Peter Norris (1937–2011)

Peter Norris
Peter Norris, inspired musician and teacher, taught piano and music theory at Brockwood Park for over 15 years, having been originally introduced to the school by his friend Alan Rowlands. Throughout his time at Brockwood, Peter offered his teaching and world-class expertise with great generosity and humility, helping the Music Department to flourish and providing many music students with truly inspirational and immensely valuable music tuition.

Born in Montreal to musical parents, Peter studied music in Canada before completing his studies in piano and composition at the Royal College of Music in London, where he also met his future wife, Margaret. In 1964, Peter and Margaret became involved with the nascent Yehudi Menuhin School, of which Peter would eventually become Director.

During his time at the Menuhin school, Peter trained under legendary teacher and musician Nadia Boulanger. Peter often mentioned her name in his music classes at Brockwood, not only citing her as a tremendous influence on his musical life, but quoting her pearls of wisdom and often regaling us with some of her witticisms. Peter liked to tell and re-tell such anecdotes with gusto and child-like glee, and no matter how many times we had heard the stories before, we students had to laugh again; which we did, partly because they were funny, but also—I must confess—to attempt to postpone the dreaded moment when the laughter would subside, and Peter would pull out his old, beaten-up music theory book, and launch into his well-known adagio—‘and how about clapping and counting out loud?’—to submit us to some extraordinarily complex musical exercises. He would then display a saint-like patience as we clapped and counted away, all silently looking forward to the next joke. Only later did I find out what kind of musician Nadia Boulanger had been: a one-time student of the composer Fauré and collaborator to Stravinsky, she had taught such twentieth century luminaries as Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla and Quincy Jones, to name but a few. It was then I realised that being in the presence of Peter would mean to be in touch with a fantastic musician, and that I would from then on have to pay a little more attention to the dreaded music theory book.

On first appearance, Peter could come across as a shy and retiring man and it was not always easy to get to know him. Yet, despite the great awe so many of us held him in, it was also a delight to talk with Peter, not least for his dry wit and fondness for telling jokes and anecdotes. In class, he taught with clearness and sobriety, but was also a very fair and patient tutor, who never seemed to mind what level any of us were at, so long as we brought dedication and interest to the class. I also remember feeling some shame that the one time music teacher of such stars as Nigel Kennedy should be wasting his time on my absolutely abysmal sight-reading skills.

Yet Peter was patient with me for, as anyone who has experienced his teaching would have been struck by, he was animated by an altogether different force, which seemed to come directly from the music itself rather than from his own ideas. This quality of being extraordinarily alive and responsive to the music was always there, whenever music was in the room. Whether we looked at a simple music exercise for children or a complex symphony score, Peter always responded to the music with complete and undivided attention; a kind of attention that seemed to bring him tremendous vitality and an almost child-like joy and curiosity as to what the music was doing, as though he himself was discovering it for the first time!

Such energy made us understand music in a completely different way, and it also taught us something of the nature of attention which went far beyond ‘just’ musical skills. One session I recall was spent almost entirely playing a simple C major chord on the piano; listening carefully, emphasising different notes, discovering the quality of that particular key, coming to touch and hearing the silent order within it. Everything we did had to be music, for Peter always insisted that everything a musician plays must be music, all the time. And music, we learnt, was born from pure attention.

Peter brought far more to Brockwood than just inspiring music classes. He regularly attended the dialogues, displayed great interest in what was going on in the school and gave generously of his time whenever he could be helpful—including doing, over the years, what must have amounted to a Herculean amount of Rota [washing-up]. Through him, students and staff alike were invited to special concerts and events, where world class musicians played to a small circle of music enthusiasts. Whenever he could, he brought such players to the school, and Soloists, Chamber Music ensembles and String Quartets alike regularly performed in Brockwood’s Assembly Hall. In all these things he displayed immense generosity and willingness to share his passion.

Peter continued to teach at Brockwood until 2007, when his illness, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, forced him to retire. Several years later, a concert was organised in his honour at the school. Peter attended and, though the effects of the illness were noticeable, he still displayed the extraordinary quality of joy and attention towards the music we had all known him for. His last few years saw Peter bear his illness with great dignity, and he was peaceful until the end.

Speaking personally, Peter Norris was without a doubt the most remarkable musician and music teacher I have ever known. Those of us who were privileged to have been his students remember him with immense gratitude, and wish to thank him for all that he did for us and for Brockwood.

by Valentin Gerlier, former student and current staff.

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