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Origins… Walking Down Memory Lane




03.05.20 – Darrell Priestley

A fond stroll back in time today, to read as you while away your breakfast. My principle is that breakfast should never be hurried, and what better time to test that idea than now?

Recently I wrote about the opening of this music academy, in January 1989, from an idea that developed in the autumn of 1987. In truth, it’s origins go much further back, back into my childhood in the sixties and seventies. This is a story of family.

I began learning music in 1971, aged nine. And this may surprise you, but it was not my idea. My sister had recently flown the nest, and my father, Peter, decided that I needed to be positively engaged if I was to stay on track. I don’t know why he would think this, but he did have quite amazing child rearing instincts, and though he needed to be both wily and pursuasive, after much effort on his part I finally came on board with the idea, for which I have been most grateful ever since.

Dad had noticed that, as a small child, I loved music, taking a particular interest in our modest vinyl record collection, and often sitting in front of the television watching the test card and listening to orchestral music, trying to work out what instruments were playing. I would have been maybe four or five years old at that time. Also, if we ever went anywhere that there was a piano, I loved to have the odd plonk on the keys, just like all other children. With only this to go on, dad went out on a limb and bought me the instrument of the day, an electronic organ. At that time, even the cheapest such instruments were widly expensive, and by nine I had developed enough to realise that, having agreed to this, I now had some kind of obligation to make it work. So, actually dad was going into this contract with a strong hand, and I must say he played it well. He set practice goals in sensible amounts, going up in baby steps from ten minutes a day until eventually I was practicing for much longer, without ever really noticing.

Of course, there was much more to it than that, and dad was quite crafty. He was a warm, friendly man, but looking back I am amazed that he knew so many people. How it worked was that he would ask friends to stop by the house, offer them a cup of tea, and the next thing you knew he had me playing my latest piece for them. I now half suspect he was cultivating all these acquaintances for this very reason! It probably help that we lived in a house on a corner, because there were so many passers by, and few escaped this process entirely. Happy days! Dad was shrewed, too, because he knew that I would be embarrassed to play the same tune as last time for old Jack Kirk the next time he stopped by in a week or two, so I had to focus on always finishing off my latest piece in order to have something fresh to play.

My first music student was my mother, June. I would have been perhaps eleven or twelve, I guess, and I remember being distinctly impressed that she made any progress, in fact she actually did rather well. Her favourite tune, which she played beautifully, was ‘Beautiful Dreamer’. If I listen carefully, I can hear her playing it now. My mum had a lovely voice, and she often enjoyed singing around the house. Oddly, for someone so musical, she had that odd habit of occasionally changing key at random moments without ever noticing. This annoyed me a little, but was actually quite endearing, and I loved to hear her sing.

My next student was my nephew, Justin, who was aged five, just nine years younger than me, when he had a few lessons. Though I was still very inexperienced, just teaching by accident, really, it was clear he was very able, learning everything quickly. Although he did not do this for long, I found the experience to be very rewarding indeed, and it opened my eyes to the idea of teaching in the future. When I was a little older, I began teaching in earnest, but at first really only seeing it as a way to earn a little money to help me be self sufficient. I loved gardening, and wanted to be able to buy tools, seeds, etc with my own money.

It was my good fortune that my first two students both had such musical aptitude. When I began teaching non family members, I came to realise that everyone might not find this so easy. But fortunately, I persevered. I wanted everyone to find it easy enough that they could learn to play, and play well. It turns out that, with the right approach, a good deal of patience and a great enough skill set on the part of the teacher, this is pretty much possible. Needless to say, I did not have such a skill set in the early years, which in fact takes long years to acquire, however what I did have, that has stood me in such good stead, is the passionate belief that music is for everyone, and that if I could only grow enough as a teacher and mentor, I could help them all achieve.

Musical aptitude is desirable, but you can go a long way without any special aptitude, and indeed some students with a high level of natural ability do nothing with it. Now I find the practical limits to achievement rest prinicipally in two things: i) the student’s own level of motivation, and ii) the level of support that they receive at home. Being the parent of a music student is not always easy. Are they inclined to practice without any special encouragement? That can be quite rare. Keeping things on the right track sometimes requires that you be resourceful, and use your imagination, as my father did. He was truly a master at that. In many ways, the Northern Music Academy is my father’s legacy, not only to me, and to my family, but to all the people involved these past thirty odd years, which by now is quite a lot of people. If he could have known this, and the effect his encouragement and guidance on his young son would eventally have on his home town and it’s surrounding area, he would have been so very proud, in his humble way.

There were also excellent teachers along the way, which is a big part of the story. I was incredibly fortunate in finding my first organ teacher Gordon Carr, with whom I studied for years. Gordon was a quite man, good humoured, and a fine musician who showed me the way and made learning the organ seem glorious. I felt richly privileged. Then there was Richard Ingham, a superb saxophonist and educator who set the highest standard for his students. And the man who shaped music for me perhaps more than any other, Dave Smith, or ‘Golden Ears’ as I think of him – in all the time I have known him, I don’t think he ever heard a single chord that he could not immediately name. How he challenged me! Working with Dave, I felt like rhubarb must feel under a bucket; oh, he was tough to please, but, oh, wow! I will never forget what he contributed to my musical career, and I am so much more for knowing and working with him. Yet for all of the education, or indeed the valuable early career I enjoyed as a professional performer, the story of the Northern Music Academy is grounded still further in back the past.

Winding back towards my earliest memories, the roots of the Northern Music Academy run all the way back to the mid 1960’s, to my early home life with my musical mother and devoted father. Many successful musicians have a similar story, of growing up in a home that shared a deep love for music, and that somehow understood the richness that immersion in music making could bring to a child’s later, adult life. Though we lost mum in 1986 and dad in 1990, they inspire me still.