(This wee story was the basis for my first radio play. I hope you enjoy it x)
People with a love of music should never teach recorder.
A vertical flute with a whistle mouthpiece, the recorder became popular during the 17th and 18th centuries for its sweet and gentle sound. Neither of which is heard when played by a class of 12 year olds.
“Gentle,” I say, “Don’t be so hard on your instrument.”
A group of boys at the back snigger.
Music: the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time.
I always wanted to be part of an orchestra.
It was a perfectly ordinary Monday morning.
It was raining, as normal.
The Fiat coughed at start up, as normal.
There were road-works along the Elmbank estate, as normal.
And I arrived at the school at seven minutes to nine.
(Precisely eight minutes later than I planned to arrive, as normal.)
“Morning Elspeth,” said Betty Jackson from Physics. “Morning,” I said.
Betty Jackson was a round woman with skinny ankles. She wore a red jacket and a tartan skirt and reminded me of the bagpipes.
“I almost didn’t come in today, after my Friday meeting with you-know-who.”
She meant Mr. Swithins.
“School Principal,” she piped, “Principal idiot more like.”
Mr. Swithins was new to the school. He wore casual suits in autumnal colors, and drove a bottom of the range BMW. His nostrils were full and round and made many people think him arrogant. I, however, was convinced he should play the nose flute.
“Arrogant oaf.” Betty puffed.
A BMW drove into the car park and the “arrogant oaf” himself got out.
“Scheduled for eleven this morning Elspeth?”
“Yes Mr. Swithins,” I said.
My first love was the piano. The sounds so clear. So ordered. The keys like a big white smile.
Then double bass, cello, harpsichord, zither… so many different incredible instruments as my ears opened up to the world of sound.
If you care to look -or rather listen- there’s music in everything: The horn of a car. The buzz of a florescent light. In a shout. Or a cry. Or a thank you. Or a yes. Music in the road works on the overpass.
I became a music teacher. It seemed to make sense.
Eleven am, and the bell for the interval rang in a flat G.
I headed to the Principal’s office for my meeting with Mr. Swithins.
“Please sit down, Elspeth ” he said, "I'll come straight to the point, if I may."
And I really was trying to listen, but the sun had come out and its rays bounced through the windows of his office.
And there was a bubble of water in the radiators.
And a fly buzzed behind me (key of F.)
And Mr. Swithins’ secretary tap tap tapped on a computer keyboard, next door.
On the floor above someone was being reprimanded, for running in the corridor.
And a breeze blew through the trees outside, shaking the leaves like a slow tambourine.
And the music of the world was so clear. So loud.
Mr. Swithins was talking. And his nostrils were so round. And full. And crying out.
“Mr. Swithins,” I said, “With those nostrils you have to learn the nose flute.”
And the music of the world stopped.
There was just the lone tick-tock of his battery wall clock.
Mr Swithins muttered that I probably had a class to go to. And I said, yes I did.
Tuesday started ordinarily enough, though Betty was already in the car park with Rena Johnson from Homecraft, when I arrived.
If Betty’s the bagpipes, Rena’s the piccolo.
If Betty’s the bagpipes, Rena’s the piccolo.
“His secretary said,” Rena giggled, “Play the Nose Flute. Hilarious!”
“Arrogant oaf,” Betty puffed.
First class on Tuesday, is “Music Appreciation”.
Normally it’s almost empty, because 15-year-olds “required” to take “music appreciation”, seem to prefer “loitering outside McDonalds” instead.
That Tuesday morning, however, the classroom was almost full.
“Did you tell Swithins he was a pig?” said a pupil I hadn’t seen for a while.
“Uhm…” I said, trying to remember Audrey’s name (It really had been a while) “Let’s get on with Music Appreciation”
“Alright Miss. But let’s appreciate our kinda music, and not your classical crap.”
In the interests of harmony, I conceded her point.
A lot of heavy thumping, too much bass and some American gentleman discussing his homeys and hoes...
(Apparently he has several.)
“Well that's very....interesting... Audrey,” I said.
“Heard you gave Swithins ‘what for’,” said Tony Holloway, the Assistant Principal, in the Staff Room at lunchtime.
“Oh, you mean the nose flute?” I said.
The room erupted with laughter.
“His secretary said he was floored,” chirped someone from the English Department.
“Arrogant oaf,” piped Betty Jackson.
It rained Wednesday morning. And the Fiat didn’t start straight away. And there were still road works. And I arrived at school much earlier than usual, because I hadn’t slept at all well the night before.
I’d never meant to give Mr. Swithins’ “what for”.
I’d been listening to music, that’s all.
I often listen to music. I've done it since I was a child.
When Mum died I listened to music.
When Dad would shout, I listened to music.
When they said I didn’t have the dexterity to be a pianist, I listened to music.
To the sounds inside my own body. Then the sounds in my bedroom. Then in the house. And the street. And the sky above. And the sounds of the world open up, and I am part of music. Of the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time.
And I am not alone.
First class on Wednesday I teach, ‘Music History”.
A tiny class - only three pupils - but entirely wonderful.
We discuss Beethoven or Handel or Bartok or Stravinsky. We play clarinet or piano or flute. And teaching is a joy and I am glad.
Second class: more pupils “learning” recorder.
“Alright everybody, get your instruments out.”
A group of boys at the back giggle.
Half way through the systematic slaughtering of a 17th century woodwind instrument, there’s a knock on the door.
“Might I sit in?”
“Certainly, Mr. Swithins,” I said.
“The class are just about to treat me to another rendition of Blue Moon.”
“Elspeth,” he said. “I need to ask you a favor.”
I set off an hour earlier on Thursday and though the Fiat coughed, and I was temporarily delayed by road works, I was bang on time for meeting Mr. Swithins.
I was on automatic pilot during the morning classes before rushing back to the Principal’s office.
After break, Music Appreciation.
Audrey had appeared again. She wanted to 'appreciate' more of her music.
Lunchtime I spent with Mr. Swithins, then in the afternoon, “Music History”.
We talked about Edgar Watson Howe who said, “When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had and never will have.”
Last class of the day - Recorder. “Blue Moon”, they played.
On Friday, my heart pounded as I got into the Fiat. As I passed the road works and even still when I arrived at the school at seven minutes to nine.
“The man is mad,” piped Betty as I locked the Fiat. “A whole school assembly and him and his nasal cavities a laughing stock.”
The assembly room was packed. Mr. Swithins sat on the stage at the top of the room alongside Tony Holloway the Assistant Principal.
Pupils giggled and whispered.
The occasional expletive broke out between two dueling 16 year olds.
The sound of people gathered for an execution.
Mr. Swithins stood up. “Check that schnozz,” yelled a 15 year old to nobody in particular.
People collapsed in laughter. Teachers professionally outraged looked for the culprit. Tony Holloway looked smug. But Mr. Swithins said nothing. Instead, he fumbled in his jacket, pulled out a nose flute and began to play.
16-year-old boys cackled. 15-year-old girls tutted unimpressed. 14 year olds elbowed eachother. 13 year olds giggled and hid their faces behind their bags. 12 year olds sat bewildered.
But on Mr. Swithins played. .
…Blue Moon, you knewjust what I was there for. You saw me saying a prayer for…
“What’s he doing?” squeaked Rena the piccolo.
“Lost it,” puffed Betty the bagpipe.
“Oh dear”, smirked Tony Holloway.
And still Mr. Swithins played.
Then some of the 13 year olds pulled out their recorders and joined in. Two rows back from them, the grade above began to stamp their feet.
Then one by one, more recorders emerged from school bags.
The higher grades - taking this as a sign to make as much noise as possible -stomped and sang along.
Yet still Mr. Swithins played.
Some teachers laughed. Some clapped. Some feigned disinterest and looked at their watches. Tony Holloway gulped.
And recorders were screeching and feet were stamping and hands were clapping and the whole assembly room was alive with banging and whistling and singing and clapping and Mr. Swithins’ nose flute.
It was the worst version of 'Blue Moon' I have ever heard, and the best at the same time. And I found myself laughing out loud.
When it came to an end, the room fell silent.
Mr. Swithins spoke.
“This week I learned I should play the nose flute. I thought I’d give you my first tune.”
There was a cheer.
“Thank you. Until recently, I’d no idea I had such exceptional nostrils.”
“You’re Dumbo ‘cept with a trunk,” shouted someone.
The room erupted.
And Mr. Swithins laughed, then said:
"My point is education is not always easy. Some lessons are tough to learn. But often, those things that make you feel vulnerable, stupid and alone, are often really just talents in waiting. Not knowing is not weakness. Not not-knowing is weakness.”
Mary from the English Department clapped. As did several other teachers. I found that I did too.
“Uh, what did he say?” said the girl sitting next to Audrey.
“Dunno. That being crap at everything’s actually a talent…I think” said Audrey.
“Oh?” said the girl, and joined in the clapping.
“Let’s make this school a place for us all to learn. No matter how difficult the lesson. All of us listening, talking, cooperating, myself included. No excuses, no 'can’t dos". Only can’t do yets.”
Then it happened.
My stomach rumbled.
And my watch was ticking steadily on my wrist. Above me a faulty bulb flickered and buzzed. And 400 people breathing.
Outside, the traffic hummed on the ring road. Further off, a pneumatic drill. And somewhere high above, an airplane jetted off to distant climbs.
And 400 faces turned to look at me. 400 faces - and not a sound in the world.
"Yes, Mr Swithins?"
“Thank you.” he said.
And right then - as the traffic hummed on the ring road, and the wind blew the leaves through the trees, and the water bubbled in the radiators, and a fly buzzed (key of F) and the sound of my breathing, joined the same wondrous chorus of everyone's breathing in the rest of the room - my whole heart sang.
I always wanted to be part of an orchestra.