Tuesday, 15 May 2012

A Tribute: Mike Booty

Mike Booty taught me clarinet while I was in high school.  He was the peripatetic music teacher, which meant that once a week I got to skip whatever class I was in and go play music with him instead.  Usually it was on a Friday.  My main memories of his lessons were of constant good-natured bickering, where he would demand whisky from me on his birthdays (refused because I was a minor) and me demanding to play Disney music on mine (refused because it was rubbish).  He would call me a woman and a bad driver, and I would retort that at at least I still had hair.  Mike was, and still is, the consummate grumpy old man, and I say that with a great deal of fondness. The kind of person you could have a proper fight with, yet both come out of it grinning. 

 I did my grades with him as well, all two of them.  Mike's theory is that if music should be fun above all things so there was no point my paying to do extra grades just for the sake of having the full set.  Growing up in a musical family and dabbling in a few instruments when I was younger meant that I could already read sheet music by the time I got to high school, and understood intuitively the basic principles of music that most beginners have to be taught from scratch, so grades 1 and 2 were somewhat redundant.  I did my Grade 3 Practical and then, a year or two later, Grade 5, but then couldn't do any more because we both suddenly remembered  that you need a Grade 5 Theory before you can do the higher Practicals and I didn't formally know any.  I still don't.  I'm currently an untested Grade 7/8 clarinetist with an untested Grade 3 in Theory.  I share Mike's opinion of music - that it should be fun first and foremost, so I've never felt the need to go any further, and I get along very well as I am

As well as teaching the private lessons, Mike ran and conducted the Old Buckenhan High School Band and the South Norfolk Youth Symphonic Band (SNYSB), which he formed originally as a marching band of "half a dozen crap brass players".  That was in 1974.  He also spent some time as a Marine, so while his band rehearsals always adhered to the 'Music is Fun' principle, they also contained an amount of good old-fashioned military discipline.  This was much better in practise than it sounds.  I actually don't think we knew it was happening when he did it, but even in my current band, six years after moving away, I still do things the way we were taught in SNYSB.  Things like 'Concert Etiquette', which is how you behave on stage - the way I hold my instrument at rest, when I raise it, how I take applause, keeping quiet between songs (as Mike used to grouch at us "I see no speaking parts in this! We'll take it from letter O. O for 'Orrible!"), and my attitude towards the conductor.  In a band that could have an hundred kids playing in it at once, he demanded professionalism from us. 

Once a year we'd have a weekend away where, thanks to his old contacts, we had the privilege of playing with the band of the Royal Marines.  You'd learn more in that one weekend by just sitting next to one of them than you would in three months playing by yourself.  And because Mike took us so seriously, we did the same to him.  Mike is one of those teachers that manages to balance his job as a teacher with his character as a person, and his sense of fun with a real professionalism.  Our reputation as a band was built on his dedication.  Our progress as individuals was due to his curmudgeonly kindness and the genuine investment he gave to each of us.

I continued to take lessons with Mike through sixth form, but when I moved away to university there wasn't a band I could join that fitted in with my lectures, and I stopped playing for three years.  However, when I graduated and was looking for ways to fill my unemployed time, a local band was the first thing I looked for.  I ended up finding the Loughborough Concert Band and now I play as a 1st clarinet with them, just for the pleasure of it.  Because what Mike said is true.  Music is still fun.  There's something about the dynamics of playing alongside others that you just can't get practising by yourself.  I learned that from Mike.

This year he has turned 70 years old.

On Saturday gone I made the trek down the A14 from Loughborough and wound my way through the tiny country lanes of rural Norfolk to the village hall where Mike Booty's surprise party was being held.  (He was indeed surprised!)  I owe him a lot, so it was wonderful to be there to show my thanks and support, congratulate him on everything he's achieved, and celebrate his birthday with him.  We spent the evening talking and laughing, remembering and being remembered by the other old friends that came to do the same.

Here's to the next decade, Mike.  I wish you all the best.

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