Skip to main content

Teacher with a tune falls silent

"Norman Barnes has died." The message announcing the death of my favourite former teacher froze me to the core. It seemed inconceivable that somebody who once had so much life was no longer alive. I was glad I had phoned him recently.

Norman Barnes taught me music in secondary school. Music has played an important part in my own life and that of my family ever since. Had I not worked in education I would gladly have been a professional musician.

The real challenge for teachers, stretching way beyond test scores, important though these may be, is whether they have a lifelong effect on their pupils.

Only many years after leaving school can we begin to assess such long-term aspirations.

Last year, I heard Haydn's London Symphony performed in Exeter Cathedral. I still know every note, because we "did" it for O- level. Norman Barnes was one of those teachers who could turn a potential desert, in this case detailed examination study of a work of art, into an oasis that oozed vitality.

I am not sure he would have even been in the profession today. No-one ever forgets a good teacher, according to the advertising campaign, but would any of these paragon lifelong influences, recalled on film by the famous, have been happy to tick boxes, write endless mission statements and forward plans, and be told what to do every quarter of an hour?

Norman Barnes was an anarchist. Not the long-haired, window-smashing stereotype, for he was bald, bespectacled, scholarly looking, wore a jacket (usually the same one, as I recall).

He simply did not fit into the hundreds of competencies demanded nowadays by the Teacher Training Agency.

For a start he could not keep order, so the "class management" boxettes would go unticked. Had there been an official government-prescribed Music Hour (10 minutes for counting quavers, three minutes to sing Jerusalem and bang a drum), he would never have taught it according to the book, or at all.

Yet I remember lots of vivid detail from his lessons. A section of music often concludes with a cadence, bringing it toa pleasing close. The "interrupted cadence", however, leaves the melody open. As he pounded out an example on the piano, Norman Barnes would call it the "interrible-upted cadence." I can hear him now.

I can still compose four-part harmony, thanks to him.

"Whereas ordinary mortals like you and me would write this," he told us, playing a predictable sequence of chords, "Bach composed this little miracle" (plays breathtakingly majestic and unexpected chords).

One day, as a cheeky adolescent, I wrote a pretentious piece of harmony with some ludicrous chords. "That doesn't sound very musical," he said. "Ah," I replied. "Whereas ordinary mortals like you and Bach would have written this (playing the orthodox harmonies on the piano), I decided to write this little miracle" (playing my horrible version).

He just laughed and played three or four much better harmonies. It was an object lesson.

A journalist once rang to ask about my favourite teachers. I named several. The resulting article included a lurid account of Norman Barnes's hilarious music lessons.

Soon I received a letter from him. "I read your description of my teaching," he wrote, "and thought about consulting my lawyers. But then I realised you had been much too kind, as my lessons were far more chaotic than you described."

Many teachers pass my long-term proficiency test: George Long, primary teacher, did interesting projects and introduced us to libraries; Gerry Claypole directed Shakespeare plays I eventually knew off by heart, whether playing a major or minor part; John Morrell, university tutor, sits on my shoulder at this very moment, querying each sentence (this one is too long).

Sorry to write in maudlin mood, but my one consolation from the death of an esteemed former teacher was that it restated something fundamental,yet easily forgotten: teaching is really a social gene, the means by which our knowledge, skill and culture can be passed on to future generations.

One bright light may have been extinguished, but hundreds more burn on in its place.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you