I had been ‘put to’ the piano when I was about five. I don’t remember my early teachers, which is funny really, as in retrospect music was always important in the family and in my life. I do remember that I wasn’t keen on the practice but my parents between them ‘kept me up to it’.
Anyway, after we moved back to Brisbane I had a succession of nuns teach me at the convent, and then, when I was about 13 or 14 a big change occurred-a new nun appeared. She was known as Sister Aelred, after a saint I had never heard of. She had been teaching in Innisfail for some years and brought with her several young women whom she had taught there and who moved to Brisbane to be with her. She was that sort of person. A fairly large built and handsome woman in her black and white robes, with a happy, genial face fringed by the stiff white bands which they wore. She was very enthusiastic about music in general and my music in particular. I continued the steady progression of the AMEB exams which I had begun earlier and Aelred encouraged me to push on. One of the young women who had followed her was Enid Hitchcock, from Innisfail. Enid was 6 or 8 years older than me but she soon became a favourite of my mother and used to visit us quite regularly. She also played the violin, but was not nearly so good as she was on the piano, which she was hoping to make a career with. She taught at the convent and made a very modest living that way. A main way into a performer’s career then was the annual ABC National Concerto Competition which attracted hopefuls from all over the country in a bid to get chosen for the State and then the national playoffs, at which candidates had to play at least one movement of a concerto or similar work.
Also part of the path forward for a young careerist were the eisteddfodau which every large city seemed to have. Aelred encouraged us to prepare for all opportunities, and Enid being the most advanced was soon preparing for these competitions apart from completing the diploma exams of the AMEB and Trinity College, London. For the concertos a second piano was required for the orchestral reduction of the work. Within a year or so I was performing this second piano role for Enid’s solo, but it was very nerve wracking and it provoked one of my early anxiety attacks. We were playing, as I recall, the second and third movements of the Tchaikovsky no 1 in the Brisbane Town Hall. It is a huge space and very difficult acoustically because it has a large dome into which the sound seemed to disappear. Whether it was that , or just the weight of the occasion, but I took the tempo much too fast, and since the orchestra led, the soloist had to follow. The adjudicator, Lindley Evans, a well known musical figure and composer, was merciless and was very critical of the second piano-me!- and of course Enid didn’t come any where. I was mortified and I remember it as one of the most dismaying and embarrassing times of my life.
Round about this time I took the ATCL performer’s diploma and prepared the AMusA diploma too but didn’t take the exam. Now I was myself playing in the Concerto competition doing the Grieg.
By this time I was in Sub-Senior, what is called in NSW year 11. I didn’t do any music exams or competitions after that though I still kept going to music lessons. These days Gregory Terrace has an orchestra, and one or two other bands, but in my day the only music was the choir and I was the only one in the senior school doing an instrument. I used to sneak out of class when I had a music lesson and it was all very sissified. However, although the Brothers took no notice of my music most of the time, they made sure to call upon for the annual concert. That year it was held in the Town Hall and I played the Chopin B flat minor Scherzo. It begins with a low drum roll and then a huge note in the right hand. Aelred had arranged for me to have what today would be called a master class with Archie Day a famous teacher and organist who was, in fact, the City organist and a great pianist. At his home he had two Bechstein grands back to back-he played at one while I was at the other. He showed me how to hit the big note with my right hand knuckles to produce, of course, a dramatic effect. Unfortunately on the night I was carried away and hit A flat instead of B flat. I was mortified, of course, but I think few people noticed and the rest of it went off fine and was received with grand applause.
During these years with Aelred, she became a great friend and support of my mother, and she worked very hard to protect me from Mum’s anxieties. I have always owed her a great debt of gratitude. After I went to University I dropped music and rarely saw her. Many years later, in the late seventies, I found out she was retired at a convent near Hornsby. I visited her, she had laid out the usual cakes and tea which nuns provided, we had a big talk and it was a very good visit. That was the last time I saw her. In the meantime Enid had gone to England in company of Dawn Crowe and became a busy music teacher. Later she married an Englishman Alan Lane, another academic musician, and they went back to Brisbane where he became the deputy head of what was then the new Queensland Conservatorium. She continued to teach but we had lost contact and never caught up again. They had a son, the now famous pianist Piers Lane, who has had a stellar career. I believe she died some years ago and there is a music prize in her honour.
In January 1949, during the Christmas holiday period, I went to what I believe was the first summer school of music ever held in Queensland, at Glennie Girls’ School in Toowoomba. There was a wonderful atmosphere and I had never been to anything so exciting. And there one day, in an otherwise empty room there was a girl, Jennifer Uscinski, together with her friend, Anne Hamilton, and our glances met across the room and that was that for both of us, apparently. An extraordinary moment. She had just finished the Senior, though she had only turned sixteen a few weeks before we met, and, though she didn’t tell me, she, indeed both of them, had won Open Scholarships. These were the only university scholarships available in those days and were awarded to the top 20 in the State. The following January the summer school was held at BBC College in Brisbane and I saw them again. In the meantime we had met up at City Hall concerts of the Queensland Symphony orchestra. Jenny had had a ‘gap year’-a term undreamed of then, of course-because she wasn’t allowed to attend University before she turned 17. She had worked as a cadet reporter at the ‘Courier Mail’. Both of the girls. I remember, looked very mature and rather superior, full of jokey byplay, because, of course, I was just about to start the daunting process of the Senior year.
I had been determined to go to University for some years, though I knew that my parents couldn’t afford it, but I had formed no idea of what I wanted to do. So I started schoolwork that year with a big head of anxiety, since the only way I could see of getting there was by winning an Open Scholarship. My relations with my mother had become very intense-having lost one son, she was determined not to allow me to ‘grow up’. The year one entered high school was when boys first went into long trousers, a tremendously symbolic rite of passage, but Mum insisted that I stick with shorts. This attitude persisted in other areas of behaviour, especially anything related to girls, a forbidden topic, but one increasingly of interest to me. I was also very much involved with the eternal issues of religion and faith. I had very little faith, certainly in a personal god, which our senior and very respected teacher, Brother Campbell, strove mightily to convince us of. Further, the leftist, even Communist, and union sympathies of my father and my uncles introduced more questions for me into what was an increasingly politicised period. I was full of religious and philosophical doubt. Somewhere CS Lewis says that any boy who is going to do any thinking has done a fair bit of it before he is fourteen. Anyway, in September of that year, with the exams coming up in November, I went to a movie which had a terrible effect upon me. I forget its name now, but its topic was of slums and desolation and it left me profoundly depressed. I was obsessed with the images I had seen, and with the thoughts and dreads which I had surrounded myself with. A potent factor in this was the anxiety arising from the long years of the Depression. We, the family, had largely escaped its worst results because of Dad’s secure job in the railway, protected by union militancy, but the effects had been all around. I was consumed with the fear of poverty and destitution.
The fact was, I realised years later when I had learned words to describe it, that I was in a deep anxiety and, to a less extent, depressed state. My concentration went, I was pursuing the worries and questions which obsessed me, my exam preparation went to pieces. The result was that my marks turned out to be 1A , 1B and 5Cs-my dream of an Open and University was gone. It has been said that my generation was the lucky generation-we missed the direct suffering of the Depression, we missed the War, and we rode straight into the economic boom of the post war years. We were also the cautious generation because we had seen the consequences of economic collapse. The Chifley Labor government had introduced funding for university scholarships and my year was the first to profit from this enlightened policy. My pass was good enough to get the prized opportunity.
(Written July 2016)