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What a difference a teacher makes!

Luis Dias

If you Google ‘Peter Watmough’, you don’t find very much, not even a picture of the man.

But if you look up ‘Tasmin Little’, British concert violinist, you literally get millions of results.

Peter Watmough died on July 17, 2020. He was Tasmin Little’s very first violin teacher. She paid a glowing tribute to him on her Facebook page.

In her tribute, she tells us she was just six years old at New End state primary school in London when she decided that “I simply had to start playing the violin.”

The system then only enrolled children for music education after they were eight years old. But the young girl was “impatient and insistent” to get started. So her mother talked to the violin teacher at the school, Peter Watmough, who kindly agreed to give her an ear test. He was “very excited” to find that Tasmin had perfect pitch and “immediately removed all obstacles” so that she could begin lessons with him, initially for 15 minutes each week, rising to half an hour a few months later.

Think about how the stars aligned for that little girl: her yearning for the instrument that has become her life passion and career began spontaneously from her, at six. She was enrolled in a London school that had an in-built, well-established music education programme. And although the prescribed starting age was eight, here was a teacher who was willing to take the time to listen to her, and having, whether from experience and/or gut instinct, spotted the beginning of great potential right then, “immediately removed all obstacles” to get her started. We don’t know what those obstacles were in real terms, but to his credit he did it.

He was proven right pretty quickly. Later that same year, Tasmin Little gave a school concert playing the first movement of Bach double concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, in which she played the first violin part with Peter on second violin.

“At one point we were not quite together and Peter said to my mother afterwards that he knew I would be a professional player because I simply kept going!” she reminisced in her tribute. “All his pupils liked him – he never got cross but was always encouraging and kind.”

By that Christmas, Watmough had said to Little’s mother that she would soon outgrow what he could teach her and it was imperative that she should audition for a specialist music school, such as the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey. She gained a place at that school the following March.

Pause here and think of the infrastructure that a young child had access to, back in the 1970s. Among the very few results that come up for Peter Watmough is the programme brochure of a three-day all-schools prom concert series in November 1979 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in which the New End school where Watmough taught also featured.

The programme note describing the New End School String Ensemble (conducted by Watmough and performing a single work, Ferdinand Kuchler’s Concertino in D, Op 15, “written in a style typical of a concerto by Vivaldi, with the technical ability of a young string player sensibly kept in mind”) states that it “has its roots in the string teaching done at New End Primary School… Pupils are given an opportunity to learn the violin, viola, cello, and double-bass and piano. As they progress, they join the school orchestra, string quartets and string ensemble. Parental participation in lessons and practice is very much encouraged.”

This is one very good example (among many others in that brochure) of a grassroots music education programme.

And now look at the mission statement of the Yehudi Menuhin School: “to provide a place for musically gifted children from around the world to develop their talents to the highest level within a nurturing and stimulating academic environment, regardless of their economic background.” The last five words are significant.
One could argue that Tasmin Little’s irrepressible potential would have surfaced one way or another, but one would still say she was fortunate to be so well supported at every step so early in her life. And very importantly, Watmough not only spotted the spark in her, nurtured it, but had the maturity to know when it was time for her to move on, beyond what he could offer her. And how fortunate she was that such an institution already existed, not too far from her.

I keep driving home the point of music education, because even half a century later, we still have miles to go in providing something like this to our own children.

Little acknowledges her debt to her first teacher even after entering the Menuhin school: “I had been learning only one year but his teaching had enabled me to learn difficult pieces such as Mozart E minor sonata.”

When she left New End school, Watmough gave her “a much treasured gift of the complete set of Bach sonatas and partitas”, which she still uses.

Tasmin Little returned to New End a few years later, in her teens to play for the pupils at Watmough’s invitation. Later, when she heard that his job there was being axed due to funding cuts in the state education system, she wrote letters of support, “sadly to no avail.”

Watmough seems to have left the teaching profession after this happened, and took up the business of lavender products. His present to Little of one of those products, as well as her very first violin book that he had kept for so many years, are her cherished mementos of him. And he, for his part, attended many of her concerts, and “it was always wonderful to see him”. One can imagine him, seated modestly among the audience, but his heart swelling with pride at seeing the “little” girl he once taught, now in full bloom, as the star performer Tasmin Little.

When Little heard that Watmough had taken ill some months ago, she wrote him a long letter of gratitude and received a beautiful handwritten card in reply. “This now sits inside my copy of the Bach that he gave me”, she wrote in her tribute.

Little was “moved beyond belief” to learn that the night before Watmough passed away, his family played him her recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’,  inspired by the eponymous 1881 poem by the English writer George Meredith, and a work that Little has made her own during her career.One can feel the emotion as she wrote towards the end of her tribute: “I am full of gratitude at the kindness and selflessness of this dear man who gave so much to a little girl all those years ago”.

The concluding lines of ‘The Lark Ascending’ poem could well be his epitaph: “As he to silence nearer soars, /Extends the world at wings and dome, / More spacious making more our home, / Till lost on his aerial rings/ In light, and then the fancy sings.”

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