Issues Index

UP16 Childhood

Early Memories of Music – UP16

track numbers refer to the UP16 CD

Omar Sosa (track 1)

The most powerful musical influence from my childhood, ages six to nine, was listening on Sunday afternoons at home with my father to his Nat King Cole lps, and to Chopin. I’m continuing to appreciate even now how deep and powerful these experiences were. And how important it is to provide exposure to music to children when they are young.

Eric Longsworth (track 2)

As a four-year-old, I listened repeatedly to a recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, terrified each time by the wolf, and reassured by the arrival of Grandpa and the hunters. It wasn’t like watching a film; the music was so vividly all-encompassing, I was inside the story

Josefina Cupido (track 3)

Grey streets, big people talking, words not understood. Flamenco guitars, the beautiful trumpet. Dad singing obscure sieta, Mother dancing. Me and my sister shiding under tables at Christmas so we could stay and listen to Paco Peña play the guitar, and watch the ankles of beautiful women dancing, when only we knew we could see them.

Steve Lodder (track 3)

I was just starting to play piano and came across a story in a library book about Tchaikovsky, who while standing at a window heard the music in his head so strongly that his fist went right through the glass. I remember thinking that music must be strong stuff.

Shirley Anne Hofmann (track 4)

We lived about 10km from the international bridge from Johnstown, Ontario to Ogdensburg, New York. The surface of the bridge was a kind of metal grid to avoid ice build-up in the winter, which ‘sang’ as our car tyres crossed over it, like a long synthesizer note that changed about every 800 metres or so. My dad would ask me to name the notes.

Bob Downes (track 5)

Walking home from school in Ashington, Northumberland at the age of six, I heard an orchestra in my head playing very modern music. No doubt I was inspired by sneaking into the side door of cinemas, watching films shown for adults only, and also by my mother going about the house singing, with her beautiful voice, songs such as ‘Body and Soul’, ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Stormy Weather’.

Jonathan Cooper (track 6)

As a child I spent a summer in Swaziland on an archaeological dig. I found the day-to-day cleaning of artefacts extremely boring and instead wandered off into the fields to listen to the myriad sounds of insects chirping and whirring in the heat. I would attempt to woo them to me with my tin whistle, trying to imitate their beautiful music.

Mônica Vasconcelos (track 7)

We lived on the ninth floor of a skyscraper in São Paulo, Brazil. My mother felt like a caged bird. Occasionally she would would tell us children to go to the kitchen, grab saucepans, lids, spoons and whatever else, and say: ‘Let’s make a batucada.’ We would sit in a circle. She would sing and teach us songs. And we would all hit the pans like crazy.

Dominy Clements (track 8)

We had a Garrard record player, whose fascinating slow ‘ballet’ of clicks and ratchety grinding was a musical experience in itself. But I was not prepared for my first concert, sitting in the front row. The opening of Dvorak’s Carnival pressed me into my seat like an astronaut at lift-off.

Django Bates (track 9)

A ropey, semitone flat D’Almaine Piano was the most fascinating toy in the house. The middle F# hammer would also hit F natural, so we stuck a drawing pin in one side to realign it. This gave the F# a cimbalom-like sound. Recordings of a Romanian folk orchestra and Charlie Parker’s ‘Bird is Free’ were great to dance to as a toddler.

Paul Burnell (track 10)

At the age of seven, I came across a rock band about to rehearse in a local leisure centre. When they started up, I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was the first time I’d heard something that loud. I was very impressed by the physicality of sound.

Sarah Collins (track 11)

I learned piano from six and rushed up through the Associated Board Exam system, taking Grade 8 at about fourteen. I had awful stress dreams about my family being held hostage, and me then having to play my exam pieces. If I made any mistakes, they would be tortured.

David Jackson (track 12)

I was four or five years old, trying to play a bamboo flute made by my elder brother, learning nursery tunes and listening to the radio, by a window. In the warm streaming sunlight, my tunes made moving patterns in the glistening dust.

Evelyn Ficarra (track 13)

Playing all the white notes on the piano one after another, starting with both hands as wide as possible and working inwards, pausing on the A notes on the way, until the hands collided, then the right hand leaping over the left and continuing travel downwards while the left hand remained stuck insistently on the A below middle C.

Matteo Fargion (track 14)

Milan, 1969. Maestro Cantamessa, a choral director from La Scala, was giving me a piano lesson. My mother walked into the room and lit a cigarette, into which I had earlier inserted a firecracker. It exploded in her face. Much Fellini-esque commotion ensued, as she held her hands to her face and screamed that she could no longer see. With my head hung lows, I continued playing. Espressos appeared and her sight was miraculously restored, but the illustrious teacher never came back.

Roger Doyle (track 15)

I have a memory of when I was five or so of hearing a distant muffled piano waltz coming through the wall from the house next door and telling my parents that it was called ‘Hot pee pee, cold pee pee’ (in time with the rhythm).

Nikola Kodjabashia (track 16)

The family piano in my home that big brown thing that I took for granted, as much as the fridge in the kitchen. The piano had a heavy cover over the keyboard, it smelled unique, and it talked back if you touched it. I actually believed that it was alive.

Sally Beamish (track 17)

(My) mother tuning her violin Kreutzer testing her bow Sevcik testing her fingers behind the tall door

Sitting on the stairs waiting to test her patience her daughter, aged four

Jane Cornwell, writer

I recall vinyl recordings of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, with narration by Danny Kaye. My mother would get us kids to act out the melodrama, tip-toeing to the flutes, snarling and prowling to the horns. It was music as storybook. More vivid, way more exciting, than pictures.

Beverley Crew, a cmn producer

My earliest memories of music are of birdsong. My grandmother had daily visits from a blackbird called Blackie who sang to her, with the most exquisite voice, for his tea. My spinster aunt Ruby had a number of budgerigars, the most vocally talented of whom was Peter.

Sara Dhillon, pianist, composer

I recall sitting barefoot with my mother at our local Sikh temple in Slough, on an endlessly flowing white sheet. I didn’t understand what the preacher was saying, but then my ears pricked up when the music started and another holy man started singing, to the accompaniment of harmonium and tabla, what I now know to be spiritual songs.

Sylvia Hallett, violinist, saw player I must have been about two-and-a-half to three years old. Every week my parents used to take me to church. They were atheists. One time, during the service, I walked down the aisle singing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’ at the top of my lungs.

Errollyn Wallen, composer, pianist

When I was about five years old, I realised that the violin could sound like a human voice.

Margaret Walters, teacher, writer**

From when I was very small I can remember people – friends, neighbours and relatives – standing around the piano and singing while my father played the popular tunes of the day.

Clive Bell, musician, writer

Aged three and sitting in my bath, I remember my father singing a music hall song: ‘Oh, that Gorgonzola cheese! / It must have been unhealthy I suppose, / For the poor Tom cat fell a corpse upon the mat / When the whiff went up his nose. / Talk about the flavour of the crackling on the pork, / Nothing could have been more strong / Than the beautiful aroma that filled our house / When the Gorgonzola cheese went wrong.’

Peter Blegvad, songwriter, cartoonist

I remember my mother singing ‘The Golden Vanity’, the tragic tale of a cabin boy betrayed and left to drown. I must have been about nine. As she sang, the pictures were so strong – I was awake but dreaming. The last verse near made me swoon in an ecstasy of pity.

Terry Edwards, multi-instrumentalist

When I was one, according to my Mum, I was so taken with the guitar that I had blisters on my fingers from ‘playing’ the egg-slicer. My own musical memories begin with playing the piano at age five after I broke my leg in the British Museum.

Donald Fagen, songwriter*

I can’t ever remember when there was silence around the house. My mother was either playing records or singing. She was an excellent phraser and I think just listening to her sing all my life gave me a natural swing type of feel.

Orlando Gough, composer

I am sitting at the grand piano in the New Hall at Cothill. I am eight, and I’m playing for prayers for the first time. It’s the sixth verse of Holy Holy Holy, and I am so nervous that I haven’t yet managed to play a note. The school sings on gamely. Eventually I make contact with the keyboard, amazingly the right chord. The school, of course, is by now way out of sync. The headmaster’s wife, standing next to me, is laughing so much that she has to leave the room.

Andy Grappy, tuba player

My Dad hummed hymns from his childhood going to church in Grenada. Every Sunday would start with Church (Methodist), then Sunday School, then lunch, with first the sounds of Jim Reeves and Pat Boone, followed by the strains of the Caribbean – Calypso, Bluebeat and Ska – with some Korngold-type film score on the tv inthe background.

Billy Jenkins, guitarist

A fifth birthday present. A harmonica. Happy birthday boy on swing, legs kicking, harp sucking in and out. ‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll ram that thing down your throat,’ growled me Dad. Music suddenly meant something to me.

Gerry Lyseight, broadcaster, dj

My father could best be described as an ignorant brute, but I picked up my love of music from him. He introduced me to the sounds of New Orleans, R&B, rock’n’roll, crooners and Calypsonians. I still remember him singing the line ‘Sing the song children’ along with Ray Charles on his ‘I can’t stop loving you’. Bittersweet indeed.

Will Menter, composer, inventor

I was six to seven years old, in the neighbour’s house up in the attic listening to a wind-up gramophone. The music was an Irish folk song, which resonated with the crude distortion of the gramophone. But a feeling lingered in my mind like an itch that needed scratching.

Russell Mills, illustrator, sound artist

I was eleven, living at raf Bruggen in Germany: no tv and limited radio access. Music blared simultaneously from different rooms. Dad played Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman classics. My teenage brother played Elvis. I countered with my first vinyl purchase, ‘Pipeline’ by the Chantays.

Ennio Morricone, film composer**

When I was six I started composing. My father taught me the treble clef and the names of the notes. Of course I composed very easy melodies, the sort that can be composed by a child, and after a few years I threw them away when I realised how ugly they were.

Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, sound artist

My earlier musical memories are fragments of popular music, from Gary Glitter to the The Beatles on the radiogram, Winnie the Pooh and Tales of the Riverbank on black and white television, my grandmother singing ancient war songs, all at the same time!

Todd Rundgren, songwriter**

We had this rca record player, a brown Bakelite box with one speaker and a very solid-looking solid spindle with a red top. You could stack up 45rpm records on it. So my earliest memories were listening to the Boston Pops Orchestra doing light classics – ‘Chicken Reel’ and ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ and stuff like that – so I would just sit for hours, stacking the records up and gazing through the coloured vinyl: red, yellow, green.

Ned Sublette, guitarist, songwriter, historian

I began dialing the radio as soon as my chubby little hands could reach it. It was the early 1950s in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Black kids went to different schools, used different bathrooms at the gas station and sat in the balcony at the movie theatre. But we had integrated radio.

John White, composer, pianist

Father had a few piano pieces in his repertoire such as ‘In a Monastery Garden’. He would play these while smoking, the smoke in his eyes, with the pedal down continuously. He would lift the pedal every two pages, dropping ash as he did so, saying ‘dash it!’ and then resume his play.

Trevor Wishart, composer

We had a piano at home, a family heirloom, but no-one played it until I started lessons. I knew my father had been a piano-player when young, and could play apiece called the ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’. This involved hand-crossing, which was thought to be very difficult.

All the above memories were contributed in emails to Unknown Public except for* quoted in the book Reelin’ In The Years (Omnibus) and ** from conversations with the editor.