Home | Musicians' Health | Anatomy/Biomechanics | Piano Teaching | Richard Beauchamp

From a New Zealand Sheep Farm

to a Specialist Music School

This talk was given to The Edinburgh Forum in May, 1998, and was interspersed by performances of piano pieces which illustrated the kind of music I was playing at each stage. This procedure occupied an entire afternoon, and I am most grateful to the Edinburgh Forum for their interest and patience.
© Richard Beauchamp, 1998.

I was born in Blenheim, New Zealand in 1946 and have a sister and brother, predating my emergence into the world by six years and three years respectively. When I was eight or nine a great aunt stored her upright piano at our house, and the night it arrived, after we had gone to bed, she played it to my parents. I will never forget the excitement I felt as I heard it. I crept out of bed and down the hall and listened at the door. Later I let my fingers wander over the keys — particularly the black ones — and relished each sound. My sister was given piano lessons as she was the eldest, but when everyone was out of the house, I would teach myself from her lessons. I didn’t talk about my love of sound — it was too important.

Later I taught myself to play the recorder and the mouth organ — both very badly — and my father bought me a piano accordion as he loved the Jimmy Shand dance band. I did too, and practised very hard, picking up the music by ear from a 78 rpm record. I still love the ‘skirl’ of those crushed notes Jimmy used to play. My parents bought me lessons at a place called The Modern School of Music and I went there once a week. The teacher heard my pieces through, then reached down another two pieces of sheet music from a rack on the wall at 2/6p each and sent me home again. The Modern School of Music became a successful business and opened up branches all over N.Z.

The bass of the piano accordion is arranged in fifths (i.e. each note five notes higher — or four notes lower — than the one next to it) and I soon found that I could find the same notes on the piano and worked out a sort of vamp bass I could use for improvising. I also found that I could harmonise many popular tunes with just three chords. This was a valuable lesson in keyboard harmony that I have been grateful for ever since.

When I was 11, we moved to a high country sheep farm at the top of the Onamalutu Valley, on the North bank of the Wairau River. Before I was born, my parents had managed sheep stations higher up the river, to which there had been no road, and there were stories about my mother coming in to Blenheim by block dray and draught horse via several crossings of the river in boulder-rolling flood, whilst in labour with her first child.

There was a certain romance about living at the end of the road with Mt Riley (2,000 ft) looming over us. The farm was about 3,000 acres, much of which seemed almost vertical and ran up to the bush line (where it became too high for trees). It was covered in scrub and bracken and most of the fences were useless — just the sort of challenge my father thrived on. The previous owner had virtually given up farming and had made a living by shooting wild deer and pigs and working one of the sluice mines which were left over from the days of the gold rush. When we moved in there were broken down drays and bits of rusted farm machinery all over the front paddock and pig tusks placed decorously along what remained of the front fence. Inside the house the floors were rotting. Four holes had been knocked in the bathroom floor with an axe because the previous occupant had found the bath too high to fit under the taps and the water just ran out under the house. But the doors made that wonderful sound that farm house doors are supposed to make — a sort of resonant clunk, preceded by the click of the latch.

The loo was out of doors and was what is described in N.Z. as a ‘long drop.’ It was situated, appropriately, in the pig paddock and was essentially a deep pit over which sat a ramshackle structure, supported by alarmingly decayed four-by-twos. There was a large boar pig who used to lie up against the shed and look up at you through a hole where one of the boards had rotted away. He would blink occasionally and grunt in a sympathetic manner, which made the entire place shake in a terrifying way. In the summer, the bluebottles were so attracted to the building that one had to remember to keep one’s mouth shut when opening the door. At night one entered warily with a candle or kerosene lamp and tried not to look for spiders or to imagine wetas (huge grasshopper-like insects, about the size of a mouse) under the seat. Opossums gained entry during the night and seemed to enjoy ‘feeling’ the loo paper which could often be found full of deep claw holes.

The opossums (which were brought to N.Z. from Australia) had another curious habit. They love grape skins — but not the flesh — and in the morning the grape vine could be found covered with naked grapes which had been skillfully skinned without being dislodged.

During the gold rushes at the turn of the century the farm had been found to be rich in gold bearing quartz, and mine shafts had been sunk in many of the hills. Indeed, one hill had so many holes we called it “Palestine” — the holy land. In retrospect, I think my parents were surprisingly sanguine about letting us wander over the hills — although they certainly did warn us — because some of the shafts were sunk 60 feet or more vertically and had been covered with boards, since rotted and overgrown with blackberries. Other shafts went in sideways and sometimes met with the vertical ones — exciting places to crawl into!

So how was my music developing during this period? I was still being driven to town for my weekly session at The Modern School of Music, but I had now transferred to piano, which meant that I had to be taught a rather ingenious method of vamping (i.e. improvised left hand accompaniment). They still gave me two pieces of sheet music per week and all I had to do was play the melody in octaves — filling them in a bit when I wanted — vamp from the guitar chords and put in a few breaks. They taught me how to put the melody in the middle too, what I called the Stanley Black style — with the vamped accompaniment going above and below it. Walking bass links were encouraged and useful in country styles.

Being more than three miles from the nearest school, and we were twenty from town, I was allowed to attend the largest school in N.Z. and the surrounding islands — the Correspondence School. Lessons were sent back and forth in large green canvas envelopes with a window through which the address could be seen. When you returned the envelope with work to be marked you turned the address card over. This was delivered to our personal tin mail box which had a red flag to be raised if there was mail to be collected.

You had to be well organised to be a Correspondence School pupil — a thing that I was not. You were supposed to have a room designated for school use during the day and to study for regular hours in it. On the radio there was an “Assembly of the Air” every morning followed by other programmes which benefited from the added dimension of sound — for example languages and music appreciation. I did have a room to work in and I did spend the required number of hours in it, but I was in no way a model student and was threatened with expulsion on two occasions because I did not get enough assignments completed and because I had an irresistible urge to be funny. I had also left a cigarette burn on one of my papers although the cigarette in question was a typical schoolboy one of the period made from dried grass (the lawn variety) wrapped in writing paper — perhaps rather different from a typical schoolboy cigarette of today! My parents had a collection of illuminated addresses which had been presented to various ancestors. They had elaborate script in coloured inks surrounded by swirls and gold leaf work and were mounted in ornate gilded frames, and I fell in love with the art of lettering. I collected pen nibs and spent hours (of my school time) perfecting an italic script. Unfortunately it didn’t stop there and I incorporated the antique alphabet into my every day handwriting — the capital letters were my pride and joy — and this slowed down my school work appallingly.

At about this time, Allan Gardiner of the Modern School of Music had a serious chat with my mother. He said that I was musical and should start having classical lessons, and that although the best teacher in Blenheim, who was Sister Mercedes of St Joseph’s Convent, had a long waiting list, she might make an exception and take me on if she heard me play. What a spoil sport, I thought. At the age of 13, I was really getting into The Four Preps and Buddy Holly, and didn’t much savour the thought of playing little pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook. My audition pieces were “I’m in the Mood For Love” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” in particularly smoochy Allan Gardiner arrangements. When the time came for the audition I felt embarrassed by the inappropriateness of “I’m in the Mood For Love” — within the walls of a convent — and played the ‘hotted up’ part of “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” in a rather straight-laced manner; but S. Mercedes accepted me as a pupil and said she would take me on straight away. She put me onto John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” which was full of twee pictures and stomach turning homilies, but I persevered, and soon was ‘hooked’ on classical music and on the variety of things the left hand could do if it didn’t have to spend whole pieces vamping out chord sequences.

Music soon occupied most of my thoughts — when I wasn’t practising my italic script, reading Jules Verne or wondering what it would be like to meet girls (who didn’t seem to exist within a fifteen mile radius). I had read a review of the film “Song Without End,” a very romanticised story about Franz Liszt complete with shots of Dirk Bogarde at a glossy nine foot grand surrounded by wonderful carpets, chandeliers and adoring and very aristocratic young ladies, and I had made a sudden but firm decision that I was going to be a concert pianist. I had also heard Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweissen” for violin and orchestra and found myself very excited by the sound of the violin. I would have liked to learn to play this instrument, except that my father’s violin, which he had bought from a Polish woodcutter when he was 18, and was felling trees for shoring up gold mines, was promised to my brother, so I contented myself with writing music for the violin.

Now that I had decided to be a pianist, practice took up a huge amount of my time and I worked out a six hour practice schedule: three hours on technique and three on pieces. I managed to get an old Virgil Practice Clavier from an auction rooms so that I could start working on finger exercises at 5 in the morning. The piano we had was an old bomb with a ten ounce key resistance (four and a half is usual) and I had pains in my hands and arms most days — which I thought was normal. I am lucky I can still play when I consider my practice routine — trilling for twenty-five minutes with the fourth and fifth fingers without stopping was the sort of thing I did. If any of my pupils have any aches or pains there is a very serious discussion about their practice methods. The old piano had a very disappointing and uneven tone quality and I found this extremely frustrating. I had found that I could get a better sound by moving the keys in a different way and by concentrating on beauty of tone. I wrote out two pages describing the kind of sounds I wanted to make, and this I constantly revised. Later on my mother obtained permission for me to practice in the Blenheim Town Hall once a week, when I went into town for my piano lesson. This was a tremendous excitement because the piano was a nine foot Steinway which had been brought second hand from the Albert Hall. On the frame were signatures of famous pianists who had played it, varnished over to protect them. My favourite was Rachmaninoff’s and the story was that it had been his preferred instrument in London.

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