MY TIME AT FINCHDEN - HOW I BECAME A PIANIST AND THE BIG WIDE WORLD
Whilst I was at Finchden, my main preoccupations were sex, the piano, church organs, reading and cricket in that order. I stayed there until 1966 when I left to take my place at the Royal College of Music (RCM). From that time onwards until the end of Finchden in 1974 I was never away for long. Whenever I could, I would visit – and it was in these years after I left Finchden that my friendship with GAL really matured right up until he died.
Now it is the right moment to tell you about how I first became a musician - a part of my life about which I have never until now been particularly frank - it is an unlikely little story.
As I have already mentioned, I had an extremely turbulent childhood which resulted in me going to Finchden - This really was the most unexpected and luckiest outcome for my so far troubled little life. I had landed in the net of one of life's great angels - a man of extraordinary insight and intelligence - At Finchden, there were no more beatings - cruelty and abuse were out - Love, Intuition and Creativity were in. I completely fell under the spell of George Lyward, the greatest man I have ever known. In his hands I found myself and I trusted him completely.
It was here, at Finchden, that I first discovered my talent for playing the piano - I had had the usual music lessons at boarding school and was able to bash through a hymn tune on the piano - but unlike some of the small boys at boarding school, I showed no particular interest or ability at that time - I had liked the loud powerful organ music which always accompanied the obligatory church services we attended on Sundays and liked listening to classical music on the wireless, but I had no inclination to “do music” at that time.
It was when I got to Finchden it all changed - the why and the how of it go right to the core of my life.
There were a number of similar influences on me which made me passionate about the piano and these all involved people who played the piano well - some of them brilliantly. There was one member of staff called George Harwood. He was in his late twenties and had tried to be a concert pianist in his teens but was prevented from it because his hands were too small - nevertheless, he was pretty dammed good - I had never seen anyone actually play these virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Liszt - it was like magic.
On top of that, a frequent visitor to Finchden was the then well known young polish pianist, Andre Tchaikovsky. He was the real thing and I quickly developed a hero worship thing for him.
Then there was the wondrous Barnaby - a super intelligent eighteen year old, haughty, arrogant and definitely the best pianist at Finchden - (George Harwood was better, but he was staff) - Anyhow, I instantly fell in love with Barnaby - well perhaps it was a crush - it felt like love at the time - and no matter what, I wanted to be better than him - to impress him - to make him jealous of me - to make him want me. As it turned out, he did want me.
You have to understand what Finchden was like - there were no formal classrooms - no lessons - no rules - no domestic or cleaning staff - in fact most of the people who looked after us (staff) had been Finchden boys themselves.
I started playing the piano whenever I could - luckily, Finchden wasn't short of pianos to play which meant that I could play from dawn to dusk if I wanted to - and I did want to. Initially I was self-taught. Of course I got indirect help from George Harwood - we played Mozart duets and I watched him like a hawk.
The sad truth is this. I am not a natural musician at all - being dextrous on a keyboard does not directly equate to being a musician. Whatever musicianship I have acquired over the years has not come easily - I am not a natural musician in that my ear is poor - I have always had difficulty with this - I am clearly not tone deaf but nor am I anything to write home about. My talents were largely a kind of animal instinct for the piano whereby I became sort of joined to the instrument and let my feelings run riot. I am and always was a terrific improviser but lacked the discipline to learn how to harness those outpourings and fashion them into any permanent form - an affliction the dogs my steps to this day.
I had to work hard to get to where some gifted people get with little real struggle. To me - learning music theory and form has been like learning Latin irregular verbs!
Prophetically, in 1961 I went to the cinema to see Gary Cooper's latest and last film, The Naked Edge. It is a Hitchcock type thriller with the murderer creeping around a big old house while the victim, his wife, is nervously watching television. As the film builds to its climax, she flicks between BBC and ITV, the only two channels available in those days. On one channel there was a tennis match - constantly being match point and then being deuce. Very tense. On the other channel there was this dashing young blond pianist reaching the final apotheosis of the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto. It was at that moment that I knew what I thought I wanted. I wanted him - to be like him - to be in his place. I became obsessed with this film and went to see it three times just for that two minute sequence at the end. I became a classical music groupie!!
As you can imagine, I went straight out and ordered the music! However, I was already preoccupied by something else by the time the music arrived. Barnaby had just acquired a recording of the soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter doing the Brahms second piano concerto - a composition new to me. I really fell in love with it. It had everything I liked - it was massive - dramatic - emotional - deep - expressive and fantastically hard to play. I launched myself into it with a determination new to me.
It was soon after that, - when I started learning the Brahms, - that a decision was made to get me a piano teacher. Being still officially in the care of the state (local authority) they needed to be involved, as did my parents who would have to pay. I duly went through a series of interviews and tests with the county music advisory panel who decided to provide me with a teacher who could visit me at Finchden.
I just can’t remember her name, but she was really great - she had been to The Royal College of Music and studied with Arthur Alexander, one of the great teachers of his time - a man who had taught some of Britain's finest pianists of the thirties and forties. Anyhow, she came to Finchden once a week to give me my piano lesson.
After about two months she told my parents that she had taught me as much as she could, and that I needed to be taught by someone with a firmer hand and more experience with boys like me. She was clearly excited with my progress, for by now I was nearly sixteen - I had learnt the Brahms concerto andnow needed to learn to play it properly - for in her opinion, I was more than capable of being a professional concert pianist, if that is what I wanted but only provided I could find the self discipline required. I think I was too much for her to cope with.
In retrospect, I don't really think I knew what it meant – to be a concert pianist - all I was trying to do was to be as good as George and André - I had never given a thought to what a life playing the piano would be like - what it might entail - eventually I would have to face these questions but not just then.
I started going up to London once a week to study with professor Arthur Alexander - he had retired some years before from his position as professor of piano at The Royal College but still took on private pupils. It wasn't long before I mentioned the Gary Cooper film to Arthur and he said: "Oh yes. That is Malcolm Binns - I taught him." - I was flabbergasted and started getting all excited. I asked all sorts of questions about Malcolm which seemed to irritate Arthur for some reason.
However, I did find out that Malcolm was a piano professor at the Royal College Of Music. I simply had to get there and this became my next challenge - yet how was I going to be able to - I had none of the seemingly obligatory qualifications required?
Nevertheless, in 1964, I auditioned for a place at The Royal College Of Music and somehow I was accepted - God knows how - I think it must have been the sheer hubris in daring to play great big chunks of the Brahms concerto I had been learning - apparently one of the hardest pieces of piano music in existence. I didn't play very well, that I do know! Perhaps dear old Arthur Alexander pulled some strings - in fact I am sure he did.
Anyhow, I was awarded a place at the RCM to study piano with guess who?? - Of course, - Malcolm Binns , my adolescent hero of the piano - it had to be him otherwise the story I am telling you wouldn't be a story!
But I never became a concert pianist. Very simply - my life and everything I was doing in it up until I actually went to the RCM at the age of eighteen was a fantasy. When I had to face reality, I couldn't do it - I didn't want it. I didn't want to embark upon a largely solitary life; a life with just me and a piano in it.
To lock myself away for the rest of my life with an instrument I quite often hated as much as I loved. You see, I had never considered what my life would have to mean - what it would take in order to be a concert pianist - If I had kidded myself that I would be able to get by with a couple of concertos, a few Beethoven sonatas, and a selection of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff - I soon had a rude awakening.
I woke up to a thing called repertoire - Even if I specialised in romantic music, which was my strength, I would still have had to learn to play a vast number of works by a range of different composers. And I was and still am a slow ill-disciplined learner - it takes me ages to learn a piece properly. Not only that, I would have had to keep them all in a fairly ready state to perform, faultlessly, - on a stage in front of an audience.
Yet, this is what concert pianists do and that fact, which began to dawn on me after my first term at the RCM, is the one which I knew I wasn't cut out for. I only functioned withpeople around - boarding school - care (Finchden) - I had never been lonely in my life - unhappy, yes but never lonely - not until then.
So instead of doing my work - preparing for my next lesson with Malcolm, I started investigating the swinging London scene - the music clubs - the gay bars - I soon got myself plugged in to a fantastic group of artisans and began to meet all kinds of interesting people - I was having fun - my music suffered but I was happy.
As for what Malcolm thought about it all. He was a really sweet man - a highly intelligent one at that - I am sure he knew me better that I knew myself. Furthermore, I sensed he was no more really interested in being a piano teacher than I was in being a student and he left the RCM about that time.
I was eventually thrown out of college for non-work and being a bad influence on other students (drugs, drink and parties). Malcolm stuck up for me with the registrar and made my expulsion from the RCM a little less painful that it otherwise would have been. But I am sure he thought it was for the best. Nevertheless, I learnt an incredible amount from Malcolm - far more than he was ever able to realise at the time. As I said, we had had a teacher in common. Arthur Alexander, who had been a pupil of Tobias Matthay.
Malcolm Binns not only has an absolutely immaculate technique, he is also a musician of great depth. Whilst he has all the best features of the Matthay method, he has clearly added his own dimension to this and his playing is a synthesis between yoga and a martial art - completely relaxed and always expressive. Yet when called for, a fire and a fury - and then again - a lightness and delicacy of touch which only comes from reserves of enormous physical strength and control - he is a complete marvel. At least I picked someone worth worshiping!!
I left the RCM in disgrace and I had to some extent shot myself in the foot for being sent down from college also meant being sent down from London. My parents were livid - facial settings “purple” - and embarrassed at having to tell people that I was a failure. I was now facing life either working on my grandfather's farm at Leeds Castle driving a combine harvester or helping my parents with their hotel business down in Devon. Argggghhhhh!!!
I couldn't have this, so I promised my father I would be good from now on and I went the study with another Matthay pupil, Vivian Languish, this time at the Royal Academy of music.
Of course I had no intention of doing anything other than continuing my life of fun in London, but I did behave just well enough to remain at the Academy until it suited me.
And then the summer of love happened - the Beatles - Jimi Hendrix - Pink Floyd and the Middle Earth. - I decided to give up playing the piano and be a rock musician - it was easier and something at which I might even excel.
Although I thought it had, this particular this story involving Gary Cooper, Malcolm Binns and the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto didn’t end there. Like a sleeping dragon it awoke thirty five years later in the most astonishing way. That is a story in itself and I will tell it at the appropriate time, near the end of this journey.
My Steinway piano initially went to GAL and was installed in The Oak Room. Later, it went down to my parent’s house in Devon and there it remained until it was destroyed in a fire in 1973.
In 1969, I joined Barclay James Harvest in Yorkshire, and pioneered their first concerts, with a full piece symphony orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall - Free Trade Hall (Manchester) - Usher Hall (Edinburgh) and Birmingham Town Hall.
I fell out with BJH in 1971 and returned to London where I obtained a recording contract with Charisma records.