Musical instruments

I am not much of a performer, but I have in my time owned (and taught myself to play, after a fashion) quite a range of instruments ...

At certain times I got involved in opera, or operetta, and musical comedy (the artistic form often shortened to “musical” and then for some obscure reason distinguished from “musical comedy” by being dintinctly American, or more jazzy, or something...). That is covered on this site in the section on the stage.


When I was about 16 — around the time I bought those first three LPs — I found a clarinet in what was really a junk shop in a back street around the corner from Wimbledon station. The man was asking £7 and, when I asked to see it, I commented that, of course, it would need a new reed, and the man said “six pounds ten [shillings]” which I handed him, then I went home with a fine Boosey & Hawkes “77” (that is what is engraved on the side). I still have it, and still play it sometimes. I have never played with a band. I tried once, getting together with a couple of chaps from work in Paris who wanted to start a small jazz band, but it never got off the ground. I have never had a particular yen to be a bandsman or instrumentalist.


When I was about 17, with a younger brother into pop songs and the guitar, I acquired my own first guitar. I seem to remember an f-hole style acoustic guitar that was painted white (manufactured like that) got for a few pounds. For not much more, I came back from a holiday in Spain with a proper Spanish guitar, and I learnt mainly classical stuff though at university I did a steady line in performing Leonard Cohen songs — learnt from the song book; I never owned the records. At some point, I bought a better Spanish guitar which I still own.

Not to mention ...

Around my last year at school or while at university I also acquired a trumpet, a viola, a harmonium, a mandolin, a banjo, a silver baritone saxophone (for the pricely sum of £13.10 from a shop in the Portobello Road), and I taught myself to play all of these after a fashion. That is to say, I could get a decent tune out of them, though (obviously) because I didn't spend much time on them I didn't achieve all that much proficiency. However, though they hadn't cost much (typically the trumpet, viola and mandolin each cost me about a fiver!) eventually I needed the money, and I sold them all at various times.


When I bought the saxophone, while I was up there in London I went straight across town to Regents Street and into the Boosey & Hawkes shop, where I was directed to the basement. A little man who specialized in spare parts found me a complete set of new pads for it. Each was a circle of thick white felt with a delicate skiver leather covering. The smallest ones, for holes near the top, were a few millimetres across, but the larger pads were as much as 50mm or more across. The latter, I remember, even had little hems sewn into the skiver, and fine drawstrings to hold the cover in place over the felt. One had to remove all the keywork from the instrument, then warm the silver plated key pad holder gently over a candle or something, to melt the shellac, then remove the old pad and glue the new one in with fresh shellac. I did all this successfully, servicing the keywork and oiling as I replaced it all. I see nowadays, when instructions to do all this are on offer on the web, that one is advised “against attempting a full repad of your saxophone without training in woodwind repair”. Still, I did mine OK and played the instrument.

There was one big occasion where the sax appeared with me in public. I played the Angus Prune Tune (from the Radio 4 show of the time called I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again) as loudly as I could, to the people of Bristol, from the top of a giant pair of trousers that we built (the physics students’ society, that is) on the back of a large flatbed lorry as part of the Rag Week procession in spring 1969. It had been my idea that we make the float theme “Professor Prune’s Electric Time Trousers”, a sendup of Doctor Who that was current on ISIRTA, and that seemed appropriate to represent a department preoccupied with the Einsteinian Space-Time continuum, especially as that year, and indeed at that time of year, the university was mounting a massive Arts Festival of which the (rather fancy and intellectual) theme was Time-Space, of which Rag Week was a small, charity-fundraising, part. The Time Trousers were based on a scaffolding tower about 3 metres high with a platform near the top so the trouser waistline was a parapet waist-high to us as we stood on the platform. Ther was room for about three people to be up there at a time, and we could get up and down by steps inside. The trousers had huge boots attached, so the thing was like the bottom half of a man standing up on the lorry, and we made a huge set of bright red trouser braces that hung down the back of the trousers, attached as braces would be to the back of the trouser waistband. The Angus Prune Tune is not very long, and I lost count of the number of times I played it, but it was hard work doing it without amplification or accompaniment under the conditions that prevailed. Maybe that somewhat disenchanted me about the joys of being a saxophonist; at any rate, I advertised the instrument and sold it for over £20 — thus at a small profit, allowing for what I had spent on new pads and shellac.


I also acquired in my youth a ukulele which I learnt to play and still own. Note to the inexpert: George Formby, several of whose songs were in my repertoire, did not play a true ukulele, which is wooden and with a body shaped like a tiny Spanish guitar; he played one (at a time) from a set of banjuleles, of various sizes and in a matching range of tunings, because he only knew how to play his songs in one key. A banjulele has a body like that of a banjo, circular with a membrane front, but has four strings tuned like those of a ukulele (but, in all but one of George Formby's set, transposed down a certain amount).


Another instrument I acquired in my youth was a concertina. In fact, I had, and still own, two: one is hexagonal, and rather battered, with fretwork ends that are a little broken. I think this came from my maternal grandfather. The other is rectangular, like a small accordeon but with only a few buttons on the left hand end which play chords in the one or two (musical) keys —perhaps C and G — in which it is possible to play the instrument. That came from a neighbour who had no use for it and gave it to me in the 1960s.


In 1969 I went on a summer holiday “safari” to Spain and Morocco, and it was on the way back through southern Spain that I bought my first Spanish guitar. However while in Morocco I bought a shawm, a fearsome-sounding double-reed instrument like a bagpipe chanter or a very coarse primitive oboe. It is very raucous, very loud, and very limited in the notes it can play. The only time I tried to get a new reed for it I think I ended up with a bagpip chanter reed which is at least vaguely appropriate. But whereas on a set of bagpipes the reeds (chanter and drones) are in little “boxes”, the shawm reed goes uncovered into the player’s mouth. I am unsure whether the player is supposed to hold the reed between the lips as does an oboist or a bassoon player, or to let the reed sit untouched inside the mouth and simply to blow, allowing the reed to sound as it does in the bagpipes.


Another woodwind in my repertoire is the recorder, or fipple flute. As a child, I learnt the descant recorder at primary school; and I kept it. I lost half of it when I took it with me to play on top of Glastonbury Tor at midnight on Hallowe’en (an undergraduate escapade with some fellow students...) but I bought a new descant at some point in later years which I have now. I also own, and once learnt, the treble recorder; and I have some other pipes or penny-whistle type instruments.

And I have an Acme Bird Whistle, which has a slide, and is known as a “Swanee Whistle” is some circles (such as on I’m Sorry, I haven’t A Clue, another Radio 4 national treasure).


I sold the harmonium (which I had kept in my bedroom while at grammar school), but while at university (1971) I bought an old upright piano (for a fiver including delivery) and I started composing music at that time. I wrote some organ music; and began works for orchestra too: some Variations on a Theme of Paul McCartney, which I completed, with all the parts, and gave to Peter Broadbent to look at while in Manchester (1973). It seems he mislaid it; he still has it, anyway.

When I left Bristol I had to sell (or abandon) the piano. When I lived in Paris (1976..8) I bought a brand new upright; I sold that one too. When I moved to my present home (1983) I bought an old baby grand, but I sold that some years later (1990). I now own four electronic keyboard instruments, all acquired 2nd hand: a two-manual organ with an octave of pedal keyboard and a drawbard section; a 61 key synthesizer; a similar portable keyboard with but in loudspeakers; and a full length (88-key) Technics piano with weighted keys.


Despite having owned all these instruments over such a long period, I have never had the dedication to practice needed to become really proficient at any of them. Apart from with the descant recorder at primary school, I never had lessons on anything except for a few piano lessons in 1977 or thereabout from an American jazz pianist and composer who was studying with Nadia Boulanger at the time and who advertised in the English language paris newspaper. I asked him to teach me to play the blues. I still have the notes (both senses, and pun unavoidable: what else do you call the teacher’s jottings for the student?) that he gave me to practice.

So why the interest in instruments and playing? I always wanted to be a composer. Not proficient enough at playing anything, and knowing I would never be able to warn enough money from composition, because even people with music degrees usually don’t and have to earn their livings as either players, or teachers, or conductors, or as composers of advertising jingles and TV background music, none of which appealed anyway.

What have I actually written? That is for my page on composition.


Written 29th December 2006