Many moons ago, I was a very bad violinist! I had been playing the piano since I was four years old (which I loved) and when I moved up to secondary school, I thought I might try a new instrument. I took up the violin and reached the giddy heights of Grade II (with a merit pass – go me!) but it was becoming increasingly difficult and somehow, it didn’t feel like the right instrument for me. So, I took up the ‘cello but was told it might interfere with my violin technique (oh, purleez…). I hadn’t yet mastered Bach’s violin concerto in E major (the very reason I had taken up the fiddle) not could I play Beethoven’s 5th symphony on the ‘cello (with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing in my headphones) so I gave them both up!
Then, a life changing thing happened. The sort of thing which happens and doesn’t hit you in the mush at the time but, when you look back at your life, you realise just how important it was. It was the day I met Derek Holvey MBE
I liked school, I loved music but I hated double physics on Mondays so I invented a tenuous reason to be away from the classroom and wandered up to the music teaching room where I had had my violin lessons on Tuesday afternoons. It was a tiny room, overlooking the school car park and netball courts and in among the many instruments and cases sat a friendly looking chap, playing a trumpet. His first student hadn’t yet arrived and he was doing a bit of practise until he/she turned up. He smiled and asked me what I wanted. I didn’t really know but I did like the sound he was making so I told him that I played the piano but had recently turned my back on a hugely successful career as a string player. Was there an instrument he thought I might be able to learn on a Monday? (I was genuinely interested but of course, it would mean missing physics every few weeks too. Method/madness etc.) He looked around the room and pointed to a rather battered looking brass instrument, it was nothing like the nice shiny trumpet he had been playing. He told me it was a flugel horn and said he could show me how to make a sound, then I would have to take it home and practise. Thrilled that I had found a legitimate way of avoiding my science lesson, I picked up the instrument and tried to make a sound. As with many learner brass players, it’s not always easy but I managed to play C D E F and G and was feeling very pleased with myself as I tucked the horn under my arm (it had no case) and hid in the girls’ loos until physics was over.
I carried it around all day, took it home on the bus and grandly announced to my mother that I was learning a new instrument. She looked at it in horror, locked herself in the bathroom and shouted through the door “You are NOT playing THAT, you’ll have deformed lips!”
It wasn’t easy making a nice noise on my new toy but I persevered and eventually, my mother gave up the fight and she and my dad bought me a cornet. There was one proviso, I had to share it with my sister, Amanda but as we went to different schools, our lessons wouldn’t clash so that was fine.
I became more proficient and in February 1976, Mr. Holvey suggested I attend a residential orchestral course in Ogmore-by-Sea, near Bridgend. Mid-Glamorgan boasted its own youth choir, brass band and several orchestras including the junior, transitional and senior orchestras. This would be the ‘Trans’ course and it was such a wonderful experience, playing in a brass section behind the strings and woodwind, I worked even harder and in May, I auditioned for the senior orchestra. I was terribly nervous but I managed to play a technical study and the lyrical second movement of the Haydn trumpet concerto without wobbling too much and Mr. Francis (Mid-Glam Music Adviser and conductor of the senior orchestra) said I was playing well enough to join the senior ranks but that he didn’t think there were enough girls’ beds on the forthcoming July course. There were four two storey blocks of dormitories so it was a bit of a balancing act to fill them equally with mad keen music students of both sexes. My dad was thrilled that I’d been awarded a place in the senior orchestra but was dismayed to find I might not be able to attend the next course. He had ‘a word’ with Mr Francis and lo, I found myself sitting in a brass section of 10 trumpets, 10 trombones, 10 horns and 2 tubas. I was the only girl in the trumpet section and it was pretty scary.
The senior trumpet players would ‘ask’ me to count their bars rest while they read The Sun and when my grandparents bought me a fabulous Vincent Bach large bore Stradivarius, I would often be told to hand it down the line so they could play it while I had to cope for an hour on theirs. I put my robust immune system down to sharing the 1st trumpet section’s germs for all those years…
Playing the trumpet was so different from playing the piano. I’d been a solitary keyboard player for ten years but now, I was playing in an orchestra made up of around 150 students, ranging in age from around 14 up to full time university students in their early 20s. It was just utterly, gobsmackingly, incredibly AMAZING and I will never ever forget playing Dvorak symphony no. 8 on my first course. Even now, when I hear the opening bars, I am transported back to those sunny Ogmore July days when we played music, morning, noon and night. The last rehearsal finished at 9pm and we then had some leisure time. I attended around fifteen courses in total and back then, nobody was asked for ID in pubs so I would often be questioned by Mr. Francis during rehearsals. He would put his baton down, slide his music conducting glasses to the end of his nose and would peruse the back row of the orchestra very slowly before stopping and staring – at me…
“Miss Fiona Bennett of “Fernleigh”, Maplewood Avenue, Llandaff North, Cardiff CF4 2LZ, telephone number (0222) 566356 (I don’t suppose Data Protection was very important in the late 1970s) – was that you climbing over the wall and heading towards one of the local refreshment centres at 9.15 last night?”
(being told off by Mr. Francis was bad but being told off by Mr. Francis with 149 other music students staring at you was REALLY bad)
“Erm, no Mr. Francis”
“Are you QUITE sure it wasn’t you, Miss Bennett?”
“Erm, yes, Mr Francis”
“How old are you Miss Bennett?”
“Eighteen, Mr. Francis”
“Are you QUITE sure about that, Miss Bennett?”
“Erm, yes, Mr. Francis”
…I was always in trouble and I’m sure Mr. Holvey wished he had never clapped eyes on me at times. He (and the fantastic Mr. David Hughes) were our brass tutors on ‘The Glam’ and of course, he would have been responsible for me during the week long course. I’m so sorry for all the angst I caused you ‘Strolvey and ‘Strews, you’ll be pleased to hear that, at the grand old age of 55, I have calmed down a bit!
I still play a bit. Thanks to the amazing Cerian Rolls and her dedicated ‘Glam Team’, we have enjoyed three exciting reunion concerts in Cardiff which prompted me to start playing again. I met up with (and married) my old Guildhall School of Music and Drama trumpet playing pal, John Heritage, in 2015 and we both now play with Newbury Symphony Orchestra and various brass bands.
I still wish I’d mastered the Bach E major but heck, I’ve had so much fun since I first strangled a note out of that old ‘fog horn’ so THANK YOU Derek, THANK YOU David and THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU Mr. Francis xxx