In the last few weeks I have learned that my childhood mentor is about to leave us. It has led me to reflect on what he gave me as an educator, a musician and eventually as a friend. How do you say thank you to someone who shaped your future?
One way I think we can say thank you to such a person is to tell their chapter in your story.
I grew up in the relative quiet of Adelaide, South Australia. At twelve years old I auditioned for a music scholarship at an expensive private school. At the time I had no idea that a short audition was going to shape my life. I was a studious, awkward child who played the piano and violin. My mother was fiercely determined that these instruments were going to be my career path. Accordingly, my parents rolled the dice on the private school they could never afford with a famous music programme, hoping for a scholarship.
On audition day I tentatively entered an imposing office in Kensington, Adelaide. Clad in my best royal blue skirt and waistcoat I found myself in ‘Angove House’, a grand old home which formed part of Pembroke School. I stood at the door of a large room with a long, beautiful wooden table flanked with red chairs and an upright piano in the corner. Books and music scores lined the walls along with school memorabilia. Greeting me was Colin Curtis, the school Music Director who was to become an integral part of my emerging adolescence. Charismatic and middle aged in a silver grey suit, Colin ran an impressive music programme. The jewel in his crown was the prestigious Pembroke Girls Choir.
Brimming with anxiety I played a Hungarian Dance on the violin, Chopin on the piano and was ‘voice tested’. I remember singing scales in a gormless fashion as Colin Curtis put me through my vocal paces. Completely unaware the man in the silver suit was deciding on the spot that I was the right fit for his music programme, his choir and the school.
The scholarship was awarded. My mother was blessedly appeased and I prepared to start high school life.
I was not a confident child. My home life was difficult and I struggled to fit in with my new peers. I was bullied and beholden at all times to my mother’s somewhat outlandish demands. Amongst all those troubles what gave me happiness was music. School Orchestras, string quartets and singing in the Pembroke Training Choir. There was something about singing that took me out of myself. In that first year I’d run to weekly rehearsal with all the vigour I could muster. Perched up in the chapel loft whilst Colin Curtis played the organ. Fervently following his instructions whilst he taught whatever work would be sung at the next service.
In my second high school year I moved up to the Pembroke Girls Choir proper.
In that instant I found my stride.
It was a fabulous ensemble. The choir had already performed around Australia as well as in Japan and Singapore by the time I joined. Colin fostered a sound almost like bells. Accurate, complex and disciplined. Six part harmonies in works ranging from Kodaly and Britten to Simon and Garfunkel. To say a choir sounds like angels is a hackneyed metaphor; yet in this instance it is completely apt. It was unique.
The group would rehearse one lunch time a week and always for several hours on Friday afternoons. Also on weekends when there was a major concert scheduled. Pembroke School was split into two campuses with rehearsals taking place at the Senior Campus. I would fly up the road to choir practice feeling special. I was a choir girl. I could sing. I was part of a group that accepted me and that group was mentored by a man I admired and respected.
As my maiden name was ‘Benger’, I was subsequently bequeathed the nickname ‘Beng’. Even my choir nickname gifted me a sense of belonging I had craved all my life.
When I was given my first solo I experienced being chosen for one of the very first times. I went on to be the principal mezzo soloist of the Pembroke Girls Choir from about age 14 until I left school at age 17. That fostering of my vocal talent shaped the identity I carry to this day.
Colin Curtis also conducted the school orchestras of which I was an integral part. At school concerts I would play in my section and then quickly rejoin my fellow choristers for the next vocal offering.
Those school concerts were legendary. Long, ambitious and notoriously stressful. Colin did nothing by halves. Our Carol Services at the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral were a part of Christmas everyone treasured. The processional down the aisle. Glorious music soaring from the choir loft.
All of us have bonds of memory and intense nostalgia we’ll carry for life.
Whilst he was much adored by his charges, like all leaders Colin Curtis had his inevitable faults. He could be impatient. He was prone to yelling when all else failed. He would occasionally choose works that were somewhat out of the reach of his young musicians. He was as fallible and flawed as we all are. His failings were part of the magic he created.
As the time draws near for him to leave us, he is remembered for his great strengths. Colin demanded hard work, loyalty and unerring commitment. He lived for his choir and the reputation it carried. With very few exceptions, every young musician in his charge rose to the standards he expected. There existed amongst us a camaraderie and love for what we were doing that in all my years as a performer I have never quite seen again. Just to remember it brings a wave of emotion that is hard to put into words.
I learned commitment and hard work from Colin. I became an adept sight reader. (I can hold a vocal line against practically anything after my years as an inner voice). I learned the joy of performing. I learned what it is to passionately love what you do.
In 1984 the Choir went to Europe and I was lucky enough to be on that tour. The experience created friendships and memories that at sixteen years old I did not realise were afforded to me via unique privilege. We traversed Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. Sang where Mozart’s parent’s married, sang ‘Silent Night’ in the tiny chapel where it was first performed. We walked in the snow, ate questionable food and I realised I didn’t just love singing in the Pembroke Girls Choir. I was a singer at my core and it was what I wanted to do with my life.
My mother was most unimpressed. Colin stood by me with the decision.
After I left school I continued on with my association with the school and Colin Curtis for some time. I performed as an adult soloist in religious works at concerts, still returned to occasionally play in the orchestra and I became a string and voice teacher at Pembroke School for several years. Colin made sure I earned enough from my teaching to keep afloat until I left Adelaide to branch out as a singer interstate. Searching through my memorabilia I found a card from him written around the time I left Adelaide. It shows he was no longer merely my old teacher and choir master. He had become my friend and supporter as I journeyed forward.
It is hard to accept that I am now the age Colin was when he offered a music scholarship to an awkward little girl wearing royal blue corduroy. An authority figure standing in his impressive office surrounded by photos, scores and trophies. It is hard to process he is about to leave us and an era ends. A golden time where a litany of girls discovered music and many went on to become professional musicians as a result. Colin Curtis will forever live on in my mind as a slightly chubby middle aged man in a silver suit driving a European car. A man who told me I could sing. A mentor who gave me the chance to do so.
We spoke on the phone the other day and I had a chance to say goodbye. It is a long time since I have felt the kind of sadness and poignancy that brief conversation engendered. Colin told me thanks to him weren’t necessary. That I am such a happy little person and I should never lose that. That he hopes we will meet again.
Many of the students who loved and respected Colin Curtis have visited to say farewell. A group of his choir girls went and sang some of the works he loved so much to show him he will never be forgotten. To assure him the love of choral music he fostered lives on.
I was unable to be there in person but I recorded a message and song for Colin as my own thank you. It was surprisingly difficult to do and the link is below.
To my mentor Mr. Curtis. You will always be in my heart.
Until we meet again. xx