Further distracting me from school lessons were the wonderful concerts on the radio. I told anyone who expressed concern that background music would help me to work on my lessons — and I probably half believed this myself — but would soon find words beginning to swim as I became totally absorbed in the world of sound. I can still feel the excitement of late night broadcasts direct from the Edinburgh Festival, when an 11 a.m. concert from the Freemason’s Hall would become an 11 p.m. or midnight concert in N.Z. I can remember straining to keep awake through the last bars of the slow movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto because the Finale had become “my favourite piece of music” — like so many others! Little did I think that I would one day live in Edinburgh and that I would marry a cellist!
Another, and all pervading distraction, was the farm itself. There were always plenty of jobs to be done of course — getting the wood and kindling, feeding the ducks and hens, getting buckets of whey for the pigs, herding in the cows for milking, washing the milking equipment, tending the vegetable garden and mowing lawns. My mother was a perfectionist. The flower beds and shrubs had to be trimmed around and the semi-circular drive had to be weeded and raked up to a proper camber. Cow pats on the front paddock were thought to be an embarrassment if visitors arrived, so on Sunday mornings, before we went to church, they would all have to be collected in a wheelbarrow and put on the compost heap. In summer there was hay making, shearing and potato gathering as well. Mustering was always a bit of an excitement. We would get up at four a.m. to beat the sun to the top of the hill and have a great fry up instead of the usual porridge. I’ll never forget the sweet black billy tea taken near the top of a hill as the sun came up. My father would put a stick across the top of the billy so that the aromatic smoke from the manuka fire would be drawn into the brew. The dogs lay around making us feel guilty as we ate our cheese sandwiches.
Walking on my own was comparatively rare but much prized. I found that if I saved up a double period of Nature Study or General Science I could get away with being out of the house on my own for up to two hours without too many questions being asked. My favourite place was an old sluice mine near the top of a hill. There were high columns of clay and stone which had been left as soil was washed away, and other columns of stones which the miners had piled up. It was all overgrown and looked to me like a ruined castle. I had decided that I wanted to learn to speak like Anthony Hopkins, the music broadcaster and composer and used to recite “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” with what I considered to be delicately turned vowels until I felt I had got the intonations just right.
I was still enjoying my ‘modern music’ and was building a good repertoire of The Four Preps, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and of course Lonny Donegan. The Beatles had not yet hit us with their extraordinary talent. With Lonny Donegan and “Skiffle” came the great idea that it was easy to start your own band — so we did. My brother played the violin and specialised in wild glissandi, my sister played a tea box bass which my brother painted blue with silver moons and stars, and the boy down the road, who was called Graeme, played guitar. Graeme was a great Elvis impersonator with his sideburns and sequined shirt and could easily be persuaded to do a spot at valley socials. He was a chubby boy and could work up a spectacular wobble during his rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” A couple of years before I met him he had been playing a game of dare with an axe and had lost all fingers except the thumb and index on his left hand, so he strung up his guitar the other way round and worked the frets with his right. We were soon in demand at woolshed dances and our interpretation of “Green Door” was one to be reckoned with. I usually played for the whole evening at these events, changing from accordian to piano, and playing a mixture of old time dance music e.g. waltzes, fox trots “The Valeta” or “Ballin’ the Jack,” Scottish dance music — “Strip the Willow,” the “Gay Gordons” and “The Dashing White Sergeant,” and pop music. When the dancers needed a rest I would trot out my party pieces, mostly things like Winifred Attwell’s version of “Black and White Rag,” hits by the Shadows like “Apache” or “Wheels” and, more frequently as time went on, short classical pieces such as Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu.” Woolshed dances were popular events in the N.Z. back country. All the men sat one side and the women the other. The bar was a truck which was pulled up to a loading area and with a driver who was prepared to exit at speed if a member of the police force turned up.
My training as an accompanist began at the local church services. Four different denominations alternated at the old school building and everyone came to them all. I got to know Moody and Sankey and the Anglican and Presbyterian Hymnals very well and how to concoct some sort of accompaniment from the old American Organ or the piano which had a cracked wooden frame. I had a pile of pennies beside me so that I could remember how many verses there were. I loved the Anglican service with its well defined rituals. The minister dressed up in a surplice and kneeled to pray, so that when he arose there were patches of ancient dust on his knees. He was a big man with a deep voice that droned on like a bumble bee and on hot days, when there was often a real bumble bee or two trying to find an opening in the window, the counterpoint became so intertwined that it was difficult to tell which creature was reciting Morning Prayer and one soon found oneself drifting off into a rather pleasant buzzy dream. There was a very old land owner called Mrs Rickerston who, it was reputed, had once been a singer and who was so proud of her high notes that she would hold them for what seemed equal to three or four breaths for the rest of us, while the music had to stand still. I can’t tell you how useful this training has been to me in my work as an accompanist. Unfortunately these ecstatic tones were always so wildly out of tune and fortissimo that my brother and I would dissolve into near hysteria well before they were over — making it rather difficult for me to play the organ. I can never forget her rendition of Moody and Sankey’s “Rock of Ages” where the phrase “that awful grave” seemed to take about ten minutes and would be in danger of breaking the windows, and I would be terrified that I would embarrass everyone by my lack of self control.
Sister Mercedes was a dedicated teacher and had me doing Grade 5 that first year, followed by 6, 7 and 8 in rapid succession, including all the theory exams and an A.T.C.L. She was a very highly strung lady and would phone me at 6 a.m. to blow me up for mistakes in my theory. “Richard, I have been up since four o’clock, and I have found two mistakes in your last theory paper!” Poor lady — she would then have to go to the chapel to do penance for losing her temper. Needless to say, I passed all my theory exams with full marks — I didn’t dare do anything else! I think she had to do quite a lot of penances because I often saw her beneath the window listening to other teachers’ pupils in exams, and once I found her examining the table the examiner had used with a magnifying glass trying to decipher the indentations made by his ball point pen. She was a perfectionist. After I had gained 146 out of 150 for my Grade 7, her first words were, “Now Richard, we mustn’t be complacent. Think of those four marks! And besides, we have a theory exam coming up next week.” Thank goodness she had a good sense of humour too, and once told me how an examiner had asked one of the nuns if he could wash his hands, only to be brought a bowl of water and a towel!
At 16 it was decided that I should do a radio broadcast. So I prepared an audition programme and went along to the Nelson studio of The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation to try my luck. One of the pieces chosen for the audition was Chopin’s Scherzo No 3 in C Sharp Minor. Fortunately nobody told me it was difficult! My programme was accepted, I was given the status of “Local Artist” by the NZBC and I started earning money.
At about this time, Sister Mercedes suggested that I should change to a teacher of more advanced students, mainly on the grounds that she had suffered from rheumatic fever several years earlier and could no longer demonstrate, but she was bitterly offended when I agreed to take her advice. The teacher in question was Ernest Empson, who was then in his eighties and had been a pupil of Leopold Godowsky in Berlin before the First World War. Empson was regarded as the finest teacher in N.Z. and seemed to have taught everyone who had ‘made it.’ He was difficult to contact and was well protected from pushy mothers by his wife, but he finally agreed to take me on. “Ah, a young man with ideas!” he said as I completed my rather splashy Richard Farrell-inspired performance of the Schumann/Liszt “Devotion.” He was a most exacting teacher — like Sister M — but concerned with different things — difficult, subtle things like tone colour, phrasing, pedaling and the emotional and spiritual meaning of the music. There were two difficulties in going to him. One was that he lived 200 miles away, in Christchurch and the other was that we couldn’t afford to pay for my accommodation there. So my mother, who was never stuck for long with any problem, raised some money somehow and bought an old house in Christchurch. We did it up, divided it in two and rented out half of it, and my mother, sister and I would travel to Christchurch every four or five months so that I could have a lesson every two days for two weeks at a time. The New Zealand Arts Council gave me a Bursary which covered travel and lessons. The great risk was that I was now working entirely on my own for four or five months at a time and continuing my dangerous practice shedule without supervision. I did however get used to solving my own problems and I also got interested in piano repairing, as it was rather a long way to get someone from town to fix a hammer or string — besides being expensive.
The more I think back, the more grateful I am to my parents who, although largely uneducated about music, made it possible for me to follow my one great interest. Neighbours and relatives were horrified that my mother was allowing me to spend so much time on music (considered a ‘soft’ subject, as it still is) to the neglect of academic work. “Nonsense,” said my mother, “If he doesn’t make it as a musician he can always dig ditches or sweep the streets for a living.” Of course, if I had been able to start lessons earlier, everything might have been integrated more easily — and I might not have risked physical damage with my horrendous practice routine. I felt that I had to work hard because of the time which had been lost and I was all too aware that musicians who were at the top had often played concerts by the age of twelve or earlier. I sometimes felt hurt by the comments of people who felt I had an easy life sitting inside “just playing the piano all day.”
When I was 18 the Associated Board offered me a Scholarship to London to study at the Royal College of Music on the basis of my Grade 8 exam. My mother however, rejected the offer on my behalf on the grounds that I was over-sensitive and immature and might, to use that useful umbrella term of the time, “have a nervous breakdown” if I was fending for myself in London. She had certainly had such a thing herself and wouldn’t allow me to be away from home, as it was, for her own peace of mind. If I threatened to go away, she would threaten to get ill and my father couldn’t bear to argue with her. No one ever won an argument with my mother! She may well have been right about the dangers of my living in London. I was a pathetic creature who had already had several panic attacks and who stammered. The freedom would certainly have gone to my head. I consoled myself with the thought that I still had much to learn from Ernest Empson, that my double third scales were far from perfect, my repertoire was small, and that in view of those things, my time in London would be wasted at this stage. Whether the chance would come again was another matter.
The time had come, so it seemed, to make my début as a concert pianist, and bookings were made for the Blenheim Town Hall, the Nelson School of Music and the Christchurch Civic Theatre. The Press was notified and our posters read: “New Zealanders, Support Your Local Artists!” The programme was well received by the critics and led to other engagements, e.g. concertos with local orchestras and with the NZBCSO, a Proms tour playing Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” with another young N.Z. pianist called Michael Houstoun (later to come third in the Van Cliburn Competition) and the NZBCSO conducted by Stanley Black (of schmaltzy piano fame), a series of concerts at the Auckland Festival, a performance at Brooklands Bowl (large outdoor arena) and a performance of Liszt’s “La Campanella” for television. I felt that I could easily get used to this life style, although the adoring aristocratic young ladies as seen in the Liszt film weren’t too much in evidence as yet.
Ernest Empson decided it was time for me to do my Performer’s LRSM. So a programme was thought out and I went along to play to two venerable and highly respected musicians who had come out from England to examine for the Associated Board — Professor X and Dr Y. I arrived at the hall and was met by Dr Y. I had forgotten that he was afflicted with a terrible stammer — even worse than mine. “Are you doing the ttttttttttttttttttttttteachers’ diploma,” he asked, “or the pppppppppppperformers’ one?” I hesitated. I knew that I was going to stammer — there was nothing like another stammerer to bring it out — and I was also convinced that Dr Y would think I was imitating him. “Aaaaaaactually I’m doing ppppppppppppppppperformers’” I said, taking off my glasses and almost performing a cartwheel with the effort of speech. So I proceeded to the piano. The day before I had come in to try the instrument and had found the stool to be too low, so my father had cut four pieces of chipboard to fit under the legs. “Aha!” said Prof. X cheerfully, “I see you’ve bought your lunch with you.” I was by now in a fine mood for playing! X scampered up and down the hall, peering at me from all angles and Y lit his pipe noisily from time to time, but they didn’t completely put me off and the performance was O.K, if not immaculate. A week or two later, Prof. X told me that he would guarantee my entry into the Royal College of Music and take me on as his pupil if I came to London.
I applied again to the N.Z. Arts Council and was awarded a Travel Grant, which would be renewable each year, depending on progress. I had become interested in teaching by this time and told them that I wanted to visit the Menuhin School, with the idea of helping to start something similar when I returned to N.Z. I had no idea that I would eventually be a teacher in the Scottish equivalent of the Menuhin School and that Menuhin would be the Patron of it.
Out of the blue came a telephone call from the N.Z. Ballet Company. Their usual pianist (a very fine artist) was becoming more and more unreliable because of his alcoholism and they wanted me to take his place on their next tour. The idea was to take a small troupe of dancers to every town in N.Z. with an ensemble of three musicians. Formerly they had used ‘canned’ music, and they wanted to make the point — especially to the Arts Council — that it was both feasible and more exciting for the audience, to travel with a live band. The tour was cleverly titled “To make a Pointe.” I simply said yes, immediately. The money was very good by my standards and would help enormously with my proposed trip to London. I didn’t even consult my parents. Somehow I knew that reasons would be found why I should not go if I did talk to my mother first, and for once she accepted my decision. It was just the experience I needed. We performed to schools in the mornings and to the public at night, and I grew up very quickly in the 18 months during which we visited every town in N.Z. twice, including the passionfruit packing shed that was used for a hall in Kerikeri on the northernmost part of the country. I — of course — fell in love with one of the dancers, who unfortunately left before the end of the tour to return to the multi media dance company she had been working with in Wales. That clinched it. I had to go to Britain, and as soon as possible.