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My best teacher

I come from a very musical family. My paternal grandfather taught at the Royal Academy of Music. My mother studied there and still teaches music today. I was heavily involved in music as soon as I started at High Wycombe Royal grammar school in 1959, and I owe a great deal to James Dawes, director of music throughout my time there.

He had been county music adviser for Buckinghamshire, but missed the practical day-to-day involvement with pupils. So when the job at High Wycombe came up it was ideal. He was quite a small man, very self-controlled. He could be sarcastic, but he rarely lost his temper and had a very tender heart. He was not someone you could get to know easily. He wasn't brilliant on one-to-one relationships, I think because he was quite shy. But he had no favourites, which was great, and I liked him enormously.

We didn't have a great school orchestra. But Mr Dawes put a lot of time and energy into opera and choral music, which he loved. He began my love of opera by doing a Gilbert and Sullivan production every year. I started off in the chorus, first as a treble, then as a very raucous bass, and then played the piano in the orchestra. I just adored being involved.

I also sang in the school choir and later played the organ for performances of pieces including the Messiah. We also did Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony and the Verdi Requiem. One of the great moments of my life was playing the organ for Britten's Saint Nicolas.

By 18 I'd had real experience of the standard choral repertory. If you were at Winchester or Eton you'd expect that. But for a normal grammar school it was exceptional, so I was incredibly lucky.

Mr Dawes had been organ scholar of Queens' College, Cambridge (I also became organ scholar there, though not through nepotism) and I had weekly, half-hour organ lessons with him. He gave me very good advice - to do just two A-levels, not three. Then he arranged things so that in my free periods I coud practise on the local church organ.

I knew I was never going to be a virtuoso keyboard player. To start with, I haven't got big enough hands. But I had wanted to be a conductor from the age of three, when my mother caught me conducting in front of a mirror at home. It felt absolutely natural to me, just as my father always knew he would become a vicar. From 16 I was conducting the choir in my father's church, putting my whole being into it.

I looked up to Mr Dawes as a conductor because he did it well and I'm sure it was a great outlet for him. But his rehearsal technique was not perfect. He was vague. I worried that he was wasting time and not really homing in on things. We usually got ready for the performance by the skin of our teeth. But on Belshazzar's Feast I had a heartbreaking moment when I knew we were never going to learn the piece in time for the performance. And we didn't. Mr Dawes had to cut about half, and it only lasts 35 minutes.

Sir Colin Davis once told me: "Conducting is 10 per cent music and 90 per cent people." The more I've done the more I realise he's right. Conducting is teaching, and as Mr Dawes adored the music, he had this ability to inspire people to give more than they thought they were capable of in performance. If I have inherited that from him, I'm very happy.

Conductor Richard Hickox was talking to Daniel Rosenthal


1948 Born in Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire

1966-67 Trains at Royal Academy of Music

1971 Makes debut as professional conductor; founds City of London Sinfonia

1982-90 Artistic director of Northern Sinfonia

1985-87 Conducts at Opera North, Royal Opera and Scottish Opera

1990 Founds the period instrument group Collegium Musicum '90

1996 Grammy, best opera recording, for Peter Grimes

2000 Principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

May 4, 2001 Conducts BBC NOW in Britten and Shostakovich at the Barbican

Hall, London

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