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Conduct becoming

I was a chorister at St John's College School in Cambridge from the age of eight to 13 - I was making recordings and going around the world - it was wonderful but it was completely out of touch with reality.

My father decided that to go on to public school was not a very good idea for me. So I went to our local school - John Hampden in High Wycombe. It was quite unusual in that it was a selective grammar, but it had originally been a technical school.

There was one English teacher there called Geoff Woolmore. I was in a class of quite down to earth lads - it was an all-boys' school - and he knew that within the next few years we would be looking at O and A-level choices and he wanted to recruit a bigger and bigger contingent for English literature. The way he did this was to bring in a few David Bowie record sleeves one day and we studied the lyrics from Life on Mars.

So we went from Bowie and Bob Dylan lyrics to reading Nostromo and Gawain and the Green Knight. The class had no difficulty whatsoever making that transition after having been converted by looking at something that was hip.

He hooked us as a readership and that group stayed together right through O-levels and A-levels. It would be interesting to know now how many of them are bookworms.

I was very impressed by that at the time but I didn't realise how impressed I would be 25 years later. I often think about it because I am trying to do very much the same thing now in the work I am doing with young people. I need to find some kind of common language without being patronising - he managed to do that.

The headmaster had very strict rules about staff dress code and Geoff Woolmore managed to stick to it but be a little bit more individual - he had quite long hair. He wasn't a stereotype - there he was, teaching English, but he was also involved in the sports teams and he was a really good drummer.

He didn't like using the blackboard - he preferred to talk to you. At that time most teachers taught at the front of the class. His method was to listen a lot which was quite progressive at that time. I'm sure some staff frowned on his relaxed, laid-back approach but it didn't mean there was a lack of discipline in the class.

In my work sometimes a kid will write to say "thanks very much because nobody has really taken an interest in what I have to say before". He had that great ability.

He was very popular in the school but he hadn't endeared himself to people by trying to be one of the lads. Young people are very clever - isn't it amazing how a teacher can stand up for the first time in front of a class and they will suss within five minutes whether they are going to be able to take the teacher for a ride? It's a bit like being a conductor - as soon as you stand up on that podium the orchestra can work out in the first five minutes whether you know what you are about and if you don't, then you are dead on your feet.

I was the only classical musician in the school so I was always wheeled out to play on speech days. But I found it very refreshing after going to choristers' school - music can become a terribly restricting and a rather-narrow minded experience.

John Hampden was quite a modern-looking school with very good facilities and playing fields and, because it had been a technical school, it had good workshops. I made a spike for my cello in metal work and then I made a cello case in woodwork. It looked terribly like a coffin - I was determined to use it but I got laughed at in the street and they wouldn't let me on buses with it.

The trouble was when I got the cello inside it was still a little bit tight over the bridge so I had to organise an extra box on the top - it looked like a corpse with an erection!

But if I hadn't gone to that kind of school I would never have used my hands in that way - everyone would have said "Oh! you mustn't use your hands, they're too precious."

Other than music, English was my best subject. I had other very good English teachers apart from Geoff Woolmore but, looking back now, I can really appreciate what he was trying to do. He almost didn't seem like a teacher - he just seemed like a really interesting individual.

* Mark Stephenson is conductor and musical director of the London Musici orchestra. Miracles, the Musici's community arts and music project involving 1,000 young Londoners, received a royal gala performance at the Royal Albert Hall in April. His latest concert on June 4 - Image Music Text - at the Queen Elizabeth Hall included poetry by James Fenton and videos from students at the National Film School

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