My love of music and drama were nurtured and encouraged at home initially and when I attended St Andrews school the curriculum carried my interest forward. The gramophone in its lacquered cabinet held pride of place in the lounge at home and it was a rare day that it was not used, if not by my parents then by my brother and I to listen to our 78 rpm records with books to read along with. Each record started with a set of instructions the main one being the tone that would sound when it was time to turn the page. I never tired of the music, reading and drama played out by the narrators of the stories.
At school music was included in the curriculum and lower primary school classes each had music corner in which instruments were invitingly displayed on angled shelves: cymbals, harmonicas, penny whistles, bongo drums, triangles, castanets, tambourine and other instruments contributed by the girls. In the lower classes our class teacher guided our musical endeavours taking us from free-spirited noisy enthusiasts to a class that could play a respectable tune in time.
The school concert at the end of the year was a big deal and each class contributed an item. In my Standard 3 year our class contribution was two songs, one French the other Afrikaans. We learned the words of Frere Jacques by rote with little understanding of the lyrics and the Afrikaans folk song Sarie Marais that had its origins steeped in the history of the first Anglo-Boer War were learned in Afrikaans classes.
It was not enough to learn to play music instruments, we learned the name of notes and where to find them on each instrument and reading music sheets was part of the learning. It was here I learned the tonic sol fah (do-ra-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) that became a big part of private music lessons. The teacher played one note on the piano three times and we were to sing the note, then two notes were played and we sang them etc. To learn the rhythm and beat of the music we clapped out the notes on the music sheets.
Despite voice scales and note singing with the tonic sol fah I remained impervious to pitch, tone and style. So it was I became the narrator for our class musicals. I was a ‘droner’ apparently but once the muscles surrounding my vocal chords strengthened, my tone and pitch would improve. With her permission I continued as the loudest and most conscientious contributor to music class understanding that with increased muscle strength I might one day sing like a lark (which never happened).
“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”
– Leonard Bernstein
The following year a third element was introduced which took our music and singing endeavours to a whole new level: drama. Miss Solomon was responsible for music, singing and acting in the higher classes, and her classes were sheer joy. Nothing daunted her as she worked tirelessly to shape us into a singing, play-acting ensemble good enough to perform, and earn great applause, at the end of year concert. Her motto was if it is not fun, something is wrong.
A stand out lesson involved us writing a single word on a piece of paper. All slips of paper were placed in a hat and one by one we picked a word about which to make a one minute impromptu. We quickly got the hang of it.
However, my word was ‘swiming’ and when I showed it to Miss Solomon she wanted to know what I was going to do with the word. I whispered about ‘swimming’.
‘But it’s not swimming, is it, it’s swiming,’ she responded in a hushed voice.
“But I don’t know what ‘swiming’ means, Miss.’
‘That’s the fun of it Linda, neither does anyone else.’
‘So, I make something up?’
‘Why not, let’s have some fun,’ she encouraged.
Miss suggested Swiming be a mischief-loving character and between the two of us we wove a story to entertain the class well beyond that one drama lesson. At times it was hard to continue telling the story as Miss Solomon and I ran ahead of each other with ideas for Swiming’s shenanigans which lasted well past the one minute.
Miss Hermann was the music teacher who came a few afternoons a week to give private piano and violin lessons. Over two years she taught me the rudiments of music theory and helped me with my singing voice which improved – a little – with her tutelage. It seemed I was impervious to pitch, tone or style but she was not one to give up on a keen student. Our weekly piano lessons began with voice exercises and when I left St Andrews I had a reasonable ear for which I have Miss Hermann to thank. Theory came more easily than the practical elements of playing the piano and the endless scales she insisted I perfect almost spoiled my time with her.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”– Henry Adams
Perhaps I stuck it out because no two lessons were the same, sometimes she read stories about the composers and at other times she just played. Her fingers nimbly danced their way about the keyboard and she played pieces I had heard on my parents play on the gramophone. The next time those pieces played from the gramophone I imagined Miss Hermann as she was in our lessons and a full orchestra to back her. A few notes in to the piece and it was as if she was no longer in the stuffy music room in the basement of the boarding school. Her eyes closed, her hands flew across the keys, first lightly then loudly pounding out the story that came alive. Before each piece she told me the story behind the music so it was easy to imagine what was happening by the way she played. Every now and again her head moved so violently the normally tightly secured bun of frizzy hair escaped and covered her face. When the pieced ended she dreamily woke and seemed almost surprised to see me sitting beside her.
Miss Solomon and Miss Hermann lived their passion which was reflected in the ways they delivered their lessons. Both were fun and took their girls on a journey as they showed us the rudiments of drama and music which they said are everywhere.