John Newton

Pipe dreams

The tuba defeated <em>John Newton</em> as a schoolboy. Now, as a headmaster, he’s taking it on again

Pipe dreams
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The two great regrets of middle age are: ‘I never learnt a language’ and ‘I never learnt an instrument’. One of my regrets is that, because I was a happy-go-lucky sort of chap at school, my music teachers kept giving me heavier and heavier cases to carry.

They started me on the trumpet. That was fine; I could hide away in the brass section and camouflage my errors among the better players. But then they moved me to the euphonium. ‘We need one of those, Newton. Get practising.’ I could just about cope with the euphonium. But then came the final call. Your school needs you. The orchestra expects. ‘We need a tuba, and you’re the man!’

I was suddenly armed and dangerous. As the only tuba player in the wind band, any error I committed was both prominent and unmissable. Eyes would turn to the scruffy boy at the back as he knocked out a sharp instead of a flat and — on one memorable occasion — added an extra note to a bar. That would have been fine, except that it was the last bar. The conductor’s hand had stopped. The flutes were practically packing away. The violins were planning their night out, and I was rewriting a Gershwin classic. Embarrassed? You betcha.

So when offered the chance to fade away and hand over this most toxic of briefs, I grabbed the chance to stop.

And that was it. I had proudly won an undistinguished pass at Grade Three. I had ruined modern music for 200 spectators, and had endured a thoroughly lonely and miserable time. Job done.

Then, middle age struck. One summer’s day, in my present job as headmaster of Taunton School, I was visiting the prep school music building and noticed the music store had been left open. At the back was a very large instrument case. Flashback. My palms moistened. There was my nemesis.

But then another thought came to me: why not have another go? This time, I would do it my way. I might even enjoy it. I would buy some music and play to my heart’s content. So what if my kids complained and the masonry crumbled? The time had come to right a wrong, and to prove that I could do it.

Next thing I knew, ambition began to grow. Grade Three in 1979. Why not Grade Four, or even Five, in 2013? Let’s buy the music and find out. And what did I find? I loved it. Simply adored it. At certain moments, I was an insult to tuba players everywhere, but when it was good, it was great. I was Hendrix with valve oil.

I am lucky enough to be married to a very accomplished musician. My wife plays every Sunday in church, to pieces arranged by our very talented music director. I quavered — because that is about as fast as I could play — and finally asked him to arrange some music so that we could see whether I could add lustre and depth to the worshipful music making.

Mistakes? I have certainly made a few, but I have been disturbing the prayerful silences and wrecking the godly intonations of St James’s church for 18 months now. Each week is a trial because the instrument, rather like my iPad, seems to have a mind of its own. Shifting several cubic metres of air through brass pipes is not the easiest of things and I still do squeak from time to time. But the sense of satisfaction from playing something right is still a thrill, and the sense of being part of a very different kind of team is moving.

As for Grade Five? I got a distinction — by the skin of my teeth. But not before facing a lone examiner in a cavernous music room for 20 minutes. My word, our pupils are brave to do that.

As for the future: I sit by the phone hoping for the call from the Brighouse and Rastrick Band, or even the prep-school wind band. Maybe one day it will come. In the meantime, I busked for charity with two fellow headmasters in Taunton High Street at Christmastime two years ago. We raised £300 in an hour for the homeless, so the tuneless helped the homeless. Not bad for a middle-aged man with, now, a little less regret than before.