Nescafé, horse and carriage, marriage etc.. However, these were still the days of chaperones in provincial France. We were going to stay at her parents’ home, but there were rules. France did rules like no-one else, and still does.

Falling ill proved to be a good move. My two friends instantly went on the town, falling prey to the old British disease of trying to drink their weight in alcohol. The first (and last) warning to my friend from the grim Papa of the beautiful Princess was followed, for my friend … after a lot of unbearable good behaviour over a couple of impatient years … by marriage, children, divorce, all during a see-saw musical life, in which the word ‘success’ was seldom present. Then, after executing a swerve that no-one saw coming, my friend triumphantly enjoyed a great career in the rock music publishing business. His talent was in seeing opportunities. At last he saw his, after a long false start dreaming of a playing career.

If you seek security and are bedazzled in your twenties by the thrill of pension rights, pro music is not for you. Have I ever been able to tell where I will be in five year’s time? Never. One year’s time? No. When I got back from my first French trip, I just continued where I had left off and waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t. It resolutely ignored me for three months. My meagre savings from my scholarship money … I did say these were different days … were almost gone. I was clueless in a Finchley Road bed-sit. I could have gone back to my parents but that would have been the Walk of Shame.

Out of the blue later that autumn, the phone rang. Would I like to audition for an unspecified job with Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra? The speaker on the other end said he had heard I was a promising player. Yes, please!! (I tried to keep the exclamation mark out of my voice.) I played, I hoped I was promising, they smiled. Then the phone returned to staring at me with open contempt, until my former Prof, George Eskdale, called me to work with him in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Orchestra. I would play Principal when he was absent. It was a Gilbert and Sullivan season at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Manna from heaven. Six weeks of work out of the blue.

Midway through that period, in early January, the phone rang again and the Sadler’s Wells voice, that I had completely forgotten about, shouted down the phone “Where have you been? I haven’t been able to find you anywhere. You could have had the 1st Trumpet job, but the 3rd & 1st is still open. It’s yours if you want it.” How different today, when sections can hover for years before making an appointment. I accepted of course. The strange case of not having been able to be contacted I discovered much later was a question of off-stage politics. A lesson noted.

Six months into my job, the Principal trumpet left, and I moved up to Principal. Much later, three years on, I left the Wells in order to freelance. Just before I left, Fate and the LSO librarian, who was also the orchestra’s fixer at the time (1960) … the unforgettably diplomatic and delightful Henry Greenwood, the Lord rest his heart of Ulster gold … came on the phone and said “I hear that you are a promising young player. Would you like to play 1st for us at Llandaff Cathedral next Saturday, June such and such. There’s nothing much in the programme, the train leaves Paddington at such and such, and it’s white tie.” I played, I hoped I was promising, they smiled. Handel’s Fireworks Music, Hoddinott Clarinet Concerto (no trumpets) and Sibelius 2 … on a Super Olds B flat, because “there’s nothing much in the programme.” Another lesson learned.

Aboard Ariel at Woodbridge, late 50s

Aboard Ariel at Woodbridge, late 50s

In the last week of June, the phone rang and again it was Henry, “Would you like to do our Proms with us and a few recordings?” (I tried to keep the exclamation mark out of my reply.) So I played through the summer of 1960, and stayed until 1976.

In actual fact, until late August 1976. But it should have been June 1976, because that was when several new vistas opened up, thanks to my old friend from Essex, and from much-missed Jim Watson; a son of Leicestershire. And so on, until now. Every day almost always something new and strange around every corner.

So for those of you leaving for a career in music, or have already left the Supermarkets of Education and the Department Stores of Learning during this last week of June 2015, be prepared for something very different to the story of your musical life so far, because it was irrelevant to what is coming. I had just the vaguest aims in the last week of June 1956 about where I was going: today life is more structured, therefore more restricted. Chance has less chance to transform the standard into the exciting. “Place your Bets” or “Faites vos Jeux” as they say in the most glamorous casinos if you like thrills.

In a free-wheeling musical career the unexpected is standard, the impossible must be achieved every day, and even the improbable comes to pass eventually. All you have to do is add courage. Having said that, polishing your pension can be very exciting … I’m told. I still conduct, I still write, I rarely teach now and I would love to do it all again. But you will be able to do many things that I haven’t done, in your own special way, if you bet the house on yourself. Faites vos Jeux!

H, evacuation to Llanhilleth, wartime.bmp

The Paved Road

Opening score page: Gallery

Opening score page: Gallery

My previous blog — Current Affairs — was a snapshot of some normal moments in normal day, nothing heavy, just a ‘retirement’ pic. The usual commercial ads seen in newspapers show retirement as if it were a long self-satisfied relaxation after a rather short working life, something to be richly enjoyed, a time of mature reflection strolling among green pastures. Mr Luckyman, with distinguished greying hair at the temples, is accompanied by an attractive younger lady who has either dug for gold or collected several divorce settlements. We feel the glow of a perfect sunset where the sun never goes to the trouble of actually setting.

Annoying? The truth is somewhat different for almost all real-life pensioners. Possibly edged out of work early, life may have come to a crashing stop, leading to a period of fiddling about with the loose change of time that you don’t know what to do with. It probably involves being under your wife’s annoyed feet, but also requires an humungous amount of patting very young grandchildren, followed by having to humour them as middle-aged children, many of whom seem to be understudying for a future life as robots (presumably for when the said robots rule the world), and also being careful not to cross those elderly young who are seriously focussing on respect (for themselves, not you!) in regard to their oh so important self-esteem.

Then there’s the health issue. It’s payback time! Old age is the illness from which no-one recovers. All those pints now come home to roost, all those fags, all that adipose tissue hanging off your midriff which you so carelessly and enjoyably collected over the years. These foolish things remind your doctor to constantly nag you to take this wonder drug or that magic potion so that you can live longer in order to suffer longer. One becomes, unless very careful, a secondary effect of the medical profession still practising after all these years. Will they ever get it right? Their practising on you, that is.Will they ever get it when they are wrong? The figures on iatrogenics (death by medical mistakes) are horrific, that is if they can be found before they are swiftly wiped off the net. The chilling words of doctoring’s new Hippocratic oath, namely that “lessons will be learned,” is not a lot of comfort.

What I thought of as a mild little blog seemed to be of interest to quite a few people and prompted one comment that tickled me no end. It characterised me as “Still as intelligent, interesting, eloquent and slightly mad as ever.” I loved the “slightly mad:” I have spent my life side-stepping certified sanity as you would avoid a killer contagious disease. When I left the London Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet post in 1976 to start conducting (although I played on in the studios till 78) people said to me “You’re mad! Giving up the best job in town just to become a second rate conductor.” (They didn’t even say slightly mad.) At that point I didn’t know Vincent van Gogh’s words from one of his letters — “Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow on it” — the fact is, my gut was telling me exactly that. And looking back now, my head knows it to be right, too. Vincent’s letters are as golden as his sunflowers, and there have been many flowers our path since we left London in 1980.

Otherwise — concerning the rest of the comment — I deny (almost) everything! In describing me, you would have to struggle very hard to get the word “intelligent” past my wife, or indeed past me. At the age of 19 when I finished at the Academy, I was confident I knew everything musical worth knowing, even about subjects I hardly knew existed. At worst I could just wing them. Today I know virtually nothing about anything. Over the years, Mother Nature has sat me down time and time again, and — slowly, quietly, patiently — explained to me that my rag bag of notions about everything were a nonsense, if only for the reason that they were just picked up here, there and anywhere for no good reason, just because I had heard them or read them. She also said (my wife that is) that just because I might have made a good lying lawyer that was no excuse for behaving like one. Finally, Mother Nature explained that it would be better if I stuck to what I really knew, absolutely only what I really really knew. Since those days I have followed her iron rule as best I can, only using my own thoughts, no one else’s. Nothing borrowed, nothing new, nothing old unless I’ve found it to be true … by myself.

As for “interesting” … that’s a worrying word … normally it is a keyword used by modern art critics when they are not sure what’s going on, but they feel they better cover themselves with a catch-all word so as not to be found out later as being un-cool. Or could it be a friendly word to sugar the pill of that “slightly mad” description? As I am not ready for paranoia yet, it might just be genuinely meant.

“Eloquent.” I like that. Thank you. One can do things with words that can’t be done with serious music, or with serious paint, or even with serious folding money. It’s possible to be a one-man band with words, vamping like a really good pub pianist. Words can dance even if I can’t, and can sing even if can’t sing either. Eloquence is a song with words, a song without music. (Actually I have sung in La Scala professionally, yes, for money. I won’t explain, but I did have a trumpet with me as well.)

A short diversion: I suspect that many people in the goldfish bowl of the brass world see me as ‘academic,’ when nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I do is by feel. I have to work hard to learn by reading, because I naturally learn by doing. Actions come first with me and any words or theories come after. Yes, I do try to peer deep into my actions in order to see what happened, what the processes were and what order they came in. End of diversion.

So what do I do all day in retirement? Well, as I write, I have just sent off to the printer all files for my new piece GALLERY, the commission for the 2015 Scottish Open Contest in Perth at the end of November. It’s an innocent looking piece: there are no five-eight or seven-sixteen bars that might tempt some conductors into re-writes, so no worries there. The semi-quaver count is relatively low: in fact for a test piece it could be a record. The seating plan is a little unusual, allowing me some antiphonal playfulness. There are no ensemble problems at the start: the Soprano cornet leads comfortably into the first bar. Again, no worries there. I admit to liking music to smile sometimes, but no banana skin stuff. When it’s serious however I’m serious. In summary, I just hope that the players, the conductors and the audience find it enjoyable. That will be bull’s eye for me.

Other than that, what do I do? I might look out of the window a little and then work some more, working through my lists. Or reading a book (currently on the ancient Greeks and Romans) or thinking about my own next book (On Conducting) that is in it early stages. And then I like to do a creative different something every day. And then it might need to be chopping and stacking wood, like earlier today. Or doing the shopping, like yesterday. Just like BR — Before ‘Retirement.’ My would-be slave-master, the British State, would like me to take the pills, sit in a chair and hurry up and leave — “no bed-blocking please” — meaning “you cost too much.” I am not going to do any of those three things.

If we are lucky at birth, and most of us are, we are born beautiful little animals … ahhhh! … but then we start at once to deteriorate. Our parents wreck us (kill us with kindness) — Philip Larkin got it about right — then school distorts us (dumbs us down), university warps us (no comment — luckily I didn’t go to one), and debt steamrollers us. Rarely does anyone suggest that the real work of life is simpler: to be giving and useful, to do to others as we would be done by.

I fully accept that I am a contrarian, if that is the thought that pressed the ‘slightly mad’ button on my commentator’s keypad. I admit that when I come across a crowd, I will immediately set off in the opposite direction. However I am not a contrarian because I am stroppy or awkward. It is just that experience has taught me that this is the way to bet. The wisdom of the in-crowd? Very average.

My advice for a reasonable life? Disbelieve almost all politicians. The political class is the enemy of the people: that’s us, you and me, the outsiders. The trouble is, in jungle terms, the political classes have no predators. They multiply like rabbits and then gorge on us at their leisure to pay for their financial incontinence. Because they can, they do. Simple.

Avoid doctors when possible: I will accept dying of an old-fashioned illness but definitely not from slow medical-drug-induced decrepitude. (See iatrogenics above.) Instead, drink your fill from the glass of music and perhaps … woodworking. (By the way, that wasn’t my idea: I read very recently that Albert Einstein suggested this course of action for one of his sons, as the best education possible.) I’ll just keep on working, trying new things, learning from that most informative of happenings — my errors.

At root, I try to expand the small amount of knowledge that is really mine, that I haven’t copied, or just guessed at, or just read in this morning’s newspaper, that I am sure I have earned-&-learned from my trials-&-errors, whether playing, teaching, conducting, arranging, composing, writing, whatever. V van G also has wise words on this subject, but they will keep for now — till the next blog perhaps.

Giving, through teaching, is probably the most important activity one can undertake, the passing on of one’s know-how, just as I gratefully drank in the words that generous older musicians offered to the youthful me. As fresh as yesterday, but fifty years ago, I remember sitting in an orchestra with that Prince of horn players, Alan Civil. He gently introduced me to appropriate phrasings for the classical repertoire: invaluable And he was one of many. Therefore, until my personal Last Trumpet sounds, I will follow that track, continuing to be a musician working and giving, and not a person just waiting.

I think I will stop here. Once more to the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. Spring has definitely sprung, the violets and cowslips are astonishing this year, the birds have been very vocal today and I know there will stars in a clear sky tonight. “Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” (How beautiful is that! I first heard it in a cramped schoolroom with 50 other boys some 64 years ago. Thank you, whoever taught that class! You gave and I have never forgotten.)


Current Affairs

No, not politics … although the pre-election goings-on in UK seem increasingly bizarre: for example, a serious proposal regarding ‘human rights’ for rats … while here in France, politics is a musical comedy without any music and neither is it funny, just farcical. Of course! It’s the famous French Farce. How silly of me not to connect the dots! I don’t ‘do’ politics usually, just have opinions on issues as they crop up. For reasons outside my control, for the last couple of months I have been in charge of all matters domestic, although now gradually letting go of those reins back to my wife. That situation has meant stealing the odd hour for my (still) daily activity as an arranger and composer. Curiously, with those time constraints I have managed more work per minute than usual, polishing the last dots and dashes to the SABBA commission ‘Gallery’ for the Scottish Open Contest in Perth in November. I have now moved on to revising a concert overture from about 20 years ago, entitled ‘Postcard from Riddings,’ subtitled The Two Windmills. The subtitle shows how the best intentions can sometimes go astray. Having been approached by the Riddings Band with a request to commission me to write a short piece … Riddings being a small industrial Derbyshire town … we duly agreed terms and I began to consider the task ahead. In talking to an official of the Band and enquiring if there was anything particular of note about Riddings that might be a peg on which to hang the piece, there seemed to be nothing much he could find to say, even though he was Riddings-man-and-boy. Finally, after much puzzling he said that there were two large windmills, and that was the best he could do. As these were the days before the internet had developed into the facility as we know it now, I found further information impossible to source. However I allowed the image of two large windmills doing what they do to influence the musical motifs that appear throughout the piece. With the piece finished, I rehearsed the Band and the first performance duly took place. Apart from the fact that the Band official then said to me after the first performance that the Band was now going (1) to publish the piece … I had to smartly disabuse him of this … and (2) of course make a lot of money from it … Dreams! Dreams! … I finally thought to ask him more about the windmills around which I had ‘themed’ my overture; “Oh,” he said; “they were pulled down donkey’s years ago.” I discovered subsequently that they had (at least) existed and were called James and Sarah. They were both large, and James, the larger, had been kitted out with six large sails and eight small fantails. It would have been quite a sight. Sarah was thought never to have been given sails at all, because she was so badly placed that she would have stolen James’ wind and rendered him … windless … or should that be speechless? A sort of domestic parable? Was Sarah so chatty? The windmills had been pulled down totally in the early 1960s, having previously been gradually reduced from windmills to storage units. However, this little Overture, which has now undergone a total refurb ready for some performances in Norway, is quite a favourite of mine and is ready to go out, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to make its way in the world once more. As a concert opener it ticks many boxes … no double sharps for those of a nervous disposition, and everyone’s valve casings will be red-hot by the final chord. I must now decide what’s for supper, feed the cat and generally be a (rather unconvincing) domestic god. At least I have learned to move pretty swiftly with the electrical cleaning device … why doesn’t it work by wifi instead of all those wires? … and I can do something vaguely three-star-ish with a tin of baked beans and a poached egg. That’s about it. Oh, and my wife is recovering extremely fast. What was my title for this very rambling blog … current affairs? Strange that there are so many exams these days and so many multiple choice options, but that when it comes to elections, each person has only one vote every five years and therefore only one priority to choose amongst so many choices. (Strangest of all is how easy the ruling insider classes find it to keep us outsiders quiet.) My vote would go to “independence” above all. But I’m old-fashioned and can’t see the trees for the wood. And I don’t forget being bombed out in London during the Blitz. Anyway, because of exceptionally sneaky UK voting rules I can’t vote anyway. Even the farcical French have an MP with a seat in Parliament for its expats! How bad is that comparison? Forget it. What on earth can I do for supper?

Making Connections

While doing final prep for the reprinting of my book ‘The Trumpet – A Guide for Students,’ at the last minute I decided to add a couple of pages of an informal auto-biog at the end of the book, — in fact beyond the end of the book, on the last endpaper — just to help readers make some connection between the person writing (me) and what I have been writing … where I am coming from, so to speak … and giving some background as to why I may be of help to younger people just starting out. Otherwise you could well say to yourself “Who is this person trying to grab my attention, and who obviously just wants to sell me his book?” And by the time I had finished the few hundred words or so of this introduction I felt as if I didn’t know me, myself, never mind effectively telling others about me. The mirror on the wall was showing me a person the most of whose life was so far distant now that I didn’t know him. As well, all those years crushed into few those words makes it look so simple, whereas while it was happening it felt like a chaotic struggle that didn’t make much sense.

However here goes. I am offering this tiny auto-biog to anyone who cares to read it. It is as short and factual as I can make it, while at the same time trying to make a connection. There’s no ‘philosophy’ in it: as I have grown older I have felt I know less and less, until now when I know virtually nothing. That’s as opposed to when I was 20, when I knew everything about everything. It is definitely a “Thank You” to my fellow musicians for putting up with me over the years and teaching me so much. Most definitely of all it is a “Thank-You” letter to Music herself, for letting me be a musician.

Making Connections

I studied trumpet, piano, harmony and counterpoint at the Royal Academy of Music in London. This was after a childhood playing in brass bands but with no tuition apart from the rudiments, and finally, just before the end of my schooldays, studying the piano for a couple of years with a very good teacher. My schooling, starting during the Second World War, was a very broken-up affair due to a variety of family circumstances: I attended 11 different schools between the ages of 5 and 16.

I entered the Royal Academy of Music around my 17th birthday, studied for three years, gained no qualifications except an LRAM (Performers) Diploma … degrees were not on offer in those days, still not long after WW II had ended … and left to pursue a career as a professional trumpet player. In June 1956 I was still 19 and had no idea what lay ahead. I started my career as an unknown freelance trumpet player, which culminated in the post of Principal Trumpet in the London Symphony Orchestra. While in the LSO I recorded as a soloist and appeared in concertos twice on BBC1 TV. I was also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Orchestra for 5 years. As was common at the time, I also enjoyed a busy freelance career alongside my LSO duties, playing in the London studios for many films and other varied sessions where I had the pleasure to get to know players from all over the musical spectrum, not just on my own instrument or in my own discipline. I revelled in the astonishing range of expertise that still exists to this day at the highest levels of London performers, and have never tired of learning through working with these colleagues.

Leaving playing in order to conduct was a relatively easy decision particularly with the support of my wife: I wanted new challenges. I founded the Wren Orchestra, initially as a chamber group, but subsequently regularly expanding it to symphonic status, giving hundreds of concerts and broadcasts with Capital Radio over two decades in the London area. Orchestral recordings of a wide range of repertoire date from this period, from Mozart and Haydn, to Tschaikovsky, to Gershwin and Copland. I have conducted, amongst others, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the City of London Sinfonia, the London Mozart Players, the Ulster Orchestra, the LSO Brass at the Barbican and the former Philip Jones Brass Ensemble at festivals and in recordings. Particularly satisfying was a period as Musical Director of the English Haydn Festival, a composer I particularly value.

All the while wishing to maintain my roots in the brass world, I included conducting brass bands alongside my orchestral conducting, but also arranging and composing, mostly but not exclusively for brass instruments. As a brass band conductor, I initially brought Desford Band to prominence: again an extraordinary learning experience in how to train and develop an ensemble. This was followed by the rebuilding of Foden’s Band, a very different experience … every group has its own culture … but even more valuable. Later the development of the Eikanger Bjorsvik Band in Norway constituted yet another new experience, dealing with not only a new group but a different national culture.

Two ‘firsts’ of mine, that give me cause to smile even today, were unconventional then but are completely accepted now. Firstly, while I was the Musical Director at Desford I introduced female players into top-rank brass banding. For me this was not a matter of positive discrimination, simply that the best player, regardless of sex, should be appointed to a vacant position. Today women are everywhere in music, on merit, and nobody gives it a second thought. Secondly, while working with Desford and Foden’s, to my surprise I came to be regarded as one of the brass world’s more ‘interesting’ arrangers, so much so that I founded a publishing company, Rakeway Music, in order to satisfy a steadily increasing demand for my works, both in the brass band and the orchestral communities. As with ‘women-in-bands,’ traditionalists regarded my approach to arranging and scoring as ‘dangerous,’ even ‘toxic,’ as if I were hacking away at the very foundations of banding, especially in my advanced use of bizarre percussion and mutes for all band instruments! (The good old days indeed.) In effect, I backed into publishing by accident and certainly not by design. Today this form of publishing is common, not only in brass bands but in wind bands also.

I began teaching while still Principal Trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra, but when I stopped playing I continued my teaching activities (eventually trumpet, conducting, and the writing of music) alongside my conducting activities. An 18-year period at the Royal Northern College of Music, a large portion of which was as part-time Head of Brass, saw the Department’s reputation rise to rival any in the UK. The 1980s and 90s at the RNCM were non-stop times of innovation and fresh ideas for me, a magic roundabout of projects whose aim was to stimulate the Brass School. I started the Brass Band Course which continues to flourish to this day. I instituted Celebrity Brass recitals and lectures. I ran two large-scale Brass Conferences. For 3 years, with Foden’s Band, I promoted the first ever regular series of original brass band music concerts in the UK. It was all great fun. One result of my teaching experiences was my book ‘The Trumpet – Its Practice and Performance, A Guide for Students,’ which was very warmly received on its publication in 1997. ‘The Art of Practice’ followed a few years later, written for student performers of all instruments. In 1998 I moved on to fresh pastures and an appointment as Professor of Trumpet at the Royal Academy of Music in London, which continued until my retirement from teaching in 2011. I still particularly prize my election as a Fellow of the Royal Academy in 2001, in addition to being an Associate.

I and my wife Angela live in retirement in South Western France, but I still work, although it is now centred around composition and home, with just the occasional foray into conducting. You will have gathered correctly that I am not an academic person at all: I am as far from that as possible. I am a ‘doing’ person. Everything I have learned has come in one way only: from doing, then thinking about it, then doing again. If this brief informal sketch gives some idea of one musician’s journey traveled, beware: you will need a temperament that enjoys risk. The world in which I began my career has now totally gone, but new, as yet unimagined opportunities lie in wait for those who seek a varied and fascinating musical life. Just aim high. Higher!

The very best of luck!
Howard Snell – February 2015

So that’s it. A letter of thanks to St. Cecilia, the Roman Church’s patron saint of musicians, but as she is a saint, I am sure she will have nothing to do with me. In addition, I have just remembered that St; Cecilia had no connection with music at all: I presume someone had the bright idea that a saint for music was needed, and as she was conveniently standing around at the time, she was shoehorned into the job. So perhaps I have the wrong ‘person’ and I should be addressing the much less well-known but much more suitable Aoide, the Greek muse of song and voice? A better connection perhaps. Hail, Aoide!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Portrait' of AOIDE

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Portrait’ of AOIDE

After all these years

WELCOME TO AO 112 (Anno Orwelli) or AD 2015 in old money

It is 112 years since George Orwell was born and it is 18 years since ‘THE TRUMPET — A GUIDE FOR STUDENTS’ … 317 pages of general advice and guidance, although not a tutor … was first published by Rakeway Music in 1997. The only connection between Orwell’s books and mine is that they both continue to sell steadily throughout the whole world, although Orwell’s have an enormous scope, whereas my more modest creations quietly deal with the happily innocent matters of music performance. Among many detailed subjects it covers CAREERS, PRACTICE ROUTINES, TECHNIQUES, ORCHESTRAL PLAYING, TEACHING, ANXIETY CONTROL. Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM and 1984 both continue to be true about depravity and evil … and to sell.

What do I take from this? That it was worth all the effort of 5 years of solid work in the early 1990s, work that was quite apart from my (then) working as a full-time performing musician. The present print run is now almost sold out and REPRINTING FOR THE 5TH TIME will be underway shortly. As for Orwell, he might now be regretting that he may have given ‘them’ ideas as to how to grip the world in a new form of slavery, but otherwise he would be pleased that his nightmare vision of the future was spot on.

Why do I mention Orwell at all? See below.

THE TRUMPET’S sister volume ‘THE ART OF PRACTICE — A SELF-HELP GUIDE FOR STUDENT MUSICIANS’ has now sold out its first printing and is similarly reprinting after THE TRUMPET. THE ART OF PRACTICE is intended for performers on all instruments, with illustrations for players of various instruments. It is a book that explores the common principles that underly all music performance. MASTER THE BASICS, MASTER YOURSELF, MASTER YOUR INSTRUMENT.

The downloading of THE TRUMPET book from the Rakeway Music Site ( has necessarily been halted till we can find a work-around to the blizzard of new EU VAT regulations. Unlike most EU countries, the UK historically has no VAT on books or sheet music, for the very good reason that price incentives to buy these conveyors of knowledge and culture are thought to be a very good thing.

These NEW EU VAT REGULATIONS require that SELLERS OF DOWNLOADS MUST CHARGE VAT AT EACH OF THE THE DIFFERENT VAT RATES OF EACH OF THE 28 MEMBER STATES OF THE EU ACCORDING TO WHERE THE BUYER IS SITUATED AT THE INSTANT OF PURCHASE. This has been cravenly agreed without a murmur by the UK’s so-called ‘Government’, more accurately a rubber-stamping committee. The Orwellian state of all Western Governments is the reason for the revised dating of my welcome at the top of this blog. The supporting conditions for these regulations are pure Kafka, that other author who saw the future and painted it very accurately. For example the seller is responsible for correctly divining exactly where the buyer is when activating a download, even to the point that if a buyer is on a train travelling between two countries, the sale has to be Vatt-ed at the departure end, no matter the home state of the buyer, and the seller has to be able to produce two pieces of hard evidence to back it up! This is a typically ‘eu-ro’ attitude — everything is forbidden unless it is expressly allowed.

This is the same EU that tried (and failed) to give us straight bananas and cucumbers, the hot and cold food epic, the eat-here or take-away drama, the light bulbs that struggle to produce light and countless other antics relative to which all known four-letter words are completely inadequate. The small business community is up in arms, several branches of which are seeing their businesses destroyed beneath them, at a stroke. (If you enjoy outrage try twitter #vatmess and #vatmoss.) Together with the list of bizarre, crackpot taxes that the EU enforces, this may be something that you consider when next called upon to vote in elections. Oh, by the way, the EU hasn’t been able to find an accounting firm to verify its accounts for some years.

As soon as we can find a work-around to this problem, we will put THE TRUMPET and THE ART OF PRACTICE up for download, together with a catalogue of low-priced downloads of Solos with Piano Accompaniment, in single items and in groups.
Once the next reprints become available there will be a VERY SPECIAL OFFER for the first 20 volumes of BOTH THE TRUMPET and THE ART OF PRACTICE, which will also place your name, if you wish, on the SPECIAL OFFER LIST list for my next book ON CONDUCTING, which is in the process of being written.

In my beginning is my end.

The title above is the first line from a poem which I read just over 60 years ago: I still have the copy I bought when I was a student. Its full meaning only became clear to me while composing a test piece during these last months for the Scottish Brass Band Association. It is called ‘Gallery’ and is set for the Scottish Open Championship at the end of November 2015.

Having been asked for a piece a couple of years ago I accepted the invitation with pleasure, yes, but also with some fear. But least I have learned over the years to be calm when faced with the rush of a  deadline. But in the same way I discovered when writing a couple of books, if the plan is right, the book, or in this case the piece writes itself. Just add in countless hours of effort.

I have always been in love with painting in much the same way as I am with music and my eventual plan for the piece united the two. So I settled upon the idea … not the first person to do so, of course … of linking separate sections of the piece to pictures. The choice turned out to be not at all like a planned exhibition, but more a random selection of images that raised a clear musical response in me. Because the piece was for a Scottish Contest, my mind turned northwards in that direction  because I had lived in the West of Scotland from the age of 9 and I finished school at 16, and had most of my formative musical experiences there, before going on to study in London.

Not all the pictures are Scottish in origin, or in Scottish galleries, or are even ‘great’ pictures, but it gave me a thread that I found fruitful. It took me back to times in my schooldays when my school entered several of us to take part in the then annual painting competitions at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. I didn’t mind being consistently unsuccessful in these competitions because my attention was always taken up with the treasure trove of pictures, sculpture and statuary in that wonderful Gallery. It contained everything and more that one could wish: small paintings  the size of a plate, large paintings the size of a small lorry, and everything in between. The Gallery itself, set in its gracious park … grass is never more perfect than in Scotland … with the river Kelvin winding around it against the rising background of the University, was in itself an uplifting sight.

The title ‘Gallery’ refers to various pictures, four of them by Scots artists. One of Scotland’s best known paintings (3) by Henry Raeburn is there. A further 2 are by another artist depicting two views from Ben Lomond (7). In this case it is a very famous Scottish name: John Knox, born in Paisley. However this John was not also a preacher! To my taste he is a magnificent landscape painter who stands with the best.  Caitriona Campbell, a contemporary artist with a very human eye, presents  n° 5, while the 3 others are an American (4) John Singer Sargent whose large picture ‘Gassed’ is from World War 1, a Frenchman (6) … Henri Matisse, with a bundle of cut-outs that decorated a book entitled ‘Jazz’  … and an Englishman Paul Cox (2) whose affectionate watercolour ‘snap’ is of the Barrowland Market.

Each of these pictures raised in a me a strong but obviously very different emotion that I have tried to paint in music … sometimes descriptive, sometimes not, and sometimes from my memories of half a century ago. That is where the title comes in: it describes my progress in relation to music, to painting and to Scotland, from then till now, from that particular beginning, to my end, so far … ‘In my beginning is my end.’

The first part of each title given below is mine, the second part is of the picture’s actual title with its painter:

1: Entrance – no picture – the visitor strolls up to the Gallery
2: Street Market – The Barras by Paul Cox
3: The Skater’s Waltz – The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch by Henry Raeburn
4: The March Back to Camp – Gassed by John Singer Sargent
5: Love Story – Old Couple by Caitriona Campbell
6: Cut-Outs – Jazz by Henri Matisse
7: Landscapes – Two Views from Ben Lomond (looking South-West and looking North-West) by John Knox

I first must thank The Scottish Brass Band Association for entrusting me with this commission, particularly Peter Fraser, and the initiator of the idea, Alan Edmonds. I dedicate Gallery to two Scots musicians who were very important to me as a boy: one was a Salvationist from Paisley, Bert Mackay, who taught me determination, and the sheer value and satisfaction of hard graft. The second was my piano teacher at the Royal Scottish Academy, John Erskine, with whom I took once-a-week lessons for two years while still at school in Paisley. Very sparing of praise but generous of time and insight, he opened my young ears to the great composers, and what they were trying to say to me. They are are still trying to say the same eternal truths to us all across the years … if only we are capable of teaching ourselves to listen.

My intention is straightforward: to test both the Bands and their conductors fully, the players through their instruments, the conductors through their knowledge, even though most of the music looks quite innocent on the page. For the audience I hope that some enjoyment is the result and the sense of a few minutes interestingly spent.


Danger! Men at Work.

Danger! Men at Work

At last I have made a positive start to what is going to be a short book … in fact it is meant to be as short as possible … about Conducting. To show how serious a move this is I can tell any reader straight away that one crucial fact enabled me to start: I ditched the computer and started to use pencil and paper, just like in the old days. Instead of dithering over producing perfect computer-copy first off (which I rarely succeed in doing anyway) I had to start thinking in whole sentences and paragraphs. Old-fashioned disciplines re-emerged from the depths of my mind and once on the move my pencil literally had trouble keeping up with my thoughts. I must admit though that I have to cross out at least half of what I write in order not to be boring or libellous.

Like my two previous books ‘The Trumpet’ and ‘The Art of Practice’, this will not be a read-through-in-a-straight-line-to-the-end sort of book, but a dip-into-and-put-down-as-soon-as-your-mind-wanders sort of book. In short not an epic but more of a what-if book. I must admit that during my activities as a teacher, now at an end, I was a fan of teasing out responses from students, rather than telling them what to do or think. It seemed better to encourage them to put their own minds to work. After all they had to spend the rest of their lives with their own minds, not mine, and as it was all they had, the sooner they learned to use them the better it would be for them.

I have always felt that Socrates’ methods (he was a Greek, a Philosopher, and very Ancient) of teasing out answers from his young pupils offered the most enlightenment to them, even if it was their confusion that came over most strongly in their chats. It seems hard, even so long ago and far away, that he was required to die just because of asking some innocent questions and in the process annoying some very dim people. (It was a democratic vote after all, so perhaps one should not be surprised.) Perhaps his radar was set rather too high not to realise that  he was being so annoying. To be told “Behave or Die,” he just did not see it coming. (He himself did not write the books about his thought games. They come down to us as written up by his disciple Plato.) I trust that my readers, if there are any, will be able to forgive me for any annoyances caused by this book-to-be. Please. I don’t want to die just yet. And the local supermarket is fresh out of hemlock. (For more information on this appetising drink, try googling the word itself, or the old-fashioned drinker’s welcome “What’s your poison?”).

The point of my view (and Socrates’) is that the answers to our questions are already inside us just waiting to pop out if only we can find them. My first priority, as a humble teacher of musical matters, has always been to cart away the rubbish that blocks the flourishing of peoples’ talents. Once that’s done then the real work can start. In the book I will be trying to help the budding conductor clear away his or her own rubbish in order to open up to his or her own answers. Not mine, theirs.

I loved teaching in all its forms, and still do. It is a sacred trust to be asked if you can make a difference to the course of someone’s life, not by bossing them around and telling them what to do, but by drawing out their own musical responses with simple questions – but not too simple.

Back to the podium … All conductors are different in how they mix their skills together to make themselves effective. However, all good conductors have the same core skills, notwithstanding the superficial differences between them. Throughout the book I offer pen-portraits of some of the finest conductors of the past, and identify as closely as I can what allowed their musical talents to flourish. Some of the many I met were impressive as humans, others were just egos looking for a stage, any stage, but still producing musical marvels. Others, by common consent, merited nothing more on the personal level than the title of ‘a very nasty piece of work.’ They could be very good too: good character and fine achievement do not necessarily go together.

A dozen years ago, after finishing ‘The Art of Practice’, I admit I did instruct my wife … I very rarely dare to instruct my wife, but I was desperate … to shoot me if I attempted to write another book. Writing a book is no walk in the park. It’s more like a war of attrition against an army of words, ideas and general mental bric-a-brac, all fighting me and each other to get onto the paper: the truth and the poor writer can go hang. Like the wreck of a boxer who has just gone many painful rounds with a far superior opponent, I shall be bewitched, battered and bewildered by the end of it.

But I mustn’t complain: perhaps I will dip into one of my previous books to get a few hints about staying calm, thinking straight and controlling my anxiety. Or does anyone have Plato’s phone number? No, better tough it out. Where’s that pencil? Back to Work. Back to the trenches.