I join the school orchestra - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I join the school orchestra

At home I had continued teaching myself to play the violin because my parents, although now convinced of my determination, couldn't afford to pay for any lessons. One day at the start of my second term at QEGS, I discovered the school orchestra by accident. I had no intention of offering my services; one didn't push oneself forward at QEGS - it was not done. Instead, I sat down in a corner at the back of the hall and listened quietly, and I thought unobtrusively, just for the pleasure of watching the string players rehearsing. As I listened, I began to appreciate how rudimentary was the technique of some of the boys. I watched as one or two of the older and more proficient boys were detailed off to help the beginners tune their violins so that all the Gs, Ds, As and Es more or less matched the notes hammered out in octaves on the piano by the music master. Non-musicians would be surprised at how long that can take! It was made all the more difficult because even I could tell that the piano itself was by no means in perfect tune.

Eventually the Master noticed me lurking in the corner and asked me who I was and whether I could play any instrument. Leaping to my feet, I said that I could play the violin "a little". Jumping to the erroneous conclusion that I was simply being modest about my ability, the Master thrust a spare violin into my hands and told me to take a seat amongst the second violins. "Join in when you can, Cunnane," he said, adding "There's no need to be shy." Obediently, and no doubt blushing horribly, I did as I was told.

The piece in rehearsal was a much simplified version of the well-known March from Handel's opera Scipio, played at a truly funereal pace. It was written in the easy key of D Major, so I felt emboldened. I enthusiastically joined in but got very embarrassed when I played one or two wrong notes. Soon, I completely lost my place in the score because I was spending too much time looking around the room to see how the others were doing instead of concentrating on the printed page. The boy next to me, seeing my predicament, stopped playing momentarily so that he could point with the end of his bow to the correct place on the score, but he then promptly got left behind and lost his own place for a few bars.

When most, but by no means all, of the players reached the end of the piece with a flourish in roughly D Major, the Music Master, who must by then have been wishing that he had never accepted the commission to run the school orchestra, came amongst us and asked me, in a loud voice, the name of my violin teacher. When I muttered that I didn't have one and that I was completely self-taught, he clasped his hands behind his back under his black gown, rocked backwards and forwards and said sternly, "That explains it. Go home and don't come to another rehearsal until you have engaged a teacher and you have his permission to play in the school orchestra." I withdrew, humiliated. Not for the first time I realised the drawbacks of being amongst the well-to-do but coming from a poor family.

One day a couple of weeks later Mr Renhard, for I had learned the music teacher's name by then, stopped me in the corridor between lessons. He said that when I had sat in on the rehearsal earlier he hadn't realised that my parents couldn't afford to give me violin lessons. (So, he had been talking about me behind my back, I thought.) Mr Renhard congratulated me on the fact that I had reached a reasonable standard completely by self-study from a book. He said he would like to give me some free lessons after school hours. Naturally, I agreed enthusiastically and I had my first lesson that very same afternoon (5 February 1948) using a borrowed violin. As it happened, Dad was home from his temporary duty at Leyhill Open Prison that week and my parents were none too pleased by this arrangement when I told them about it because they certainly did not want to accept charity. Looking back, I can understand where they were coming from. Nevertheless, I persuaded them to let me continue with Mr Renhard. Only several weeks later did I realise why they had given in so easily.

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