Being a lucky child my parents enrolled me as a Northern School of Music Junior pupil. Along with others, I went to school on Saturday morning for music theory and piano lessons and I was very pleased to do that.There were quite a few NSM Juniors and even now I can remember a lot of names. I sometimes read biographies of those who seem to have forgotten that the Northern School was where they made some of their first steps in music too…
The Northern School of Music was in Manchester and at its core was a set of values which mostly came to the fore through its dedicated piano teachers, many of whom had been students there in the 1920s 30s and later. (Though not all its teachers were selfless, including some who have been raised to the status of plaster saints).
Miss Beatrice Rollins was born in Reddish, near Manchester in 1901. She had an older sister, Helena born about 1896 and latterly, they shared a home in High Lane, near Disley in Cheshire.
Devoted to the teaching of piano technique and music reading and theory skills, Miss Rollins, a first rate musician like many of the other teachers at the Northern School worked for very little pay and I suspect that parental support had to have been very strong and may well have had to continue for a very long time.
Miss Rollins was very slightly built and when I knew her as my teacher, she must have been about 64 or 65 years old. She greeted me with a fine smile and talked to me about what I liked about music. I liked her instantly and I also liked the Steinway upright that graced her teaching room – Number 14 – in the Northern School.
These more or less soundproof rooms had parquet floors and were quite small: enough to take a piano and two (sometimes three) chairs. (Miss Rollins’ chair was wicker work and made slightly more comfortable by the addition of cushions). The grey padded doors had little windows too, just enough for a taller person to see in. Large opening windows with unlined curtains of a rough green baize opened on to Sidney Street.
In the room next to 14, Miss Eileen Chadwick (I think) gave singing lessons to advanced students on Saturday mornings and in the next room on the right, through the single door at the top of the stairs from the main entrance, Miss Doris Euerby (4 Feb 1900 – 11 Feb 1983) gave piano lessons. Miss Euerby had very serious students. I always remember hearing Beethoven sonatas from her room – and never any beginners’ piano music. Miss Euerby had bright eyes sparkling behind rimless spectacles and wore her hair in a very old fashioned style that I think was called “earphones”. She had a very nice smile and her whole face lit up when she smiled. After Miss Euerby’s room, there was a little waiting and reading area
Miss Rollins had slightly curly “pepper and salt” hair, which was fairly short, she was also very thin. She often wore poppet-type pearls around her neck and wrists. Her wrist bones were very prominent on her arms and she seemed almost not to have been strong enough to play, but she set my heart on fire with wonderful performances of Granados, Liszt and Bach, three composers whom I still enjoy.
Even at the stage I was and knowing that I did not know very much, she made every effort to interest me – and that must have been difficult. She taught me from Diller Quaile books and also from Mrs Curwen’s Pianoforte Method, which was a delight as the music began to stop swimming and made perfect sense. How caring she was to teach me to read so well and to recite the Galin-Paris-Cheve time-names along with each barred and unbarred sentence.
She taught me to beat time and march to her playing and we got through such a tremendous amount of music. I loved it. I also loved her as my teacher.
At Christmas 1965, came a special thing too – my very first letter from the postman – and it was a Christmas card from Miss Rollins and her sister. I was so pleased and a bit ashamed that I could not reciprocate by post. However, I had given her a card at my last lesson before Christmas. I was ready for Christmas 1966!
There were three ten week terms at the Northern School every academic year, so in all, I think I must have had about 70 lessons from Miss Rollins. The number has to be down a bit because I did not start at the Northern School at the commencement of the academic year.
I can remember being upset one day because Mr Griffiths, the kindly registrar, had pinned a notice on the newel post of the main stairs on Saturday announcing that Miss Rollins would not be attending today as she was suffering from influenza. I thought that sounded serious to my little 6 year old head and worried greatly. Mr Griffiths explained that it meant the Miss Rollins had the ‘flu but that she would be back soon.
I had a lesson with Miss Rodway, and she turned out to be very kind and helpful too. I played all my little pieces with enthusiasm, written as they were by Adam Carse, Angela Diller and Dorothy Quaile and of course, Dr Carroll. My favourites though were the duets by John Kinross, and when we were learning “Nocturne”, Miss Rollins asked me what I thought of the music. I could hardly tell her but that I thought it was the most beautiful piece I had ever heard.
She made it more interesting by telling me about the harmony that she was playing and what the chords were like on their own. It was a great musical experience and over the years, I have thought about it many many times. From the same book, we learned “Hungarian Dance” and I remember we found the humour in and laughed at the funny chromatic passage in the bass part, in the C Major section of the duet.
Miss Rollins arranged for me to go along to Mrs Robinson’s rudiments class too and there we were taught to read music, sing from sol-fa, answer questions on Italian terms, and one day we got a chance to compose some music. I can remember now writing in my little manuscript book some chords which Mrs Robinson played on the piano and expressed herself pleased at them. “Those are very rich and deep chords, young man” she said.
And so the Saturdays went on and I learned and drank in the stimulus.
In England in the sixties, we still had a postal delivery on Sunday mornings in the 1960s. Mum had got me up for church and I was having my breakfast when the letterbox rattled and mum got up and brought a postcard in. She just said “Miss Rollins has died”. That was it. Just like that. I was stunned and I don’t think that I ever really recovered very well for a long time.
Later at the end of the year, we were at the annual Northern School concert at the Houldsworth Hall in Manchester. My mother was an ex-student of the Northern School of Music and so, the concert was also a good time for her to catch up with her former teachers too. Miss Kay (Constance Kay) came and sat with us and I remember her talking to my mother confidentially about how Miss Rollins had passed away. I wanted to know more but learned even at that age, that you don’t pick up much if you pay attention. If you pretended not to be paying attention, adults will often talk more freely, and so this is what Miss Kay said:
“Margaret, it was terrible. Everybody in the concert room listening to the finalists and Beatrice was there and I was late up to listen to them. Beatrice had said that she was fed up taking these heart tablets and that she knew she would be on them for the rest of her life…anyway, I was just packing away and ready to go upstairs when somebody rushed in and said “Oh do come quickly, Beatrice has had a heart attack” and so I ran upstairs and there she was, head back in the chair and just gone like that…”
Not all children recover from the loss of their teacher and my grief took me over six years, having lost so many relatives so early and also growing up with a depressive mother. Sadly, my progress halted somewhat and I experienced several “Stop the world I want to get off” moments. My replacement teachers were able but ambitious and too young to have the insight required. I lost their trust and knew that they disliked me. Not a happy scenario really.
Nevertheless, I did determine that I would carry on and one day, I would place on record the debt that I owed to Miss Rollins and acknowledge the gratitude I still retain for her having been part of my life.
One of the biggest moments I ever remember was that there was a lithograph on the wall in the Northern School of three composers and each had a facsimile extract of a famous piece next to each of them. I was eager to know who they were and what the music was and Miss Rollins looked hard at the picture and then told me who they were and then played the music. They were Liszt, Schumann and one other. I remember it as though it were yesterday.
I still have the books. It’s good to remember sometimes where you came from.
Beatrice Mary Rollins Born 21st June 1901, Reddish, Manchester
Died 21st June 1967 Manchester, on the way to the Royal Infirmary