My best teacher

4th September 1998 at 01:00
I owe so much to so many teachers, but without Gladys Puttick, I probably would never have become a professional musician. She was a dumpy little lady, grey-haired with a bun in a net and she had a lively, sparkling mentality that kept you fascinated the whole time. You felt she was there especially for you. There were about 20 of us in the class and we all had a very soft spot for her.

When I first started to learn the piano at the age of six, I would go for weeks without practising. Music wasn't a burning passion for me until I was 13 and started going to the Saturday morning class at Trinity College, London.

Miss Puttick was in charge of the juniors. She created a wonderful sense of excitement in her classes. They were about all aspects of music, not just your own instrument, and she carried you along on this wave of discovery.

She had all sorts of ways of making the most tedious, mechanical things feel fresh and fun. If you couldn't play a passage, for instance, she would tell you to try it in a different rhythm or play it with your back to the piano. I used to long for her lessons and felt: wouldn't it be wonderful if the whole week was full of Saturdays? I thought, the only way to make that happen, is to become a musician.

If she wasn't happy with the way things went with one of us on a Saturday, you would get a phone call to go and see her at home on Sunday. Her house reminded me of my grandmother's. The piano was covered in a chenille cloth with tassels and the standard lamps had bits of material draped across them. At the end, she gave you Earl Grey tea and ginger snaps. I'd never tasted that tea before.

Although I didn't realise it at the time, most of the lessons I liked were linked to music. I was never interested in science but I didn't do too badly at physics when I was at Epsom Grammar because Brian Cole, our physics master, was a good organist. He played at the local church, and the instrument was rather good. I thought if I got on the right side of him, then maybe I could practise on it.

These days, it's more important for young people to be exposed to as many different subjects as possible, because you may not have just one career for life. I tell my 14-year-old son, Ben, to soak up as much as he can about as many different things as he can.

Education is there to make life richer and give you an enquiring mind and the feeling that if you don't achieve something today, you will achieve it tomorrow. That's the effect Miss Puttick had on me. Music was fun and a great adventure to her, which is how I feel about it now.

I've never wanted to specialise but always to experiment and have as broad a base as possible. So I've been fortunate to work with a ballet company, to have a London orchestra in the BBC Concert Orchestra and to travel, which I adore, to work with orchestras all over the world.

It's important to have an open mind. However much you study a score, there is always something else you might find. Music is a lifelong quest; I was 50 this year, and still hope to be developing and discovering new things when I'm 90.

Working with young people is a particular joy for me. I've conducted several competitions for young musicians and it's wonderful to see them communicate in music, things which are important to them, which they can't say in any other way. I try to understand what they are after and encourage them to be confident about bringing it out.

I was lucky enough to study with Sir Adrian Boult, who had very strong ideas about accompanying, which were all about sinking your own ego and absorbing what other people are telling you about their feelings. This is especially important with young, inexperienced soloists, so that you can make it work for them and not get in their way.

I'm fascinated by the teacherpupil chemistry - that mix of what you bring to the music and what your teacher can bring out of you. Miss Puttick delighted in bringing out whatever talents she found in her pupils. Instead of concentrating on the things you couldn't do, she encouraged you in the things you could do. I remember the twinkle in her eye when she made you do something you never thought you could manage.

* Barry Wordsworth is music director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Brighton Philharmonic. He is much in demand as a competition conductor, was at the helm of the BBC Young Musician contest earlier this year and conducted the final of the ShellLSO Young Musician Scholarship 1998 at the Barbican in June. He was talking to Jane Daniels

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