Monday 23 January 2012

Music at King David School Liverpool 1969 –76

An affectionate, if occasionally unintentionally inaccurate, appreciation of the legacy of Mr Maurice Shifrin.
Spring 1969, it was our last year in Primary before moving up into Secondary (equivalent to 5th Grade US). After all the neat, tidy and clever children had asked for violin, ´cello and flute, I put my hand up and asked for a trumpet. My teacher laughed out loud and said, “What do you think you are going to do with a trumpet?”
It was all as new and surprising to our teacher as it was to us: the chance for every child to be loaned an instrument and to receive free lessons on that instrument when we started the next term at the Secondary school. The details were not very clear to me, in fact very few things were clear to that little 11 year old whose main concern at school was there was never enough time to play football. All I knew was that I wanted to be like Louis Armstrong, whose playing I had heard in the film High Society. He made such a beautiful sound on the trumpet, he played amazingly high notes and dazzlingly quick runs, and on top of everything he seemed so happy. If playing the trumpet could make you as happy as Satchmo, I wanted one.    
The school orchestra was formed shortly after the tuition began in September of 1969, as the school was transformed by the number of pupils taking lessons and was in the fortunate position of having every part in every section of the orchestra covered. My sister Deborah played the violin. Orchestra rehearsals were held on Tuesdays after school, with a Milky Way for each student to boost our energy level. It was there that we often saw Mr Shifrin. He would come into the hall and sit quietly at the back, never interfering in the rehearsal, just occasionally greeting the players with a friendly wave.
It was only gradually that I understood how this had all come about. Mr Shifrin retired from the kitchen furniture business that he had successfully built up and sold out to a national chain, maybe MFI. He was committed to the local Jewish community, had a deep knowledge of and love for music, and valued education very highly.  When it came to making good use of the proceeds from the sale of his business, he wanted to combine all of these elements. In time he decided to establish a foundation which would provide a whole set of orchestral instruments and tuition fees for a seven year period for pupils at the King David, the school which had been founded by the Jewish community in Liverpool in 1957. There was also a strong Drama department at the nearby Jewish youth club but I had no direct experience of that.
The school orchestra’s founding conductor was Mr Jenkins. He had vast experience of youth orchestras and was an excellent violinist, making him an ideal choice for this role. It was while Mr Jenkins was conducting us that the orchestra was assembled for a special session and Mr Shifrin  brought along Sir Yehudi Menuhen, who spoke kind words of encouragement to us all and played briefly.
With Mr Jenkins we worked through the OUP school orchestra scores including Pictures at an Exhibition, among other repertoire. I recall that it was he who conducted the orchestra at our first public performance, on the stage of the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I wish I could say that we had made such meteoric progress in one year that we deserved a billing at this magnificent concert hall, but there are too many people who were present then and who will remember that the reason for the setting was that the school prize giving, or Speech Day, was held there, and we simply had the wonderful good fortune to tag along. I recall that we played the English and Israeli national anthems as part of the performance.
The RLPO played a very important part in England’s musical life as a stable and well supported ensemble and as a permanent feature of Liverpool life. The principle conductor during these years was Sir Charles Groves: while he was not the most fashionable conductor, he had a profound affinity with music by the 20th century’s English composers and championed the works of Vaughan Williams, Delius and Elgar to such an extent that concert goers in Liverpool heard their music more than other audiences around the country.
I remembered this in 2008 when I visited Liverpool with my students from Madrid and we were given a guided tour of the Philharmonic Hall by a member of the RLPO education department.  The hall has been substantially renovated recently but the celebrated acoustic appears to sound as good as ever. In 2010  I attended a conference on Social Inclusion through Music Education in Madrid, and was impressed, along with the other listeners, to hear an admirable account of the RLPO’s contemporary work by Peter Garden:   
Conference on Social Inclusion 

Mr Roy Watson followed Mr Jenkins and he worked  in a very different way. Mr Watson had recently left his post as Principal double bass player at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), he was a very extrovert person and loved to perform at every opportunity. I remember him playing through movements of Beethoven sonatas at the piano as we filed into the school hall for assemblies. He produced endless hand-written scores for us of his own arrangements for the orchestra and he copied them on his very own personal photocopier: nobody had one in those days. He had this photocopier at his home, and we knew that because he very generously organized occasional parties for us at his home. He was a larger than life figure, a great musician, and a true artist who had no doubt about the value of the arts in his life, in his pupils’ lives or in society. He used to say that his godfather was the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, and he had an endless supply of stories from the lives of orchestral musicians which he told with great panache.
By this time, around 1974, musical activity in the school was prodigious in quantity and quality. There was a great range of skill levels along the pupils, but there were certainly many who were deeply committed to music making in school, and as well as the orchestra there were chamber music groups including a recorder ensemble, led by Mrs Lukasz, who was a very kind person and was generous with her time in giving my friends and me extra coaching for O level music. I remember she taught us how to remember the names of the dances in the Baroque suite using the acronym ACSOG: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, the O standing for Others such as Minuet. I recently heard a performance of the Capriol Suite and I remembered how she encouraged us to seek out enough recorders to make up an ensemble with descant, treble tenor and bass: the Capriol Suite was one of the pieces we played. We played innumerable Renaissance pieces and she insisted on respecting the style and character of each period of music. Her husband Zoltan was a bassoonist at the RLPO and also taught at the school.
There were exceptionally gifted students like Maurice Chernick who is now I understand in a senior post in music education and a specialist in Kletzmer music, Dina Bennett who was a gifted pianist and cellist, and Gill Griffiths, a member of the recorder ensemble and a keen flautists. Then there was Russell Harris, who drove us all to distraction because he was a phenomenal bassoonist, thanks to Mr Lukasz’s tuition but also due to his natural flair, yet he never ever seemed to practice and took it all so casually. In one season Simon Rattle, not yet Sir, was conducting the Merseyside Youth Orchestra and contacted Russell  to invite him to play to guarantee a strong  solo at the opening of Stravinsky´s The Rite of Spring. It is my recollection that Russell declined the invitation. The incident did not stop him getting into Oxford a couple of years later.
David Adlington remains in my memory as a great example of a true music lover. He played the clarinet with real dedication and attained a high standard, while keeping his eye on his academic commitments which were to take him into engineering. I cannot hear mention of Schumann without thinking of David, as he spent months rising to the challenge of  playing the Fantasiestücke. Our Headteacher at the time was Mr Beebe, and his daughter Miriam played the piano and, I think, the oboe and was one of the very few among us who composed her own music. For some reason at one point she asked me to play one of her piano compositions at a music festival and I did try to play it, but in the end we all decided she would do much better performing it herself, which she did, very spectacularly. I hope Miriam is still composing and would very much like to hear her music now.
Among the brass players were Ian Rosenthal, Nigel Hiscock and  Julie Baker. In 2004 I met Nigel at a music education conference at the SAGE, Gateshead. He commented that his French Horn teacher, also an RLPO member, had started him on the way to a career playing in London orchestras and later in music administration. Nigel said that he was convinced that he made such progress because his teacher constantly reminded him that stories of the instrument being difficult were nonsense: the French horn is easy when you just do the right things. A masterstroke of educational psychology.
It was great to sit and play trumpet again next to Julie Baker, 30 years after our school days in 2010 when she was part of the Phoenix Concert Orchestra Liverpool tour to Spain, conducted by Jill Hyde. When I heard her in Madrid it was clear that Julie has kept a higher standard of playing than I have now, or ever had. Her tone in the Madrid concerts was just beautiful, full and round and with perfect intonation. It reminded me how it was the sheer beauty of the trumpet tone that first inspired me to play all those years ago. She must be very popular with her pupils, and be in great demand as a performer too. I wrote a few words about the LPCO Tour to Madrid

Of course there were many other pupils playing music at King David at the time, and I hope we can add to this brief summary with their help.
Into this musical maelstrom, with Ms Herman as Head of Music and conductor of the orchestra, stepped Ms Hyde, I think in 1973 or 74, but it could have been earlier. Jill Hyde made a great impact in the school, among other reasons because started a Concert Orchestra to explore light music. The repertoire included tuneful recent English music and film music such as the march from The Dambusters, and selections from musicals like Porgy & Bess. My recollection is that we got through a huge amount of music because we were so highly motivated. Jill has an encyclopedic knowledge of this repertoire, an eagle eye for detail, and an ability to pace the rehearsals to maintain the momentum. Her own work as an accompanist also means that she sees rehearsals and performances from the player’s and not just the conductor’s point of view. We responded with an enthusiasm that produced many really worthwhile concerts and I am convinced the standard was as high in reality as it still sounds in my imagination.   
We gave a seemingly endless stream of performances at school and in music festivals and at Speech Days. I think two words sum up our experience in those days: variety and quality.
Back at the beginning…“That note on the second line is G. Just hold it up, nice and straight, lad, like, level with the floor, blow as hard as you can, and that’s it…”. Gabriel did blow and for all I know he made a perfect G at the first try, but it took me a week just to get a decent sound out of the instrument. Nevertheless, Mr Cull (Albert) had great patience and led me through A Tune a Day week after week, and the note names, signs and symbols and their meaning all fell into place as we went along. I am very grateful to Mr Cull both for his kindly manner and for teaching me to read music in such a way that it never seemed difficult. Training in sight reading is an essential element of music education and sadly, too many teachers make such a meal of it that their students end up battling anxiety as much as crotchets and quavers. Mr Cull regularly told me inspiring stories about his students at the nearby school for the blind, and often remarked that if a blind child could read music with Braille it would be so much easier for me and my friends reading standard notation.
We were extremely fortunate with the team of peripatetic teachers assigned to the school. Several of them were members of the RLPO as was my second teacher, Robert Nicholas. Mr Nicholas was a most excellent player and simply listening to his demonstration was an inspiration to practise more and to refine the tone quality. Mr Nicholas was exemplary in his respect for a wide range of musical styles: he treated every piece he played and taught with the attention to detail, phrasing and sound that was appropriate. 
One of the woodwind teachers was Mr McAllister, and it was he who invited me to join the Liverpool Youth Jazz Orchestra, based at the city´s music centre. Brian McAllister’s first love was jazz and big band music and his skill as a teacher was matched by his skill as a performer, equally proficient on clarinet, saxophone and flute. I performed with his LYJO on numerous occasions, including a tour to Berlin, but that’s another story….
I was happy to return to King David in 2008 with my students from Madrid. The hall was still there, but was about to be demolished to make way for a brand new building, and the piano was also there, and playing it was a very moving experience for me. I know that over the years some extremely important musical personalities have emerged from the school, and I hope someone else with first hand knowledge will take up this story. I hope readers will accept my apologies in advance for the persons I have not mentioned, to add information and correct my mistakes: memory is a funny thing and this account is certainly not complete. 

You can read about pantomimes at the King David from 1974-76

There are many more people who made an important contribution to this story: the important thing is that they did succeed in making a reality of what Mr Shifrin set out to do. 

My thanks to all of them, and of course to Mr Shifrin, whose generosity touched and changed our lives.


  1. How lovely to hear your comments, Timothy. I too benefited from Maurice Shifrin's generosity. I was only at the school for a couple of years but went on to be principal trombone in the Merseyside Youth Orchestra... I was talking to Malcolm Sandman, who lives in Perth, Australia, about Mr Shifrin and he Googled him and your article came up! We were saying how much we owed to him! Sandy and I spent years in Harold House Drama Group (which you mentioned) and it was fantastic for building confidence generally. Some people have gone on to great things, from that group (and school), e.g. Diane Samuels, who is now a celebrated playwright.... Hope you are well... Sandy and I are distributing your article to many people you will remember. I also see Ian Rosenthal regularly!

  2. Hi Danny. Thanks for taking the time to read this and for sharing the article. I remember I admired you because you played the trombone so well and because you made it look so easy and such fun. Do you still play? Great to hear of Malcolm: I knew he was in Australia because I traced him years ago through that old site Friends Reunited, and glad you are in touch with Ian, happy memories. Best wishes, Timothy

  3. I rember it well too specially as Mr shiffrin paid for me to go to israle in the play wy took over to show...even if I was only a beatle lookalike

  4. Great reading this. I was in that orchestra in the late 60s/early 70s and played at the Phil. I was the Timanist. But also dabbled with the vioklin Yehudi Menuinegave us a lesson I recall. We played at the Phil a few times.