My best teacher - Julian Lloyd Webber

31st July 2009 at 01:00
`I started playing the cello very young, at about four years old'

Coming from a musical family, there was always music in the background. My father was a professor at the Royal College of Music (RCM) all his life and my mother taught piano to infants.

My parents would accompany me but I didn't really practise properly - I kind of enjoyed playing but it was no more than that.

I managed to get into the junior department of the RCM, which happened on Saturday mornings. When I was about 11, I had a teacher there called Rhuna Martin, and she changed my views about the cello. First of all, she didn't really talk about technique - she talked about music, and that fired my passion.

But the thing she did, which was very clever and way beyond her call of duty, was take me to hear some fine cellists. In her own time she would take me to the Royal Festival Hall and, in fact, the first person she took me to hear was Pierre Fournier, who later taught me when I was a student and was also influential.

Of course, seeing these professional cellists completely changed my view of the instrument. I'd never heard it played like that before. I didn't realise the cello could sound so good and I started practising hard and working really well. I wanted to improve because she had shown me great role models.

She was quite young, probably in her early 20s, and was very sparky. She talked about music a lot and was full of fun. I thought she was massively attractive. She was from South Africa and was quite tall with red-blonde long hair. She immediately made me feel good about the instrument and about playing it, and was a fine cellist herself.

Rhuna took interest in me as a child and as a musician. She tried to get the best out of you as an individual rather than impose some kind of rigid system of her own. She worked hard to do that and was a popular teacher. She had been so inspiring that I realised I wanted to make a profession of it.

I stopped studying with her when I was 13 to continue studying more intensively with Douglas Cameron, another wonderful cello teacher.

It shows how having a good teacher can completely change the way you think. I believe teaching is so important. Instrumental teaching varies enormously. Really, it's down to the individual and their relationship with their pupil. Orchestral players are becoming more and more fascinated by teaching children.

I think there has been a bit of a change in thinking and people have realised, with the renaissance in music education that is taking place, how important it is to bring music to the next generation.

I think we've all decided that just playing music ourselves isn't enough - we need to pass it on and introduce children to music, sometimes for the first time.

When I was 17, I went to the RCM as a student and by strange coincidence I happened to see Rhuna again on my first day.

I have no idea why she was there - she didn't teach at the main college, only in the junior department - but I hadn't seen her for years and she gave me a terrific piece of advice. She said: "These three or four years that you're here at the college - don't waste them. This is the only time you'll be able to concentrate on practice and music without having to be in the profession and make a living." I didn't forget that.

So she played a pivotal role in my professional work as a cellist. I was in touch with her quite recently. She's pleased with how I got on and, I think, glad that I acknowledge her because sometimes the best teachers are unsung and deserve every possible credit

Julian Lloyd Webber is chairman of In Harmony, a community development programme tackling social deprivation through participation in music. He was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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