Mairi Hedderwick

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
The author of the Katie Morag series recalls a music teacher who had a profound effect on her

Miss Lala MacPhee was a very tall imperious woman. In the winter she would wear her fur coat in class - this was a long time ago and there wasn't much heating in schools. I remember her saying: "None of your mothers will have a fur coat like mine."

The class had rows of double benches and desks that were stepped. The bad boys always sat in the front row; I, of course, always sat in the back.

One day, going into school, we all traipsed in and I was told not to go to my seat but to go and sit in the corner where there was a table with one chair. My heart was in my mouth. What had I done wrong to be ostracised in this way?

On the table in front of me was a card with an image of two yellow fluffy chicks hatched out of a single egg - it must have been a double yoker - with ribbon and flowers. Beside that card was a pile of folded cards that were blank. I was told to copy the picture on the front of the commercial card. I got the best crayons - not the heavy wax crayons you were used to, but fine pencil crayons. I did that all day and had the best day of my life in school.

After the initial shock I realised she had chosen me because I was best at art - she was going to send the cards round all her friends. That was the first time I realised I had a talent.

My best teacher, though, was Miss Anne F. Collett - one of two music teachers at St Columba's School, which I joined in 1958, aged nine. It was a small private school for girls with an all-female staff. Her class was a tiny little room up wooden stairs and adjacent to the other music teacher's room - a Miss Maneely, who had an Italian background and a beautiful singing voice.

In their little rooms they had pianos and not much else. I used to call Miss Collett's room her emotional eyrie. The art room was across the landing and that was the part of the school where most things that were important to me could be found.

Miss Collett taught me for nine years and got me through all the highs and lows of my piano lessons, the culmination of which was a solo performance, a programme of several pieces, a bit like a concert, played on a grand piano on a stage in front of the whole school. If you did well, you had your name engraved on a silver tablet which hung on the wall.

People told me if I was late for a lesson I could always be found weeping my heart out in the lavatories after piano.

I was very diligent. Maybe it was just the generation I belonged to, but I got up at 6am every morning to do scales practice before getting the bus to school. But Miss Collett was not a bully; I was just really keen to please her. I suffered from appalling shyness as a child and I think she sensed some kind of musicality in me that needed to be encouraged.

Miss Collett was softly spoken and always had nice twin sets and court shoes. I don't know why this woman had such an effect on me. Maybe it was the intimacy of the one-to-one relationship in the tiny room. She gave me an understanding of things beyond music that stayed with me all my life. She would often talk for half the lesson about her love affair with Chopin and Rachmaninov. She talked about the shape and the feeling of a piece of music, but it was the words that attracted me.

In the end, after all these years of piano lessons, I did get my name engraved on the silver tablet.

When I left school I just walked away and did not keep in touch at all. I went to art college. Maybe that was a disappointment to her but she never said. She wished me all the luck in the world.

Mairi Hedderwick's latest book for adults is Shetland Rambles: a sketching tour retracing the footsteps of Victorian artist John T. Reid and she takes Katie Morag to visit primary schools: She was speaking to Emma Seith


Born - Gourock, 1939

Education - Gourock Primary and then St Columba's School, Kilmacolm; Edinburgh College of Art; Jordanhill College of Education, Glasgow

Career - Teacher, illustrator and children's author.

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