The music teachers

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The annual conferences have produced dozens of repeated paragraphs about what the news agencies thought were soul-stirring matters agitating the assembled members or delegates and sure to be of interest to newspaper readers everywhere; so if I write about a subject not really regarded as important at any conference, or maybe not discussed at all, the fault must in part be blamed on the reporter. Now, if the ISM represents anybody, the assumption is that that body is the music teacher. Music teaching may not be, as was suggested, a ‘come down', rather, it is the life solution for those who teach for their living.

Others secure sustenance by singing and playing, or by writing music or letters, and the more fortunate ones by a combination of all the activities mentioned. For my part, I am not sure which is the steepest ‘flop’, that to literature or that to teaching: both can be heart-racking especially when one has a conviction of thwarted ambition. The greatest trouble is with the music teacher who has no fixed post or other gainful employment, and consequently for his continued existence, least of all betterment, he must depend on the spread of his fame among a class not versed in musical values. Worse, his position in relation to other teachers may be affected by the number and success of pupils at real or imaginary examinations.

Sir Percy Buck said that, fifty years ago, the music teacher began by taking a diploma or degree, followed by a plate on the door, and a wait for pupils. My memory is that ‘fifty years ago’, when the ISM began in the Midlands, many teachers reversed the process: they first got the pupils, then secured a diploma or degree, and forthwith asked higher fees in accordance with the new real or presumed rating2. It was and still is in the vast number of cases a form of window-dressing, common alike to banks and insurance companies, and not unknown to hon. consulting physicians and surgeons. A man must advertise somehow!

The president went on to say that what used to be considered sufficient for teaching is now not enough. (It never was!) A revolution has taken place under their very noses, without the teachers being aware of it. Then came the grave charge, telegraphed by the news agencies to every hole and corner in the country, that only a small percentage of professional music teachers could play the National Anthem correctly! What a strange way of encouraging parents to put their children under the care of members of the ISM, the association, I understand, of professional music teachers. Are these they who according to black-type paragraphs in the newspapers, have not modernised their outlook or methods?

Hitherto piano teachers have formed the bulk of music teachers: but, strange to relate, music teachers, individually or collectively, have not been prominent in repelling the cheap jibes of others against amateur piano playing. Indeed, the alleged inability of teachers to play the National Anthem correctly was like manna in the mouths of newspaper men saturated with the wonders of radio reception and gramophone recording. These are the things that develop the musical superiority complex in those who could not pick out God save the King with one finger.

We should think that Sir Percy himself has an idea of the passing of the piano era and its replacement by something else: for he is reported as awaiting the period when a teacher could ‘hold’ a class of pupils, train them to listen, illustrate at the piano at a moment’s notice, harmonise tunes of all sorts and extemporise; in addition, he is to have at the call of memory all the acknowledged masterpieces and to understand the underlying principles of psychology. Other great qualities may be expected in that future race of teachers living at the time when Admirable Crichtons come along Oxford Street in bus-loads.

All this postulates a body of highly educated men working for nothing, or most parents able and willing to pay for the instruction of their children ten times the money now paid to a fashionable saxophonist. Those favourites of fortune have not one-tenth of the qualities to be demanded. There was one such teacher, I believe, living in London sixty odd years ago. His name was Julius Benedict3, and he himself said that for his musicianly qualities alone he deserved a niche by that of Weber. He died rich and resided in Manchester Square while he lived.

I suppose the ingredients of the revolution mentioned are radio and cinema. Well, everybody must have a set and many like a seat: but the relaxation associated with both should not affect music teaching or the virility of life in a climate such as our own. Music at the films will have to be trifling in character whilst the pictures have the present meretricious surroundings; and my experience is that, even with tolerable music, people will not listen as they do at a concert. Concert-halls have a tradition in which people sit and listen: but listening-in in the bulk is quite another matter. The millions take anything that comes with disarming nonchalance, and if regulated softly it generally makes a background no more objectionable than a tea-room band. The writer of congratulatory letters on radio performances I have never yet met in the flesh: he may be the halfwit of whom mention was made at the conference.

  1. Is this a reminiscence of the conduct of Theophilus Hemming? ↩︎

  2. Benedict was a prolific and much-decorated composer (1804-1885), most celebrated for his light opera The Lily of Killarney (1862). In 1860 he had collaborated on an Italian version of Weber’s Oberon↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, February 1937, pp. 393–394