My best teacher - Bill Bailey

17th June 2011 at 01:00
The funnyman says that without his beloved music teacher he might never have found the confidence to perform

My music teacher Lynda Phipps and I spent a lot of time together during my final years at St Edward's Independent School near Bath. Not only was she my piano teacher, I was also the only person in my year who was taking music A-level. So I got this amazing, talented, passionate person all to myself. How lucky was I?

I can still see her now. She was quite short and a little bit stout - a lovely, bustling ball of energy. She would breeze into the room with a great sheath of music under one arm and a toddler - her third baby by the school's other music teacher, Ian Phipps - under the other.

She would jiggle the toddler on her lap while she tickled the ivories and the pair of us (the toddler and me) would be agog, transported by the notes. When she had finished she would turn her big, infectious smile on me and say: "Your turn now". There was never an audience that I have wanted to please as much as Lynda Phipps.

She understood that young people need encouragement and praise and she never failed to point out your qualities. At the same time she didn't believe in resting on your laurels. She would say: "Right, you've got so far now - let's take it to the next level." It was thanks in no small part to her that I got an A at A-level.

Most of all, she gave me self belief. As a gawky 17-year-old she had me performing a Mozart piano concerto with an orchestra in front of the whole school. With her encouragement I even wrote my own cadenza - a bit of virtuoso showing-off that Mozart encouraged piano maestros to add at the end. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up to think I had the cheek to do that.

Music was always in my DNA and I had started playing the piano at the age of four. But without Lynda I don't know if I would have ended up a performer - of music, or, indeed, of comedy. As a stand-up, especially, if you show your nerves you make the audience nervous, too. But what Lynda gave me was the confidence to get up on a stage and be relaxed enough to entertain.

I didn't see her for many years after leaving school. Then in 2004 I was doing a comedy show in Cambridge and Lynda was in town to see her eldest daughter who was at the university. She came to the show and afterwards called at the stage door. I couldn't have been happier to see her.

We went to dinner and afterwards stayed in touch. I went to her then school and gave a little talk. She and Ian then appeared with me on Comedy Map of Britain, where various comedians went back to their home towns to talk about their roots. I was so happy she was back in my life.

Sadly, however, about two years later she was diagnosed with cancer. When she was dying I was appearing at The Royal Albert Hall in my Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra.

The show was a performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra in which I gave my own humorous guide to all the instruments and played the piano. In terms of my music and comedy career, it felt pretty much the pinnacle. I wanted to share it with her because, without her, none of it would have been possible, but she was too ill to attend. So instead I dedicated the DVD to her.

At her funeral - a big Catholic affair with lots of ritual and amazing music - her family told me how much the dedication had meant to her. In return, of course, I told them how much she had meant to me. I was happy, too, I had been able to tell her myself, as an adult, what an inspiration she had been. She really was the best teacher a diffident, music-crazy teenage boy could ever have had.

'Baboons with Bill Bailey' is out on DVD. Bill Bailey's 'Dandelion Mind' will be touring in November. He was speaking to Daphne Lockyer.

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