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Weedon Weekly: 12th March 2018

Brian Sharp
Mark Shakespeare

STILL REMINISCING...

Although I made no headway in music by the accepted routes of 'who you know' and 'luck', I eventually fell (like Alice falling into Wonderland) into exactly the right place for me. The organ world. And what a wonderland it has been! I was fortunate to discover it just as 'orchestral' organs were developed, just as the whole happy organ community was growing like topsy, and just when I expected it least.

My time at music college had been cut short by joint trouble. My foray into the record industry, working at EMI, ended in disaster (that's another story). What on earth was I to do with myself?

I'd just learned to drive, and my mum sent me for my first solo trip to get her some carrots.  I came home completely vegetable-free but with both a job and an organ. I'd chanced upon a new shop with a window shaped like a grand piano. Sneaking in quietly, I saw a youngish fellow playing an instrument in a see-through Perspex case. The sounds coming out were like nothing I'd heard before.  Positively symphonic.  The shop owner, a very trendy chap with bell bottoms, kipper tie, wide lapels and a stage curtain of hair, sidled up and asked me if I liked what I heard.  I nodded.  

'That's Brian Sharp' he waved towards the player.

'He's very good,' I said. 'He ought to take it up professionally!' I still wither with embarrassment when I recall that faux pas.  Many years later, when I shared my stupidity with Brian himself, he was kind enough to laugh uproariously. 

Anyway, I bought that Perspex organ (or rather my long-suffering parents paid for it - I just arranged delivery). And the shop took me on as their travelling music teacher. The organ was an Eminent proto-type and it satisfied my longing to be a conductor.  Here was an entire orchestra at my fingertips.

At this point, organs were selling like hot cakes. It was my job to drive round the leafy lanes of Bucks to the purchasers, and teach them how to use and play their new toy. In many cases, these encounters turned into life-long friendships.  It always seemed to be hot and sunny then. And I always seemed to be offered delicious homemade lemonade and just-cooked biscuits when I arrived. This beat the so called 'fame' I had thought I wanted!

I fell into playing for concerts by chance. One of my pupils ran an organ club, and he booked me to do a workshop and play a few pieces. Then he suggested to Sceptre Promotions that I do the same thing at their massive Caister Festival. What a shock that was - about 1200 people, including countless families with children, ranged round a huge stage listening to me. The spotlights were blinding and I can say I have never been more terrified in my life.

Those were the days of free electronic organ concerts in prestigious venues, staged by the manufacturers - Lowrey, Farfisa, Elka, Hammond, Gulbransen, Baldwin, Godwin, Marlborough, Bird, and of course Yamaha and Technics, to name a few. The demonstrators were heroes of the organ world, including one beautiful youth in his early teens, Mark Shakespeare, who wowed us all at the Wersi kit organ. One of my pupils bought the kit and assembled it over hundreds of hours in his loft - then found he couldn't get it down through the hatch. 

I'm sure many of us remember those heady days. People say now that the organ world has had it. I disagree. But it's certainly in need of urgent help.  What could that be?  Well, I'll mull that over till next time, and would love to hear your thoughts and reminiscences as well.

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Weedon Weekly: 7th March 2018

Harry Belafonte
Bert Weedon
Don Estelle

THE FAME FORMULA?

So: what do all these people have in common? Fern Britton; Harry Belafonte; Simon Rattle; Barry Mason; Joseph Cooper; Joe Loss; Vera Lynn; Pam Ayres; Don Estelle; Basil Brush; Marty Wilde; Frank Carson; and Bert Weedon.

Give up? Well, when I decided I'd like to work in the music business, everyone said the same thing: ""Success is being in the right place, at the right time, and knowing the right people!" Then they helpfully added that it was all down to 'luck' anyway. This was a confusing recipe for a young hopeful.  Where was the right place? London? New York? Probably not rural Buckinghamshire, where we lived. And, once I'd decided on the right place, when was the opportune time to be standing there? And which of the passing people were the right ones? It was all totally baffling.

As it turned out, the right people came and went in droves.  I went to school with the now famous TV personality and writer, Fern Britton.  I competed in a music competition with, and tied for a place with, a child who was escorted and intently watched by Harry Belafonte (as my mother pointed out in rather too loud a whisper). I was at music college with, but too over-awed to speak to, the big haired and very popular young Simon Rattle before he hit the heights as a conducting maestro. I was coached in song-writing by the author of such hits as Delilah and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, Barry Mason, and was too shy to accept his invitation for further help.  I was adjudicated several times in competitions by Mr Face the Music, Joseph Cooper. When I worked at EMI I regularly ran errands to Joe Loss, and even received a Christmas card from him. At the same time, I rubbed shoulders with Vera Lynn, Pam Ayres, Don Estelle and Basil Brush (the voice, not the puppet) and probably many more who escape me. I played with my drummer friend as the warm up act to Marty Wilde and the Wilde cats, and backed Frank Carson (hard to do, when you're laughing till you cry). And, to cap it all, I never took up an invitation to coffee with my namesake, Bert.

So, all in all, I've managed to be in the right place in the wrong way, wasting time, and totally failing to connect with the right people. I don't know if that counts as 'luck'. But it's been a heap of fun. 

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Weedon Weekly: 15th February 2018

Charles Williams

NORMAL SERVICE CAN BE RESUMED!

At last - we have an internet connection again, albeit painfully slow (0.4 meg download). In the interim, I wish I had been able to broadcast a diverting interlude, such as the famous potter’s wheel which the BBC used whenever transmission was interrupted in the 1950s/60s.

My friend Shirley describes her web-browsing activities as a ‘breadcrumb trail’, which I feel perfectly describes the journeys of discovery which can grow out of one visit to the internet. In this case, the breadcrumbs led me to the music behind that video, “The Young Ballerina" composed by Charles Williams. I had forgotten what a delightful piece this is, and I also realised that I know nothing about the composer - although you may well be familiar with what follows. What I have discovered makes me feel quite ashamed of my ignorance.

Charles Williams is perhaps one of the most prolific and successful recent British composers, but because most of his music was written as ‘library music’ (where programme and film makers just pay a modest fee for using the works as background or theme music without any credit to the composer) his name has never achieved the prominence it deserves. During his lifetime (1893 to 1978), Williams composed some of the most iconic broadcast music. He was born Isaac Cozerbreit in London, but opted for the more accessible name as his career developed, first as a freelance violinist playing in theatres, cinemas and symphony orchestras. Only later did he win a coveted place at the Royal Academy of Music to study composition. He followed that with 6 years as an in-house composer for Gaumont British. Then, after the war, he took the baton as conductor of the newly-founded Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra (the very one we hear playing The Young Ballerina). He followed that later by forming his own orchestra, which he led until his death in Worthing at the age of 85.

So what would CW’s CV look like? I’m dumbfounded to learn that we have him to thank for The Dream of Olwen, The Blue Devil’s March, Devil’s Galop (of Dick Barton fame), The Old Clockmaker (used for the Jennings at School radio series - one of my great favourites), the Television Newsreel theme, High Adventure (still used as the theme tune for Friday Night is Music Night), A Quiet Stroll (used for The Farming Programme), Majestic Fanfare (used by Australian Broadcasting Corporation news), and themes for over 50 films, including The Way to the Stars and The Apartment.

Quite a breadcrumb trail! Now I have to resist the lure of enjoying the internet further today and get down to learning some new concert repertoire. But I have a sneaking suspicion some Charles Williams will find its way into it somewhere!

Lovely to be back with you all!

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Apology 12th February 2018

NORMAL SERVICE...

...will be resumed as soon as our internet connection is made.  We joined a new provider a month ago and, although they texted to say 'Congratulations, your new broadband has gone live' on the 30th January, we're still waiting for the connection to be completed.  The unkindest cut of all?  Another text message saying "Your account for your first month of broadband is now ready.  You can view it online". Ha jolly ha!

In the meantime, thank goodness for this computer in the public library so I can say 'You're not forgotten'.

Weedon Weekly: 23rd January 2018

Never too late

NO SUCH THING AS ‘TOO LATE’

So often people say to me, with heartfelt regret, “I’d love to take up music [again] but I’ve left it too late”. And I always counter that it’s never too late to get pleasure from music in some form or other.  Apart from those whose hearing has altered so that sound is distorted, there’s always broadcast and recorded music to enjoy.  One can learn a phenomenal amount about music history and/or theory by listening to it with some explanation. One of the most popular courses we ran for HF Holidays was ‘The Nuts and Bolts of Music’ in which Tony and I explained each aspect of music - melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and expression - and then played glorious works which illustrated each facet. The guests always said they got a whole new level of pleasure from each piece, once they understood what was happening ‘under the bonnet’, so to speak.

So much for listening. What about playing an instrument? We often overestimate the effect of physical constraints in music making that come with increasing age. 

  • Our eyesight might be less than perfect - but we can still learn to play by ear (yes, really - it is a learnable skill). 
  • Our hands may have stiffened up - but we have modern keyboard instruments which can be satisfying and melodious when played with one finger on each hand while the ‘automatics’ do the rest. And the very business of playing can restore lost mobility to digits. 
  • We may feel our ability to absorb new skills has gone out of the window along with the colour of our hair (or even our hair itself). But the brain is tantamount to a muscle, which strengthens with exercise. We can always make new synapses, connections between the neurons, like an old-style telephonist connecting calls. This is particularly evident in those who have suffered a stroke. My father rediscovered his arm movement by thinking about a cough, and his leg movement by thinking about a yawn. And research has shown that the discipline of learning a musical instrument gets less frustrating and more rehabilitative each day. 
  • Our hearing may have become ‘bassy’ or ‘toppy’, but Orla have manufactured instruments with adjustable bass and treble frequencies to help tune the sound to our liking.
  • We may seize up in the back, neck, shoulders or legs when we sit too long at the instrument, but a cheap cooking timer makes a great reminder to stand up and stretch after each short stint of 3 or so minutes.
  • Perhaps we feel too down to enjoy life. But we can ‘lose ourselves’ at an instrument so completely that our concerns are shelved for a welcome while. 

This week, the real headline item concerning music has come from a charity called ‘Playlist for Life’. Its founder, broadcaster Sally Magnusson (daughter of Magnus Magnusson) discovered that her mother’s distress from dementia was soothed immeasurably when she played her significant songs from her past. I have seen this in action myself, as I used to play for the Alzheimer’s Society. When I first arrived, my audience would be asleep, uncommunicative or uneasy. But before the end of the first piece of music they were all alert, happy and active. Memories would be exchanged, laughter (and some tears) would abound, and I would share their happiness at the shared experience.  Broadcaster Anthony Hopkins told me that his wife was beyond communication unless he sang his conversations to her. She would answer in song and they would be completely unhindered by her lack of spoken words. Yes, music is probably the first thing we revel in whilst in the womb, and its power to move and lift us lasts a lifetime. 

PS: Since writing this, I have just spoken with our pal Alf who is revelling in playing his refurbished Baldwin Theatre organ which he purchased 33 years ago. He is the embodiment of all I have just said, as today is his 97th birthday. 

 

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