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“When you’re ready….” 

Reminiscences by pianist, John Bryden

Each May, in my musical childhood, came the Edinburgh Competition Festival. Music teachers, parents and their progeny delighted in this glorious week. We would head for George Street where, in the city’s Assembly Rooms, music reigned. Excited, nervous we entered the stone archways off the busy pavements into an oasis of controlled calm.


Straight ahead were ‘The Supper Rooms.’ The very name conjured up a very different world to those of us more accustomed to High Tea. Now sitting on the edge of our delicate gold-painted chairs, acknowledging and smiling at friends and competitors, our music clutched in our hands, we looked carefully at the Adjudicator, in this case, Max Pirani. The set piece was composed by an Italian, Diabelli so perhaps the Adjudicator‘s name shouldn’t have seemed so exotic. A little later, I walked up to collect my adjudication sheet (84 marks) from the kind, though sometimes slightly frazzled lady who sat beside him on their raised platform.


The next incumbent at that table four years later was Cimbro Martin; he was tall, youngish and slim with black wavy hair and he sported a navy and white spotted bow tie! Now here was style and artistry. His elegant handwriting on our report sheet completed the picture! This was a Piano Duet Class in which I was partnered, as I was fortunate to be for so many years, by my dear Sandra Brown. We came up trumps ….94 marks!


One adjudicator who should be especially congratulated was given the task of listening to 72 young pianists playing the same fairly simple piece one long, hot Saturday afternoon. Admiration was also felt for the army of Edinburgh ladies who helped the Festival to run smoothly. Here we must not forget those whose responsibility it was to place number cards on a music stand at the front of each Class to ensure that the adjudicator knew which competitor was playing at any one time. Only once in my experience was there a mistake; there was a muddle with the numbers. Chunterings ensued, injustices voiced privately -and to this day I occasionally bump into the fellow-pianist whom some people present felt stole my glory!


But other successes more than compensated and the lighter evenings occasionally ended with a last-minute visit to Fuller’s Café round the corner. The reward was a piece of cake with strawberry jam encased in hard smooth icing, delicious!


Across the landing from the ‘Assembly Rooms’ was the Music Hall, another vast room and it was here that the Chamber Music Classes took place, one of the best events available to the musical youth of the city. For this collaboration teachers would link up their pupils. From my piano lessons in Ainslie Place, I ventured to the Poole’s Synod Hall, behind the Usher Hall. Here, within its boomy, capacious interior, the Waddell School was at home. Once past the swing doors which could lead one by mistake into a cinema with a film in full flight there were big rooms with ranks of stringed instruments and the redoubtable ladies  themselves, Miss Mamie Waddell and her sister, Dr Ruth.


I first met Miss Waddell when I was teamed-up with Robert Stenhouse, a 12  year-old violinist to play the first movement of a Sonata by Hans Gal, a most distinguished member of the University Faculty of Music. Robert and I didn’t win this Class. Why not? The composer’s daughter Eva, a few years older than us was a fellow competitor! Her pianist-partner was Christopher Elton, later to become Head of Keyboard at the Royal Academy of Music.


A year or two later the cellist Michael Marwick and I fared better and were awarded 90 marks for the slow movement of the Chopin Sonata by the adored Frederick Grink; he always seemed to be enjoying the occasion, spreading warmth and good humour delivered in his Canadian drawl. The Accompanists’ Class must not be forgotten, masterminded by the delightful Havelock Nelson.


Back to the ‘Supper Rooms’, where Harry Isaacs and Guy Johnson held sway on two unforgettable evenings. For the ‘Open Bach Class’ I played the C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I still treasure hearing Harry Isaacs, after awarding me 96 marks, adding “is that enough?”


We pianists always had our eyes on the William Townsend Silver and Gold Medals. (My sister Mary won them both). So when Guy Johnson awarded me the latter for my Chopin G minor Ballade my joy was complete! Mind you, I was so nervous in the Final that I sat at the piano and could not for the life of me remember the opening phrase. I put my fingers on the first notes - two Cs, an octave apart, shut my eyes tightly and, mercifully, my practised hands took me up the keyboard as Chopin prescribed! I have kept a letter of congratulations written by the mother of a fellow competitor, in which she ended with the immortal words : “Tally Ho!” As good a launching-pad as any budding pianist-musician could wish for.


John Bryden, 2019

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