Memories, Caesari and the Bel Canto Tradition

Back to Page 1 of 2

Learning to trust the teacher, who, after all becomes the referee between what the pupil does, or thinks he does, whose aspirations may well outstrip talent or present capacity, and who has to be able to recognise that the voice is working as nature intended, that the tones achieved are at all levels of pitch and dynamics unforced and resonating where nature - rather than where oh! so often misguided man thinks - intended, is an essential element of the relationship between them: and if that kind of trust has been abused, probably quite unintentionally - through incompetence or ignorance or dogmatism - then establishing that trust at all levels will inevitably be difficult. I knew from the reading of his books, from meeting the man, from recognising that he had no interest in manipulating or exploiting me but that he had only my interest as motivation, that here was the one man who could help me to put and keep things right, but that intellectual realisation never blocks the emotional defensiveness resulting from previous bad experiences that stimulates an obstructive reaction, a need to have everything proved - yet that very need formed the positive basis of our relationship. He understood so well the pointlessness of the repetition of negative experience, and patiently he re-introduced me to all the sensation of singing that I had enjoyed with a natural voice before I had been made to do strange things that I had always felt to be contrary to nature, and contrary to what I had heard when hearing Gigli sing. It took quite some time to come to terms with the waste of it all, and there was the suspicion that what I had done in the first place must have been wrong because two influential and well-known teachers had made me do something else! So Caesari taught me to analyse very precisely all the sensations that singing created in me, and also, simply by listening, to analyse and feel exactly what other singers, both good and bad, were doing in their performance - the most useful of skills for the future diagnosis of pupils' problems, essential for their resolution and a skill that I try to pass on to them so that when they sing in company, they can resist the temptation to copy-cat those around them.

In 1968, I paid a short visit to Nova Scotia which resulted in the invitation from Acadia University - not far from Dalhousie in Halifax - to take charge of all voice training and the conducting of its three choirs and intended operatic productions. It was a tempting offer, particularly as the equivalent lecturer at Dalhousie was also a Caesari pupil and we might well have developed quite an influence in singing circles. The decision not to go to Canada was made for many reasons which it is convenient to recite whenever I feel regret because I remained in England, but I should have to admit that the chief reason was that I was not yet prepared to consider my work with Caesari to be at an end. It was clear to me that he was grooming me to continue his work, and indeed, shortly before his death in November 1969, he did charge me to make it an important element in my own ambition: and it is true that that final year had a quality quite different from those that had preceded it: I was no longer just another pupil - I had become a colleague, on a par with his daughter Alma - and yet I was still learning and refining insights. It was the singing itself that mattered, almost to the extent that performance was irrelevant except to demonstrate a point.

When Caesari died, a whole chapter of my life came to an end. Unlike many other pupils, I did not scurry off to find another teacher - there could be no other, as I knew that most would try hard to corrode whatever I had been enabled to discover because it contradicted their pet fads and fancies. Indeed, I know teachers presently active who proudly proclaim a time with Caesari before moving on after his death to X, or Y, or Z - and I have even listened to lessons which have embodied everything that he would have taught them to avoid: one even goes so far as to describe Caesari as the best exponent of our art 'for his time' as if to suggest that great leaps forward have been made since then! I kept working with a few pupils, but turned my attention to my academic career which seemed to be 'taking off' with little help from me. I taught in two Teachers Training Colleges, became the Head of Department in one, and when the great re-organisation of London Colleges came in the later '70's, I found myself at the Head of four departments with the task of submitting degree proposals first to London University, and then to Surrey, and in the end, after I had left, what is now Roehampton University found its full status. However, in 1977 I was invited to run a voice studio in Southend, which I did for a couple of years, after which I steadily increased my teaching from home, frequently accompanying my pupils in concerts, some of which were put on in College under the auspices of the Music Department. Eventually, in 1991, the opportunity came to take early retirement so that I could devote the majority of my time to teaching voice, teaching piano, preparing pupils for recital work or operatic performance, and accompanying as required - the latter being a particular interest of mine since few accompanists have a proper background as singers and so have insufficient understanding of what it involves.

I am not the only Pitceathly who is a musician! It is certainly true that there are very few of us who spell the name in our fashion, but my youngest brother is also a pianist, though his route to his career was rather different from mine in that he received the fullest support from parents who had the grace to realise that their ambitions for me had been mis-placed. Nigel was fortunate to have Ronald Smith as his principal pre-College teacher, and when he went to the RMCM (now the RNCM) he came under the tutelage of the distinguished Polish pianist Ryszard Bakst, (a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus - as were Richter and Gilels), and it was with his support that he was subsequently appointed Head of Keyboard Studies at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester - whole generations of piano students during the '80's and '90's passed through his hands or felt the influence of his teaching, several of whom have successfully made it to the top with concert careers: one in particular auditioned for Chetham's twice, and alone amongst the judges Nigel recognised the child's potential, and so took it upon himself to prepare him properly for entrance to the school and build up the technique that has taken him to justified world fame after further work with Bakst, and Brendel - Paul Lewis.