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News > Arts & Culture > How Music Became A Lifetime Preoccupation

How Music Became A Lifetime Preoccupation

Graham Sheffield (MH 65-70) is Director Arts for the British Council. His lifelong fascination with music has had a sensational impact on the Arts world. Following twelve years at the BBC as Music...

Graham Sheffield (MH 65-70) is Director Arts for the British Council. His lifelong fascination with music has had a sensational impact on the Arts world. Following twelve years at the BBC as Music Producer for Radio Three, Graham became Projects Director at London's renowned Southbank Centre, during which time he founded the internationally acclaimed Meltdown Festival. He subsequently served as Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre, and is credited for establishing it as "one of the most innovative, dynamic and respected centres in the arts world."

He was awarded CBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours’ list for services to the arts and was made Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2005. In January 2015, he was honoured by ISPA with the International Citation of Merit for lifetime achievement in the arts.

We spoke to Graham about the origins of his engrossment in the world of music, musical moments at Manour House, and becoming the school's first ever A Level Music student. 
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Earliest memories
Music has always been a part of my life, since I first heard my mother playing a Mendelssohn Song without Words on an elderly upright piano in our flat in Maida Avenue.  I started lessons at Arnold House, where I spent a year or so before my prep school, Northaw, near Salisbury.  There, as so often happens, it was the inspiration of a fine teacher, Christopher Bayston, who turned what was “just another subject” into something of a preoccupation for life.  He was a choral man, but also a fantastic enthusiast, who later went on to teach at Eton.  I played piano, recorder (an old Dolmetsch plastic one) and also sang in the choir.

Music at Tonbridge
When I went to Tonbridge, I was fortunate once again to have fine mentors including John Cullen and Tony Gould, as well as an exchange teacher from Australia called (I think) Donald Britton. (Ed. You are quite correct). Once again I sang in the choir, transitioning from treble to baritone, as one does.  I wanted to play an orchestral instrument and tried the flute, but though I could read well, I simply had the wrong shaped lips to make a pleasing and focussed sound.  I switched to the timpani, with which I had tremendous fun both at Tonbridge and later at Edinburgh University.  I also took up the organ and when I reached the sixth form, frequently played at the school morning service from that organ loft high above the congregation.

Academic factors lead me to Edinburgh
The big gear change came about as a result of relative failure.  I received modest A Level grades in my Classics subjects.  As a result I decided to retake the Latin and Ancient History, whilst dropping Greek (heresy of heresies) and take Music in one year at A Level.  I had to walk up the aisle at Big School and boldly announce this to the then Headmaster, Michael McCrum, himself a distinguished Cambridge classicist.  I was the first person to take A Level Music at Tonbridge, and improved grades in Classics, coupled with a B in Music, and a Distinction in Grade VIII Piano, enabled me to gain a place at Edinburgh University to read Music.

School Music, cricket and House music
A position in my last couple of years, as Head of School Music, enabled me to avoid a good deal of rugby, as well as get my name on a notice board somewhere, since I was never going to win any accolades at sport.  However, I did, in my estimation, do a pretty mean job as Captain of the Cricket 3rd XI!

We also used to have a house choral competition, in which I recall conducting the Manor House choir in a medley from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  There were several talented musicians also at Tonbridge then, including the pianist Clive Swansbourne, with whom I partnered in several concerts: the sublime Mozart Double Piano Concerto (K365) is one concert I recall with great affection.

Support gratefully received
In an era when sporting prowess was generally valued much more highly than any aptitude for the arts, I shall always recall with gratitude the support I did receive from the school for a subject which has given me so much joy – and employment – throughout my life.  I am pleased to say I have gone quite seriously back to the piano in the last two years.  I think John Cullen would probably have given one of those wry smiles of appreciation at the news, even though the fingers aren’t quite as nimble as they once were.

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