This is the 1st of a series of Blog Posts I will publish each month profiling our very dedicated and talented teachers in the Captivate String Things Program in Catholic Schools, Western Sydney. Each of our 15 Classroom & Specialist teachers has a story to tell and great skills and experience that they bring to our schools.
The first teacher I would like to introduce you to, is our lower strings specialist (Cello & Double Bass) for Catholic Schools in the Blacktown region; Brian Strong. I have known Brian for over 30 years and he in fact taught me at The Scots College (Sydney) back in 1981 and ’82. I believe that Brian’s story is extraordinary and a great inspiration to young musicians. Please take the time to read this story. Brian most certainly didn’t have his music education handed to him on a plate. His love of music shines through and he has great humility in the way he shares his learning with others.I was very humbled when I visited Brian in his home last week to interview him for this profile and he introduced me to his grandson as ‘his boss’. I cannot for a moment think of myself as Brian’s ‘boss’ with his great performance experience and passion for sharing his love of music with so many students. The Bennelong Players played to nearly one million school children in Australia in the 1970s and ‘80s! How many children discovered a love of music through those performances we will never know but Brian’s contribution to music education and original music performance in this country is largely uncounted. I remember very well his mentorship and kindness to me as a young musician, far from home.
Let us start the story at the very beginning of Brian’s first musical experiences:
Phil: So Brian, what was the first musical experience that you can remember?
Brian: Well, my sister was a very good pianist and I remember her performing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in No. 1 in Bb with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goosens. I thought this was pretty great, so I decided to try and teach myself piano but that did not work out. So then I decided I would like to learn the oboe, but then I thought I’d prefer Cello. Fortunately we had a great cellist in Sydney at the time by the name of John Kennedy, so I would go to see chamber concerts with John playing Brahms etc. John Kennedy was my first teacher at Sydney Conservatorium and then I also studied with Hans George.
Phil: How old were you then?
Brian: I was about 15 or 16 years old. I didn’t start early at all. So then I decided I would play the cello and take lessons, but I was a bit old starting, so I took a job as an apprentice pharmacist for a while to pay for lessons. After about a year, the head pharmacist took me aside and said: “I know where your interests are and it’s not pharmacy, is it?” So I said no, and went off to study full time at the Conservatorium.
Phil: So you became a full time student at the Conservatorium in Sydney?
Brian: Except that I had to get jobs now and then to pay fees and for lessons. I never did the full course at the Con. I played in the orchestra. Everything I wanted to do was in performance, so I played in Chamber groups and the Orchestra. I played for the Operas and Ballets under Eugene Goosens, but I didn’t do any of the theoretical stuff, so later on I had to catch up on the theory. When I studied for my Lmus A (Licentiate Diploma) my sister came back from England and said that I had to get some qualifications, so she taught me theory and I went and did my 6th grade theory exam because I needed that to get my Licentiate Diploma. Anyway….that’s all a bit by the by and that’s how I got started. But I think I was very lucky because I started to play professionally almost straight away in theatre and with some very good conductors. Sadler’s Wells Company came out from England and I played with some of their very good conductors in shows such as “The Merry Widow” starring June Bronhill. One of the very big exciting shows to come out at the time was ‘West Side Story’. The film hadn’t been released at that time and everyone was trying to get hold of the record. Suddenly a new Bernstein Musical was coming out with great Jazz etc and we had a company come out to Australia to produce the show from America and Dobbs Franks chosen by Bernstein to conduct and direct the music for the show and that was on at the Tivoli for about 3 or 4 months and so I played in the pit for “West Side Story” under Dobbs Franks. Every night was very exciting.
Phil: So at that time, were you working full time as a musician?
Brian: At that time, I was working during the day as a clerk in the public service. I had a friend who used to play the matinees for me and I would play every night…and I would take a bit of ‘sick’ leave when rehearsals were on and then I would ‘recover’ when the show started and play every night in the theatre.
Phil: Yes….the Public Service was a great supporter of the Arts at that time.
Brian: (laughs) So much so that when my son was very little and people asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up replied: “I’m going to be a fireman during the day and I’m going to be a musician at night”. Then one day, one of the players who did lots of sessions had double booked himself and there was a show on at “Checkers” Nightclub. Tony Martin was a famous American singer who had been in lots of films and these performers had great arrangements to accompany them and needed fairly large orchestras and so he hired me. But I said; “Look, I’m playing down at the Tivoli”. He replied: “But it’s only a block away. Look Brian….all you need to do is come and play for the early show which finishes at quarter to eight and you don’t start at the Tivoli until 8 o’clock. You don’t even need to pack up your cello. Just pick it up under your arm and run down the hill to the Tivoli and you’ll be in the orchestra pit to start the show there…..when you come back, the late show here is not until half past 11, so you’ll have time for a cup of coffee before you start to play again here.”
So that worked quite well and then I started to play a lot of the night-club shows for singers such as Tom Jones etc. We were paid quite well because a lot of these shows were televised and we would get a television fee as well as a fee for playing in the theatre.
Phil: About what time was this when you were playing all these clubs and you gave up the public service job to become a full time musician?
Brian: It was about the late 1960’s that I gave up the day job and I was doing really well. And then a TV show on Channel 9 called “Sound of Music” wanted a cellist, so that was a once a week job well paid. I also worked for Tommy Leonetti at Channel 7 – it was a sort of “Tonight Show”. He was also an American singer. The TV stations would always bring in well known Americans to give it a bit of an extra overseas flavour and they would hire in very good orchestras with very good arrangements.
About that time, I wanted to build up my teaching and I started to think: “How do I get known as a teacher to get some pupils?” A lot of school children don’t even know what a cello looks like?”, so I got together a trio initially with violin but later flute, cello and piano. We used to go around to the high schools and arrange and perform concerts. Afterwards I’d go to the side of the hall and sign kids up to learn cello. I’d do a couple of showy bits on the cello to get their interest such as La Cinquantaine composed by Gabriel Marie. Also, the Jazz clarinettist, Benny Goodman did a version known as ‘The Golden Wedding’.
That was all working very well, then one day, we went to do a show in a school and there was an inspector there (Lindsay Aked) and he came up to us after the show: “You know, you should do this in every primary school and also a lot of high schools in NSW and I’ll back you if you want to do that.”
Phil: About when did this occur?
Brian: That was in 1969 we started doing that. I had to promote it myself and contact the principals and talk them into hiring us. We would charge the kids something like 50 cents each. The teachers would collect the money and then hand us big bags of coins.
Phil: I remember those days and those shows – I would have been in Kindergarten
Brian: Then the Arts Council took over about that stage and we worked for about 3 – 4 years with the Arts Council playing shows around schools. That was better because they would organise the concerts, collect the money and we didn’t even have to drive because there would be a driver-manager to take us around the schools.
Anyway, that (The Arts Council) started to fold and I went to meet with Donald McDonald who was the head of Musica Viva at that time and said: “If you want to have audiences of the future, you need to introduce them to Chamber Music now.” At that stage, we had started our residency at the Bennelong Restaurant and we replaced the piano with classical guitar. The pianos in the schools were quite bad. Sometimes, the flautist would have to pull the head joint out so far that the flute would fall apart half way through the concert. Guitar worked much better. Out of Musica Viva came a pilot scheme and they hired other ensembles including Jazz groups to go around and do school concerts.
At that stage, we were doing a concert one day at The Scots College in the Junior School and afterwards, the Head of Music, Bill Clark came up to me and said “How would you like to stay in one place for awhile and see if you could give 2 good lessons?”. I said “What do you mean?”. He replied “well you’ve just delivered one good lesson, but if I give you a job here, you’d find out if you can deliver 2 good lessons.”
Annie (Brian’s wife – married in 1958) thought it would be good for me to settle down in one place “You can’t be a troubadour all your life”. At that stage, we did a lot of touring for Musica Viva all around Australia. We used to go to the Northern Territory to do concerts once a year.
Phil: You had made some recordings about that time as well hadn’t you?Brian: Yes. We had made 2 LP’s (Long playing records) for EMI. At that stage (1973) we had also started to play at the Bennelong Restaurant every night. The trio then was flautist, Nick Negerevich and guitarist, Peter Draper. We were there for 12 months. But then they started to pay less money and we wanted more money, so we parted company and we didn’t go back there until 1980 and they said “Come and play for a couple of nights and we’ll take a survey from the customers and see what they’d like”. And so they liked us and we were there every night for the next 10 years – though I didn’t want to play every night, so we’d get a solo guitarist to play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The trio would play Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Phil: It was about this time that you left The Scots College to take up a position at the Emmanuel School in Randwick wasn’t it?
Brian: Yes. Mr Newman was the Head of Maths at TSC and he got the job as the new Headmaster at The Emmanuel School. He rang me up and said we need a new music teacher. So I said I’d give it a go and I became the Head of Music at The Emmanuel School.
Phil: About what year was that?
Brian: I was at Scots College until 1989, so from ’89 until ’94, so for 5 years I was Head of Music at The Emmanuel School. After I left the Emmanuel School, I was at Fort Street High and was in charge of the Instrumental Program for another 2 years and then when we moved to Baulkham Hills, I taught strings at The Hills Grammar School and had quite a good string orchestra for quite awhile. I was there for 9 or 10 years.
Then I wasn’t doing anything at all for awhile and enjoying retirement when a ‘young man’ rang me up (Phil Rooke) and said “You used to teach me at The Scots College” and said I have a strings program in Catholic Schools – Western Sydney and he persuaded me to come and teach in the Catholic System…… Actually, first of all, it was St Paul’s Grammar wasn’t it? You got me to teach at St Paul’s at first.
Phil: That’s right..we had a very sudden opening for a cello teacher at St Paul’s Grammar where I was Director of Ensembles at the time and I said to the Head of Music: “If we’re lucky, Brian might recommend one of his students” but we were fortunate enough to get you to come along and teach cello and bass.
Brian is currently teaching cello and double bass at St Michael’s Catholic Primary School, South Blacktown and also at St Andrew’s Catholic Primary School, Marayong. He also leads the cello sectionals for our Captivate String Orchestra Workshops and supports our fortnightly Captivate Orchestra Rehearsals. Brian continues to make a great contribution to music in Catholic Schools, Diocese of Parramatta.
Other highlights of Brian’s musical & teaching career:
- From 1951, studied cello at Sydney Conservatorium – first with John Kennedy, then with Hans George.
- Won the Musica Viva prize at Sydney Eisteddfod playing in a piano trio with violinist June Berglass and pianist, Margaret Huthwaite.
- 1956, joined the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and played there for 6 months – after arriving back in Sydney, also did a week’s casual in the Queensland Symphony.
- 1958, married Annie Luks and started playing at the Tivoli Theatre in “The Merry Widow”.
- 1964, played in the Billy Burton Band at Chequers Night Club – also for Channel 7 and Channel 9 shows.
- Performed with artists such as: Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minelli, Tony Bennet, Dusty Springfield, Jose Feliciano and Jerry Lewis.
- 1970 played in the orchestra for the first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Capitol Theatre.
- 1980, received a grant from the Australia Council and with the help of the British Council, toured the UK studying group teaching methods and educational concerts for children in places such as Bristol, Chester, Manchester and Devon.
- 1984, joined the staff of The Scots College (Sydney) as full time classroom music teacher, having taught cello and double bass there for the previous 10 years. Also conducted the College String Orchestra.
- In 15 years, the Bennelong Players performed to nearly 1,000,000 school children.
- Also, during the ’80s, Brian made frequent appearances on the Midday Show with the Bennelong Players. Ray Martin once referred to the Bennelong Players as “his favourite “Classical Gastronaughts”.