Dame Janet Baker

25th January 2008 at 00:00
A teacher spotted, and encouraged, the potential in the English mezzo-soprano.

My mother was astonished when my teacher at Poppleton Road Elementary School in York said: "Your daughter will be either a writer or a singer." I was only 10, but she was adamant.

Her name was Christine Wisely and she was a performer in local amateur musical comedy productions. She was charismatic - slim and hugely glamorous. She must have been in her 40s, made up to the eyeballs and looked like no one else I knew.

When she played the piano and led the class in weekly singing sessions, she often asked me to stand up and demonstrate if we were learning a new song. I already loved singing, and belonged to the local church choir, but she gave me my first experiences of standing up and performing solo.

Perhaps she heard me pick up a tune quickly, but I often wonder what it was she recognised in me. No music was played at home. My father was a policeman and was in the police choir, but he could not sing for toffee. My mother looked after me and my brother. From an early age I longed for a piano, but we could not afford one, so I used to go to the Victorian sideboard we had and "play" what came across on the radio on it, until I was bought one when I was about 12.

Every year Christine's mother came into school and gave us sweets. She was as glamorous as Christine and I think they gave me a glimpse of a world beyond the one I lived in. I went back to see Christine later when I was making my mark as a singer. It must have pleased her to see that her intuition had been correct.

After Poppleton School, I went to York College and two years later my father's work required us to move to Grimsby, where I went to Winteringham, a large co-educational and academic grammar school. I was unhappy there because I had lost my friends in the move and I found it difficult to catch up with the standard of school work. Musically, however, I was very happy.

The subject was taken seriously at Winteringham and so was singing. I was encouraged to take part in all sorts of vocal activities, including a madrigal group, plus the singing I was doing in the church choir - St James, Grimsby. Pupils at the school went on to take degrees in music and that attitude may have nudged me into thinking that I could earn my living through music.

I always excelled at English and read everything I could lay my hands on - Jane Austen, Thackeray - I was rarely without a book. I remember an English lesson at Winteringham when we were given a subject to write about and I produced two pieces. The teacher asked: "Which do you think is the better piece, Janet?" It was a pivotal moment. She spent some time discussing my reasons for preferring one over the other with me. There was no condescension, she was treating me as an equal with a right to a view - I felt we had made a connection.

In retrospect, my love of words was vital to the life I went on to lead as a singer - music was half of it, but words were the other 50 per cent, as no vocal performance could be complete without the words being given the same clarity, vitality and insight.

My parents would have liked me to have gone to university, but I did not get the grades. By the time I left school I had decided I wanted to study music, but I did not know how to go about it, or what I wanted to do, so I went to work in a bank in York and joined the Leeds Philharmonic Choir.

The seed of an idea had been nurtured during my school days, but it took luck, hard work and hosts of exceptional people I met later - teachers, singers, conductors and performers - for my career to take off.

Dame Janet Baker is introducing the Halle Orchestra's 150th anniversary celebration concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on January 30, conducted by Mark Elder and featuring singers Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Polina Leschenko alongside the Halle Choir and Youth Choir. She was talking to Rachel Pugh.

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