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


2 thoughts on “The Last Week of June

  1. Reblogged this on Music for You and commented:
    This a great article by Howard Snell, discussing life after Music College and the first steps into the “real world” for a would-be musician.

  2. Just came across this blog. I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading it. Please do some more!

    I first came across Howard Snell as a sixth form student. I started learning the trumpet at the age of 14 and he was an inspiration to a youngster like me. Later on I was also in awe of Jimmy Watson and Maurice Murphy.

    I went on to play with various groups at a high level. Although not much involved with brass bands I could not help but notice the amazing impact Howard Snell had on the brass band world and the legendary status of the RNCM brass department.

    So I wanted to say thanks for the blog, but thanks also, for the many years of inspiration. For me hearing Howard perform the Hummel last movement with the LSO helped me to realise that
    I had stumbled into an exciting world.

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