The Teachers That Stay With Us: A Conversation with Scott Richardson
By Emma Cassie
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
Like many shy or awkward kids, I spent my lunchtimes at school in the classroom of my favourite teachers. This for me was the music room. Five years after leaving school I reached out to one of my former music teachers, Scott Richardson, and it strikes me that I have now not seen Scott for the same length of time as I knew him during my years at school. Despite the time that has passed it feels entirely unfamiliar referring to Scott by his first name, as he has always been known to me simply as “Mr Richardson”. A residual sense of alarm remains, as if someone is about to barge through the door of my student house to tell me off and give me a detention for calling a teacher by their first name.
At the end of a hectic week, Scott sends me a series of voice memos, responding to a list of questions I have sent over. There is a dull rumbling of an engine and the sustaining hum of passing traffic in the background as he talks, driving home along the M25 late on a Saturday night.
A second voice utters “go”, as the memos begin which I assume belongs to his son recording him. I had asked him whether there were any funny stories he had to share about his time as a teacher and he begins by describing something that had happened just this week.
‘On Thursday I attempted to make a video for a local hospice. Normally pre-COVID we would go and sing there at Christmas time and generally its quite a lovely, moving event. This year they asked us to make a video because obviously we can’t visit and so I thought if I hijack my colleague’s lesson, I can make a video and send it. They wanted “Away in a Manger” which I had to sell to these year 7’s who didn’t know me and I didn’t have any sway with. I had to check photo consent and 13 out of 27 kids didn’t have permission so straight away half the class was ruled out. So, half the class is sitting watching, and its completely out of control and I’m getting a bit stressed. I shoot the video, and half the kids were wearing masks (though actually that was helpful because when people didn’t know the lyrics at least I couldn’t see their mouths moving). We got two pretty terrible takes. What I ended up doing is I used my very poor editing skills, cut up those two takes and then for the audio, found a proper children’s choir and put it underneath, taking out all of the audio from my video. So it wasn’t a great music lesson really… but it was a good lesson for me in planning and keeping calm (I certainly wasn’t), but nonetheless it was a good educational experience for me and a good laugh for all of my colleagues when they saw the video!’
When I think back, I realize that my first memory of Scott is of him drumming in the music room from the old school building and a general buzz amongst the students about how he was Little Mix’s vocal coach on The X Factor that year. It was in that classroom that I first began to discover a passion for music, and it was a strange experience, watching the bulldozers smash through the side of that classroom from the window of my maths lesson in the new school building next door the following year.
I ask him about his best experiences as a teacher and he describes the moment the penny drops in a young person. That moment when they realise they are passionate about music or something just slots into place. ‘I can’t say that I’ve taught many people who went on to be professional musicians, nonetheless, just to know that you’ve made that small impact on a young person is a thrill for me and continues to be a thrill’.
He tells me that what really impacted him as a child was his parents: ‘my dad is a professional musician and has been for my entire life and is to this day at the age of 73!’. Scott grew up around music and his own musical influences stem from the records his parents played as a kid, like Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles— rather than rebelling against his parents tastes he embraced them
He lists off some of the interesting people he got to meet as a child because of his dad’s career, including Paul McCartney, John Cleese and hundreds of other pop stars and small-time film stars who were famous back then; ‘maybe at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of it you know…’
‘I’ve worked with a lot of interesting people throughout my life. I got to play percussion with The Rolling Stones— myself and 60 other friends got to play two nights at the O2 with them— that was a real life experience! I’m not going to say it was work because it was a complete pleasure— and also I wasn’t paid!’ he exclaims, adding a sarcastic thank you to the music industry for supporting musicians.
Stevie Wonder becomes central to his discussion of inspiring people. ‘The challenges he has overcome on a daily basis, not just his blindness or the colour of his skin but the way he’s pushed music forward especially in that amazing patch of the 70s where virtually everything he wrote was a massive social comment as well as an absolute funky banger!’. He adds that as he has gotten older, his music tastes have broadened. He puts this down primarily to working in schools, ‘it’s a great way to open your eyes to new music that’s out there’. I am reminded suddenly of the many lunchtimes I made him sit and listen to my favourite McFly songs, though he also made me listen to the band Jellyfish in return which now remain as one of my favourite bands to this day.
I ask when he decided to become a teacher. He chuckles through his response: ‘when I realised I wasn’t as good as my dad!’. He describes how his dad’s impact loomed large over his life choices and how he didn’t really want to follow him because ‘I didn’t think I could live up to that and so I’ve taken slightly different paths’. He specifies that he has never seen this as any kind of failure ‘because I don’t see being a teacher as a failure— it’s allowed me to incorporate my main passion into my life and into my day job. Until then I’d been doing music part-time and working a succession of unfulfilling nine-to-five jobs. I think it was the realisation that I’m not cut out to be someone like my dad, but that’s okay because I can be myself in my own way’.
He begins to describe his own time at school: ‘my own academic career was pretty average to say the least so I can’t say that there was a teacher who really influenced me at school, though that’s more about my poor attitude at the time’. He adds that when he was at secondary school, he didn’t feel that there was a great number of options available to him as a young musician. When I asked what one piece of advice he would give to his students, he responded assuredly— to make full use of the options available to you and ‘to not close down any of those options whilst you weigh up what you would like to do later in life’. It is this comment that takes me back to my own time at school and the many passions I encountered over the years. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was constantly changing. I’d responded with architect, environmental scientist, musician, geologist, and artist, before deciding on a degree in English and a Masters in Linguistics. I had the same indecisiveness when it came to private instrument lessons with the school. I’d started with guitar, then piano, then guitar again, then drums, back to piano, back to guitar, I’m sure much to the frustration of my music teachers. But I feel lucky to have had all of these options open for me to try and for being allowed to change my mind so often. Now when people ask what I want to be, I tend to shrug my shoulders and respond with- I’ll find out.
I am curious to know what the best and worst things about teaching are. He tells me that his favourite thing to teach children is to play in bands. The listening skills they need, as well as the interpersonal skills as much as the playing skills: ‘I feel I’m living my dream when I’m teaching a small group of pupils how to do this, I find it deeply satisfying and I feel that my skill set is used to its upmost it this scenario and it can be very gratifying to see the results and to hopefully have an impact on the children who are doing it’. He adds ‘I love bumping into ex-students who have made music a part of their life, whether it’s just something that enriches their lives a little or something that gave them slightly greater confidence or self-esteem’.
It is at this point that I pause the memos he has sent me to scroll back through my Facebook videos in search of something. I find a video from the 2014 school Christmas concert. I am performing a rock version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a small band I had put together with my friends, a song that Scott and our other music teacher Russ, had taught us.
The video starts with Scott adjusting my microphone, whispering a word of encouragement before walking off to the side of the stage to watch. Though I am audibly nervous, it is clear to me the impact my music teachers had on me in my teenage years— particularly the sense of self belief that has shaped who I have become as a person.
These are the kind of teachers that stay with us in the back of our minds, no matter how many years pass. The ones we still want to make proud.
As the pattering rhythm of raindrops against the windshield sound in the background, he goes on to explain the challenges that come with teaching. ‘Number one is dealing with my own demons as far as resenting bureaucracy or the way that the arts are dealt with by the powers that be. I’m fortunate to work with a school that are very supportive of the creative arts but nonetheless, there’s still a long way to go nationally— I would like to figure out how to be a part of the change’. The other big challenge he describes comes from the realisation that ‘the thirty children in front of me may not share my passion for my subject and how to manage my expectations or my frustration if they have absolutely no interest in music but still try and keep them engaged— I find that to be an uphill battle’. I am reminded of the year Scott let me borrow his own personal bass guitar for the entire summer and I am grateful for the extent to which he cared and nurtured those who just really wanted to learn.
My closing question for Scott is what he would define his greatest achievement to be. He talks about how, as a person he is always striving for the next big thing: ‘I always measure myself to professionals, because I haven’t had the same career as a professional musician. I always think oh, perhaps there’s something in the distance for me to make my mark. Really, my greatest success is when music becomes a part of a student’s life in some way. There are a few examples who I’m really proud of, their triumph over their own personal struggles or adversity, using music as a tool to help them lift themselves out of that. Some of my former students have gone on to study music at university or college, others have joined bands or just strum their guitar or sing in their living room or whatever, you know?— but its still a part of their life.’
As the audio recordings stop and the hum of traffic and ticking of the indicator fades away, I feel the sudden overwhelming urge to pick up my guitar.
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