Mike Edwards Photography

Home About [ Shelf Life E4: E11: E18: ] Work Rest Play London in Between Projects



I grew up in a house which backed onto West Ham Cemetery and, as I saw grave diggers digging holes in the earth and drinking cups of tea, I thought that this would be an ideal job. Our only toilet was outdoors and I was convinced that if I didn't get back indoors quickly when flushing after dark, something from one of the graves would get me. Three generations plus an aunt and uncle lived in this little house with no bathroom, so to get some peace on a Sunday afternoon, my parents packed me off to Sunday school at St Margaret's, Leytonstone. Here, I went on to join the choir - my practical introduction to music. After piano and then organ lessons, at the age of fifteen, I became organist of Holy Trinity, Harrow Green where I was the (appallingly bad) conductor of the choir!

Whilst a pupil at Leyton County High School for Boys, I decided to follow music studies rather than maths and physics as a career, despite parental and school opposition. I attended Trinity College of Music in London and emerged with a clutch of their diplomas, and also qualifications from the Royal College of Organists and the Royal College of Music, so I was happy with the direction I was taking.

After teaching music and maths at Campion School in Hornchurch, and some years as Head of Music in Seven Kings High School, I escaped from school teaching to take up a music based job in Norway. Here, I played the organ in churches, conducted choirs and the local orchestra, and was required to compose and arrange music as necessary. This could range from a little choral piece for the opening of a new supermarket, to an arrangement for massed choirs, brass band and organ when Crown Princess Astrid opened a new hospital.

One day, I was asked to give a live interview on radio about what it was like to be an Englishman in Norway at Christmas. Unfortunately, the interviewer had muddled his lists and thought I was the County Chief of Police, so he asked me many questions about how I coped with drunken people during the holiday season. I was baffled, and I expect that the listening public was also baffled by my seemingly off target replies.

On my return to the UK, slap in the middle of the 1991 recession, I was unable to get a job, so I decided to go it alone, earning an income as an organist for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. Alongside this, I used my experiences from Norway to run choral festivals and music workshops. Additionally, I set up a number of online services to facilitate the contact between organists and singers, and people who might want to employ them.

It was at this time that I was discovered by the Woodford Symphony Orchestra who invited me to become their resident conductor. This thirty four strong amateur Orchestra, formed in 1963, performs major Classical works in the Woodford area, holding three main concerts a year. It grows to fifty five in number for some concerts, and calls on professionals if the need arises. At the time of writing, the Orchestra is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The common perception of a conductor is one of an absolute dictator who decides everything about the music. This may be true with the professional orchestras, but at a more amateur level the rehearsing process consists of finding what works well with the orchestra for any particular piece of music. Things are discussed and alternatives tried. But once things are decided, I really take over, and in performance, have to give a strong, unequivocal lead on such matters as tempo, loudness and balance. I have to know the music really well so that, if things drift off course a little bit, I can pull them back into line.

Apart from the regular weekly round of playing in churches for services, weddings and funerals, (which may cover German, Latvian, Norwegian, Danish, Estonian, and Maltese Liturgies) and conducting various choirs and the orchestra, I run a number of larger projects with international outreach. One such is the London Sangerstevne, which is based on the great choral festivals in Norway. Started in 2004, this now attracts choirs from across Europe and the USA, involving up to as many as 1000 singers, with individual choirs performing any style from Barbershop to Baroque - and more. Even though these events can sometimes be quite stressful, I always get a tremendous sense of satisfaction when the choirs mass together for the finale.

It's an interesting lifestyle: the hours are long and irregular, there's no sick pay and no holiday pay. But on the other hand, I am my own master and there's lots of opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurial experimentation.