How I started in Music - Guitars and the RACC
My parents were not what you would call a “musical” family: there were no musical instruments in any of our homes. My mother was brought up with dance as her main artistic interest, later followed by painting (watercolours) There was music in the house, and, when he was allowed to, my father played his fairly large record collection, consisting of popular music from the ’20s ’30s and ’40s – Glen Miller, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Joe Fingers and other classics of the era. With the exception of Ballet Music, there was no classical music at all – no Beethoven, no Mozart, no Strauss for example.
So music for me was something which really started in the ’60s at school, with the musical revolution featuring Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to name but a few, and like many other kids I rushed out to buy the latest LP from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. To be honest, the main attraction was not so much the music, but the allure of being a top artist or being in a famous band, with all the money and gorgeous girls that fame brought to them.
I never considered myself as having artistic talent, and had no aspirations of becoming a musician or an actor. For 30 years – the ’70s to the ’90s – my focus was on other things – like study and sport – and business. So I was very much a latecomer to publicly Playing the Guitar, Singing and Acting, Performing and Theatre.
And, being honest, actual performing was a personal challenge: I wanted to experience it and see how and if I could handle the stress and the nerves. It was another way of testing myself, and avoiding the “if only…”
Guitars and Music
How I started – Guitars Owned
The first guitar I ever owned was dreadful: it was a seven string Russian style guitar, with steel strings and was (I know now) extremely dfficult to play. However, it did not cost me anything and I came by it when I was living in my cottage in Norfolk and still serving at RAF Marham.
At this point in my life, I had time on my hands, and no-one living nearby to complain, so I decided first to educate myself musically and buy a number of classical LPs featuring the works of the top composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Berlioz etc ) but to be honest, apart from some of the better known symphonies and musical arias, I was not terribly enthuiastic.
So I decided to teach myself how to play the Guitar. I bought a number of books on the subject – “Bert Weedon” for example – and a number of magazines showing “chord” finger positions. I purchased song books which contained the lyrics and guitar chords from some of the artists, bands and songs I was familiar with – which I still have to this day. I also handwrote a lot of the songs with chord changes and breaks, and set up a very basic recording system (one hand-held tape recorder) so I could hear just how bad my singing and playing actually was!
The second Guitar I bought for £25 was a Kimbara acoustic guitar, with nylon strings, which I still have. This was so much easier to play than the first guitar, although now I know that the “neck” is a little too wide, but with this guitar I started to make some progress – with folk music and Simon and Garfunkel songs suited to the acoustic guitar style.
Once I started working in London – first with Merchant Investors in 1975 – the time for music was more limited, although I did purchase my third guitar – a classic Fender Telecaster electric guitar – for £200 from a colleague Bob Patmore, who was a professional musician. I did not really take advantage of the opportunity to play it – leisure time was more limited and my first wife was not that supportive – and so I sold it after some months, something I now regret very much!
As many amateur musicians are aware, learning to play an instrument and the hours of practice involved to reach any reasonable standard does require both time and – if you are married or with a family – support. Unfortunately, my first and second wives were not that patient or supportive of my musical endeavours: my first wife Rosie had no musical talent and my second wife Michele had the talent, but was a bit of a musical “snob”. To be fair, I was not that good, and since I had other business and sporting interests, it was not until the late ’90s when I was working from home that I began to revisit “music”.
Sometime earlier this century – does that sound weird? – I took the decisive step into the arena of Performing Arts and Music by joining the RACC . One of the courses I enrolled in was a Guitar course Acoustic Guitar Blues and Beyond Workshop run by Andy Walpole and as a direct result of that course, I added three more guitars to my collection.
My fourth guitar was a Takamine which is a hybrid guitar, meaning it can be played accoustically or “plugged in” as an electric guitar, and as a steel stringed guitar, was better suited to the different types and styles of music played in Andy’s workshop. If I was performing at an open mic for example, this is my guitar of choice.
The fifth guitar was an inexpensive and basic electrical guitar which was rarely used but I had it in mind to practice with the special effects accessories and foot pedals that made such a difference to the basic sound of an electric guitar.
The sixth guitar was the most expensive at £500, and was an acoustic steel string Martin which I actually found quite difficult to play, and so it spent most of its time in the case! If nothing else, it is an investment…..
The Richmond Adult Community College (RACC) - Courses and Workshops
I became a member of the RACC in approx 2000, and as explained previously, the main reason that I joined was actually to encourage my second wife Michele to resume her interests in singing and acting, and there were a good number of courses available for “mature students” in the College .
The College is situated in Richmond, close to the Town Centre and not far from my favourite tennis club in Old Deer Park, with easy access and with a very large car park.
At the time it was the hub of a huge amount of artistic talent, talent which was provided by both the teachers and some of the “students”, many of whom were very experienced in their particular art. The first course Michele and I joined was an evening Singing Class, and our teacher was the wonderful Deirdre O’Kelly.
The class included learning the correct techniques for singing, the breathing required, and enunciation. The songbook was classical, and designed to be with piano accompaniment, normally provided by one of the professionals at the College. We were given songs to learn which we then had to sing in front of our fellow class members – a great learning experience and possibly more challenging than the Public Speaking course I had done some years previously.
Deirdre was also running a Musical Theatre course, which combined both acting, singing and some dance, and so I bravely joined that for one season. Our production was “Cabaret”. I remember that my character as the show’s Impressario had one particular number “Money, Money, Money” We all did our best but in my opinion Deirdre deserved a much more talented cast!
There were other Singing Courses and opportunities at the College, notably the Jazz section, which had very able teachers (including Shireen Francis) and students, amongst them my good friend David Day
But the most important Course for me was the Acoustic Guitar Blues and Beyond Workshop run by Andy Walpole.
The 2 hour evening course was held weekly starting at 8 p.m. which helped those of us in the class who were working in “proper jobs”. Andy was a great teacher, very knowledgeable and very patient, and the “Class” had approximately 15 regular attendees, some of whom were themselves immensely talented and professional guitarists and songwriters (for example the very modest and talented songwriter/musician John Carter and also the artist Catherine Paver) – which was a little off-putting for the less accomplished, like myself.
Andy covered just about every style of play, and usually had a particular song to demonstrate the theme or technique which we then tried to emulate – with varying degrees of success. We were also strongly encouraged to perform our own songs, or versions of other established songs in front of the class. Since there was such a good rapport between everybody whatever the level of experience or talent, this was not as terrifying as it could have been, and this was down to Andy’s unique style and character.
I remained a member of workshop for 10 years or so, and genuinely miss the guys and girls and the social life that was part of that scene.
Another very important influence on my guitar playing was Justin Sandercoe
Justin is a professional guitarist and teacher, and at the time (2003 +) was living in Chiswick close to my home. Much as I appreciated the Andy Walpole RACC course, I felt that I needed more “one on one” teaching to improve my basic skills.
Justin is a great teacher – very friendly and encouraging – with written courses and songs prepared for learning and practice. I first saw his advertisement through the Internet, and see now he has a very strong “on-line presence” with his own You Tube channel I wish him all the very best – he certainly helped me – and recommend any aspiring guitarist to “check out” his website