My best teacher - Colin Davis

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Three teachers with a passion for music had an immeasurable influence on this world-class conductor

I had so many good teachers I can't choose one. I didn't have a crush on somebody or anything like that, but I had a lot of good people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did and taught me a lot.

School was a mixed-up time. You disappear into a community of boys at the age of 11 and you don't really know anything. Then there is adolescence, which is ghastly. "The ignominy of boyhood" is what Yeats called it. But along with adolescence came music and once that had seized hold of me I had a lifeline.

There were two schoolmasters I particularly remember from Christ's Hospital School (in Horsham, West Sussex). Edward Malins was a very good amateur musician. He was an English teacher and he took a lot of interest in what I was doing.

Arthur Humphreys was a maths teacher and an amateur cellist and he was encouraging too.

They had a great influence, particularly because they had such passion for music. I was about 12 or 13 when I started listening to music. I started buying scores - I remember my first one cost me five shillings. Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. I couldn't listen to enough music.

We had a very good military band and I had a clarinet thrust into my hands. I had two brothers there who liked music but never played anything so they seized on to me as the last brother. They thought I had to do something so I had a clarinet, and with the clarinet I came across Mozart, who also counts as a teacher.

Mr Malins played the piano really quite well. He played Brahms sonatas with me. The maths teacher couldn't wait for the bell to go for the end of the morning session. He would get out his cello and we would play Beethoven through lunchtime. It was that enthusiasm that really got me.

I can't measure their influence, but if you are a small boy and you are entering a world you know nothing about and somebody takes a personal interest in you it is a tremendous help. It gives you some confidence that you are not as stupid as you look. That input is immeasurable. I remained friends with them until they died.

I wanted to be a musician from the age of 14. Some people tried to talk me out of it, but I stuck with it. They realised nothing was working so they shrugged their shoulders and told me to get on with it.

My family liked music but they didn't play anything. We had no money and no means of doing anything about it, so if I was to do it, it would have to be with the help of others.

I got a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where Frederick Thurston taught me an enormous amount. He was the top clarinettist in England at that time, and he taught me how to practise, how to keep time, how to phrase - all the things that you have to learn if you want to play the clarinet. It is something you obey for the rest of your life.

It was stimulating; terribly competitive. When you are at school and you play there aren't many people who play as well as you do, but when you go to college you find everybody is better than you.

Then there were the musicians I worked with. When you start out you are a young man and you are facing 80 musicians who hate you. It is a lonely job, it remains so all your life, but you get to a point where you can really get on with the musicians and you don't have the same problems.

But an orchestra is not a stable thing. In 50 years there have been two generations of musicians and there is nobody left who remembers me 50 years ago. I never imagined I would so quickly become the oldest person on the platform, but one continues to learn. Music is a very good friend. It doesn't desert you, and if you are prepared to listen it always teaches you something new. In the end, music is the best teacher

Sir Colin Davis is the longest-serving conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Next Thursday he conducts the Barbican Young Orchestra in London. See www.barbican.org.uk for more details. He was talking to Nick Morrison.

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