In Memory of Brian Blake

Article details

Published: 15th May, 2017

Australian Simon Fordham, now Principal Second Violin, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, attributes much of his success to his long-term teacher Brian Blake, whose sad recent passing has led him to revive memories of that special relationship and to pay tribute to the influential musician many honour and mourn.

Passed away 4th May 2017 surrounded by family. He is survived by his loving wife Ursula and 6 children Stephanie, Cathy, Teresa, Celia, Tim and Rachel as well as 13 grandchildren. 
Brian was a violinist and a dedicated string teacher.

  The Age May 9, 2017  

I had nagged my mother about taking violin lessons from the age of four, but it was only as a six year old that I met Brian Blake for the first time, duly arriving for my first lesson with a little Sweet Tone Chinese violin in a green lined cardboard case, an $18 gift from my grandfather. The names of the strings were marked on the bridge, a full sized bow lent to me after mine lost all of its hair upon being rosined for the first time, and off I went on a journey of musical discovery led by a most demanding taskmaster.

At the time, Brian played on a very dark Maggini copy, which I thought looked like it had come out of the fireplace. I tried, unsuccessfully, to age my little 1/4 size using a safety pin and vinegar, but it stayed Chinese looking, just somewhat scratched.

From the beginning I showed some aptitude for the violin, but was rather lazy and my mother noted my very skimpy practice times very accurately in the spiral bound practice book. I was clocking up 9 minutes, 15 on special occasions, enough to get 96 for my Preliminary Grade and an honorable mention at Doncaster Eisteddfod, but not quite enough to really make inroads.

Upon completing A Tune a Day I was subjected to the indignity of having to go through another primer from the very beginning, but Brian despaired of me and sent me to a pupil for special attention. After a year of tuition with Martin Smith in the newly tiled garage, I managed to garner an A+ for Grade 2 and remember Brian summoning me to Gleeson Ave, giving me Rameau Gavotte from the Grade 5 book and sticking me in the bathroom to see what I could make of it.

All of a sudden, a knot had seemingly come undone and I was on my way to becoming a real  violinist. My Gavotte became a party piece of sorts, replete with my newly found vibrato and with nothing very dancelike to it. “Very suave”, Brian Finlayson said of my rendition after one of our little concerts at the Burwood Teachers College.

Mr Blake had already become Head of Music at Mandeville Hall, so my lessons were scheduled in his home after school. Having come across the road from Wattle Park Primary School I would wait in the living room with mounting nervousness until the whole Blake family rolled up the driveway in the VW bus. I was to practise until Brian was ready to give me my lesson and got into trouble more than once for looking around the living room whilst the family ate their banana toast in the adjoining kitchen. I was even suspected of listening in on the conversations and Stephanie Blake once said, `You´re really in trouble now!´. I promise I wasn´t eavesdropping, but it´s true, I was definitely not practising. Whilst I was put through my paces, Caitlin, my sister, would assist Brian’s wife, Ursula, in the kitchen, putting reinforcements on the pages of Brian´s folders about the pupils´ lessons.

My lesson was always hours late and hours long and we would be driven home in the VW bus, balancing aluminium dishes of Ursula´s cannelloni on our knees. We worked through the Doflein Books, all five of them, made our way through the AMEB grades year for year in September and I made progress, but was still an unapplied pupil and was made to go to Anne Harvey´s lessons to see what real practice entailed. Anne would turn up beautifully prepared, not only having completed her violin work, but also with manuscript books of piano compositions, neatly notated and illustrated.

At the weekends 9 Gleeson Ave was cacophonous. Ensembles resounded from every available room of the house, the pinnacle of which was the Blake Baroque Ensemble, where I first learned the importance of counting rests in orchestra parts. Brian Finlayson did the Beethoven concerto, Janet Froomes the Vieuxtemps and Saint-Saëns, Stephanie the Mendelssohn and Sibelius, Diane Froomes Boccherini and the Rococo Variations, Theresa Blake the Elgar, Cathy Blake the Grieg, Mr Blake himself the Brahms and I remember doing the second movement of the Mozart D major myself.

My bow was too tilted, the sound correspondingly weak, and, crying, I was sent to the garage to practise until I learned to play on the full of the hair. Hours later Ursula came to see what I was doing and I was allowed to go back up. I fear that I am still inclined to play on the side of the hair. Max Cooke had a film made about Brian´s ensemble and I remember it being shown at the Melbourne Conservatorium. Stephanie featured prominently with a wonderful rendition of the Mendelssohn.

Around the end of the 70s Valery Klimov started to come to Melbourne to give master classes at the Victorian College of the Arts. Brian would take us all there in the bus (which we had push started) and I sat there mesmerised by Klimov´s artistry and in awe of the advanced students who played for him. Celia Blake and I were reduced to giggles by a lady´s tortured performance of Vitali Chaconne, although she assured Klimov she had been a concertising artist in Florence in her heyday.

Later, Igor Ozim came, also Jack Glaser (with whom Brian did a duo recital), Ana Bylsma and Paul Roland. Whoever was teaching in Melbourne, Brian made it his business that we were all there having lessons, and he himself also took a great many lessons with visiting artists. He was not averse to becoming (ever so slightly) argumentative if he felt his pupils were being treated unfairly. I remember him defending Gabby Kancachian when Ozim tried to change something fundamental in her Haydn C major only weeks before her examination.

Brian himself was a lovely violinist and produced a soft-grained and very elegant tone on his Gabrieli. He played a great deal at our lessons, demonstrating from the concerti that he practised into the night after teaching all day at Mandeville and at home. He was very adept at Bach E major prelude, showing the tricky string crossing starting both up and down bow and telling us how Sascha Lasserson had taught him the passage. I also remember his renditions of the Kreisler pieces very fondly, especially a fleet and effortless staccato in Schön Rosmarin. My own Liebesleid, as with the Rameau Gavotte so many years before, sounded something like a dirge and my mother was asked to buy records of Strauss waltzes to instill a sense of rhythm in me.

Mr Blake had all the pedagogical reference material marked up with passages applicable to particular students. Of course, the Galamian chapter about PRACTICE was heavily underlined in 2B pencil, with many an exclamation mark for Simon Fordham. We listened to recordings, of which he assiduously noted the metronome markings, the fingerings etc, read the Strad Magazine and looked at photographs of violinists. He did everything to kindle our interest in the violin and music and was so obviously passionate and enthusiastic himself that it was infectious. My mother used to say, “Brian Blake lives only for music”.

Nowadays I find my own teaching methods rather reminiscent of Brian´s. Only recently I completed Doflein Book 5 with a little Japanese pupil and make sure I play duets with her, just as Brian did with me some 45 years ago. Of course nowadays a simple Ex or VG pencilled in next to a completed piece doesn´t quite cut it, so I am forced to use stickers instead.

He was a most enterprising spirit, something of a self-made man with wide ranging interests, a sometimes difficult and intimidating character whom I admired and feared in equal measure, but he has made an indelible mark on Melbourne´s musical landscape. I am still in contact with quite a few of his former pupils who have made careers in music. Anne Harvey, Gabrielle Kancachian, Suzanne Ng, Cindy Watkins, Janet and Diane Froomes, Madeleine Jevons, Zoe and Emma Black are still good friends and colleagues.

You will be sorely missed, Brian. Thanks for everything!