Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.