My best teacher;Interview;Mark Emney;Parting Shots

15th May 1998 at 01:00
I had no real musical education before I was 11. I had a few piano lessons when I was very young and I fancied the piano teacher, but I used to get chucked out of singing lessons at primary school. My twin sister was the teacher's pet and I couldn't handle that.

I remember my first music lesson at Wandsworth School for boys in 1966. The teacher asked, "Who wants to play an instrument?". That was Russell Burgess. And somehow he got everybody singing. Kids can be reluctant to open their mouths, especially boys, and it was even worse then. Yet he overcame that reluctance and ran a choir of 250 boys. It was like a roller-coaster within the school.

Wandsworth had been an old grammar but became one of south London's first comprehensives - they built a big new building for 2,000 boys. It was a jungle, very multi-cultural, kids from all different backgrounds - Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Greek, everything. Out of this environment Russell Burgess built a choir that became world famous.

He broke down the barriers by linking singing to other activities, like sport. He was very keen on cricket. Above all, the way he taught singing was not at all precious. It could not have been less like King's College, Cambridge. His approach was give it one, stick it some welly. It became known as the "Wands-worth sound" and it was very effective; conductors went for it and composers liked it because it was incredibly exciting.

We were singing at a professional level: we recorded with Bernard Haitink (the Royal Opera's music director); we went up to Suffolk to work with Benjamin Britten; we recorded all the Bach cantatas; we went to The Netherlands and America. It was a phenomenal achievement. He had been to the Royal Academy, but I don't think he had connections with all these people originally. Word just got out how good he was.

I had a terrible stutter when I was at school. I couldn't really speak at all and was ostracised. Russell Burgess just ignored it and I never stuttered when I sang. We might have been singing in Latin, Hungarian or Italian, but I just got on with it. Music rebuilt my confidence.

A teacher like him comes along very rarely. Even to get a choir together that size is remarkable because the bureaucracy within a big school is incredible. Just getting all those people out of lessons and off games was an achievement. He must have had the support of the headmaster, otherwise he couldn't have done it.

Once the choir became successful it snowballed and everybody wanted to join. The television cameras were always at the school - Jimmy Tarbuck and Petula Clark came and we were on their shows. If you were in the choir you were a celebrity. That was the glory stuff, but what was really important was what he did in the classroom. He made us listen to so much. He introduced me to everything from Wagner to Shostakovich.

With kids you have to find a hook, something they can bite on. Once you have got them, you are on your way, and he was brilliant at that. I left the choir when my voice broke, but he taught me up to A-level music. I played the trumpet and he just told me to go away and practise for three hours. I got away with murder in some respects.

His real skill was to get the boys to feel enthusiastic. Only now, working in a school, can I recognise how hard it is to do that. The reluctance of boys to sing is so enormous. What he did was almost to camouflage the fact that we were singing by getting us interested in something else. He had all the latest hi-fi gear of the time and that grabbed a lot of boys because it was cool. The equivalent today would be using decks and digital equipment - I use modern technology at Millfield. I take all my recording gear into the classroom and the pupils respond to that. I think a lot about the parallels between what he did and what I am doing now.

I never had the opportunity to thank him and I regret that. He died very young, in his fifties, and it was only when I got involved in education that I realised the full measure of what he had done.

Mark Emney was a solo treble for the composer Benjamin Britten and has been a professional musician and composer for 20 years. He is currently composer-in-residence at Millfield School, Somerset, where he is completing a new music theatre work 'Rhythms of Life', which wll be premiered by the school. His other work in progress is 'Dark Star - Pictures from the Edge', inspired by photographs of deep space taken by the Hubble Telescope. He lives in the West Country with his wife and two adopted children.He was talking to Nigel Williamson

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