Friday, 5 January 2007

Musical memories

All that thinking about music has reminded me again of a great sadness - the recent death of my last piano teacher, Mark Ray, a truly great bloke. As I read the obituary again, so the tears come back again.

Mark Ray, pianist and teacher; born Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire 17 March 1962; died South Yuba River Highway 49 Crossing, California 21 June 2006.

Although only in his mid-forties, Mark Ray was already at the peak of his profession: as both pianist and teacher heenjoyed the respect of colleagues the world around. Indeed, his holistic approach to teaching, balancing scientific enquiry with a concern for natural musical expression, promised novel insights - particularly in the subjects that had become especial interests, the acquisition of memory skills and the prevention of playing-related injuries.

Another pianist-pedagogue, John Humphreys, serving on the jury of the 2005 Dudley International Piano Competition with Ray, found him

'expert, wise and irreverently funny in equal measure and . . . a pleasure to work with. Taking over the Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music at a time of institutional turmoil enabled him to prove his mettle as a sensitive and highly regarded administrator and - and I speak as someone from another institution - creating a keyboard department that was the envy of other colleges.'

But a career that still had decades ahead of it has now been snapped off appallingly early, by a bizarre and tragic accident.

Like most instinctive musicians, Ray felt the call of the muse early, as his father, Eric, recalled:

'Music became part of his life from the age of five when he first started to play the recorder at school and then graduated to the piano a year or so later. The first time he ever touched a piano he looked at the keyboard, found middle C, and played "London's Burning" almost perfectly. At that point his career was decided.'

Horses pulled him away from the piano on occasion - he loved riding and took pleasure in mucking out the stables - but his skills developed rapidly and by 13 he was sitting at the
organ for two services every Sunday at Abbots Ann, near Andover, playing piano for a dance school and, with a group of friends, entertaining in local care homes.

His career evolved with dizzying speed. In 1980 he enrolled on a course jointly run by Manchester University and the Royal Northern College of Music; his teacher was Renna
Kellaway, who had a considerable influence on his development. He took a first class BMus at Manchester in 1983 and the RNCM's highest performance award a year later, when he was also a finalist in the Viotti-Valesia International Piano Competition.

First, he struck out freelance, playing concerts, as both soloist and accompanist, teaching, coaching opera and accompanying dance for four years - during which time (1984-85) he won a Leverhulme Scholarship to study with Hans Leygraf at the Salzburg Mozarteum; he also studied with James Gibb. He made broadcast appearances on Granada TV, BBC1 and BBC2 and for BBC World Service; he played concertos and chamber music and gave recitals across England and continental Europe and Scandinavia.

Ray's institutional appointments began in September 1990, when he was named head of piano for Bromley Schools Music Service, remaining for three years. In January 1994 he began a four-year stint as Head of Music at Cricklade College in Andover, near his childhood stomping grounds.

He now leapt up the ladder at yearly intervals: in September 1998 he became Director of Foundation Studies at Trinity College of Music in London; in September 1999, at the invitation of his former teacher, Renna Kellaway, he renewed his association with the RNCM as a part-time tutor in the School of Keyboard Studies; and in September 2000 was named Assistant Head. After seven months as Acting Head, his appointment was made permanent in February 2003.

By now he was an indispensable part of the RNCM. His teaching was admired for its individualist approach to his students, although retaining absolute faithfulness to the composer's intention and insisting on clarity in form and texture and on quality of sound. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, sending out volleys of e-mails and SMS messages to remind students - most of whom thought of him as friend as much as teacher - of deadlines, competitions, auditions and the like. He was especially concerned that his students should learn to cope with tension in the performance of music - a reflection of his concern that his own playing should be free from tension.

He sat on panels, took on personnel issues, coached chamber music, directed festivals. He was a member of a bewildering number of boards and working parties, meeting academic bureaucracy with unquenchable good-humour. Having benefited from a number of master-classes with prominent pianists in his own student days - among them Imogen Cooper, Vlado Perlemuter, Charles Rosen, Peter Donohoe, and Jeremy Menuhin - he now attracted such luminaries as Alexander Melnikov, Nelson Goerner, Stefano Fiuzzi, Jin Ju, Paul Roberts and Pawel Skrzypek to the RNCM to present their own master-classes.

For Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at nearby Chetham's School of Music, Mark Ray was

'the most energised, organised, charming musician I knew. A marvel, too, as a teacher. He has just had his first year as a teacher at Chetham's, working in particular with an outstanding 13-year-old called Cason Kang from Singapore, who played a Mozart concerto beautifully, under Mark's guidance, with the school orchestra in May.'

He was also busy outside Manchester, becoming increasingly prominent in piano-pedagogy circles, developing a network of contacts around the world and garnering the kind of esteem
which saw him elected as chairman of the European Piano Teachers' Association in 2004-05. He wrote, too, for Piano, International Piano, Music Teacher, Piano Professional and other publications.

His stature ensured a regular flow of invitations to teach abroad, and it was on one of those excursions that he met his awful end. Pawel Skrzypek, whom Ray had called to the RNCM, returned the compliment with an invitation to conduct the master-class at the Gold County Piano Institute in Nevada City on 19 June - an occasion Skrzypek felt was "the most profound and artistic teaching that could be. The main idea of picking a basic issue of interpretation or technique from student's performance of a piece and to project the main lines of the master's approach, understanding and knowledge to the audience was absolutely there. Everybody
was astonished by Mark's artistry, marvellous teaching and great ideas! In the class he taught 13 students, about half an hour each."

Two days earlier, Skrzypek had introduced him to his favourite bathing spot, a pool on the edge of the South Yuba River, much-loved by kayakers and white-water rafters, and Ray so enjoyed it that he asked if they could return. Taking care to avoid the treacherous currents further out from the bank, he slipped on the stones and, though in water no higher than his knees, found himself being sucked into the main current and down towards a deep channel between high boulders, disappearing below the surface. One of the students with him tried to help and was nearly dragged in himself, and a kayaker, soon followed by others, could find no trace of him.

It was 11 hours before a dog from the search team, now over 100 in strength and working in 120-degree heat, found his body, wedged between two rocks some seven feet below the
surface. The only crumb of comfort the sheriff in charge of the operation could offer Ray's shocked colleagues and students was that he probably lost consciousness before he drowned.

Martin Anderson in The Independent (08/07/06)