My best teacher

27th October 2006 at 01:00
I barely remember my first school - what was known because of its roof as a "tin school" in Walton-on-Thames - except that there was a nice man there who took us to my first concert, in the town hall, and I remember him singing to us.

Neither of my parents were musicians, but there was lots of music at home as my two elder brothers and four sisters all loved it. It was at Christ's Hospital, where I went as a boarder at 12 during the war, that the world of music opened up for me. My uncle was a governor there so I and my brothers were entitled to a place. They had not learned an instrument, so they said I was the family's last chance to do so. I started on the clarinet.

Christ's Hospital was a marvellous school. I remember the red brick buildings and the houses going up the avenue and the chapel. It was plonked in the middle of the countryside. I used to go walking and birdwatching from there. That need to escape to the countryside remains important to me to this day. What seemed so wonderful to me, even at that early stage, was that every teacher, whatever they taught, seemed to play an instrument. Two teachers in particular had a big impact on me and gave me a great deal of encouragement. The English teacher, Edward Manins, was good enough at the piano to play Brahms sonatas well. He used to invite me round to his home to listen to and play music, but he also encouraged me to read widely.

So did Arthur Humphries, who taught maths, but also played the cello, the recorder and the spinet. He used to lend me scores and talk to me about music, but he said that life was not about taking a narrow career path but being well-informed about many subjects to enjoy the world to the full. He was a real example for an aspiring musician. He lived on to the ripe old age of 90. There was also an excellent German teacher who taught the basics so well, that when I was pushed into learning it properly 40 years later after my appointment as chief conductor to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, everything fell into place.

I was playing the clarinet in the school's military band when my brother Howard, who was in the Air Force (he was killed later in the war), brought home a record of Beethoven's 8th Symphony. I was completely overwhelmed. I was adolescent, and that disruption to the system needs an intense antidote. Music became a completely irrational passion and I have been trying to find out about it ever since.

At first I was going to be a clarinettist, but then at 14 I decided that I wanted to be part of the whole musical experience, not just one aspect of it, and I would be a conductor. The school accepted this and I was given money to buy scores. The very interesting music master Dr Johnson tried to teach me the piano (without success), and encouraged me to turn pages for him in concerts, to develop the basics of score reading.

I was rejected for the conducting course at the Royal College of Music, because I could not play the piano, so I went as a clarinettist. But I was completely focused on a career on the podium and set about teaching myself by setting up my own musical ensembles, including the Kalmar Orchestra, from students and returning servicemen.

Most of what I learned came from them. But Sir Adrian Boult gave me my most invaluable lesson, when he talked to me after seeing me conduct a very early concert. He said: "Young man, you will be a cripple if you carry on the way you are. You should go for lessons in Alexander Technique."

He gave me the name of a famous teacher called Wilfred Barlow and I started lessons, and have continued to practise it all my life. Without that I do not think I would still be doing what I am today.

Conductor Sir Colin Davis was talking to Rachel Pugh

The story so far

1927 Born in Weybridge, Surrey

1932 Starts primary school in Walton-on-Thames

1939-43 Christ's Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex

1943 Starts music studies as clarinettist at Royal College of Music

1944-46 Military service includes playing in the band of the Household Cavalry

1946-48 Completes studies at Royal College of Music and forms Kalmar Orchestra with students, for conducting practice

1948 Freelance clarinettist

1957 Assistant conductor with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

1959 Big break when stand-in for Otto Klemperer at short notice. Becomes principal conductor, Sadlers Wells

1971-81 Succeeds Sir George Solti as music director of Royal Opera House

1980 Receives knighthood

1980 Knighted

1983-1993 Music director Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

1995-2006 Principal conductor London Symphony Orchestra. Receives two Grammy awards for recording of Berlioz's The Trojans with LSO

November 4 2006 Conducts Manchester Camerata in Mozart's Requiem at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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