Retired Bangor Uni tutor hits the mark with the cello after half a century apart

A musical retiree added another string to his bow when he passed his Grade 8 cello exam at the age of 74.

Desmond Burton gave up the instrument as a child but decided to pick it up again half a century later after retiring from his job as an English teacher at Bangor University.

At 67, he resumed lessons with tutor Nicki Pearce at Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (William Mathias Music Center) in Caernarfon.

He passed the highest possible mark with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music with flying colors, earning compliments from the examiner who said it was a privilege to listen to him play.

His rediscovered talent with the bow led him to join the Caernarfon Community Orchestra which was set up by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias to encourage musical creation among adults with any level of experience on their instrument.

The center provides high quality instrumental and vocal lessons to hundreds of people on a range of instruments, as well as hosting a variety of community events across Wales.

While the majority of pupils are of school age, Desmond is one of more than 50 adult learners who attend weekly lessons at Galeri Caernarfon or at their satellite centers in Denbigh and Pwllglas, near Ruthin.

Galeri, Caernaerfon
Desmond Burton, who gave up the cello as a child but decided to pick it up in retirement, has now reached the highest mark, Grade 8. PhotoRick Matthews

Desmond was also able to play in chamber ensembles organized by the music center.

Encouraged by his daughter Carolyn, a talented violinist, they enjoy informal music sessions with his guitarist wife, Porjai, at their home in Menai Bridge.

He said: “A lot of people think I’m crazy for taking these exams, why should I put this extra stress on myself, but you don’t have to. Many people who have joined the Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias Orchestra do so just to have fun making music.

“I’m quite competitive and like to challenge myself and by passing an exam you learn to play plays at a very high level and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Desmond, from Lichfield in Staffordshire, took cello lessons at school as a teenager but did not take any exams at this stage. The instrument his father bought him from a member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when he was 12 or 13 has lain unused collecting dust and not been played for over 50 years.

He added: “When I retired from Bangor University seven years ago I had more time to undertake something and it seemed appropriate to take cello lessons. I never took this very seriously as a kid, so I thought I should come back and try a little harder.

“Musical instruments are not cheap and I already had a cello. It’s a pretty good cello, a German instrument from the early 19th century and I still play it. I had to put some strings back on it and buy a new bow as it had been unused for so many years but it’s still a very good cello, I have no intention of changing it.

“Nicki is a brilliant teacher. She is so patient and quick to sort out any issues I may have. She is inspiring. I couldn’t have passed the exams without her. This is both her 8th year and the mine,” he added.

Desmond’s daughter Carolyn, who studied music at the University of Birmingham and now works for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, said words could not describe how proud she was of her father .

She said: “I was very supportive when he took over the cello after his retirement. He really enjoys playing the cello and I was happy to help him prepare for the various exams he took.

“I am very proud that it has passed so many times and reached the highest mark. I hope this inspires others to get into a musical instrument regardless of their age,” said she added.

Tutor Nicki said: ‘Desmond is such a pleasure to teach. He comes to his weekly lessons and he is always ready. Even if there is something delicate, he will always get on with it and he is an inspiration.

“Reviewers don’t always write additional comments on their reports, but on Desmond’s report there was a comment that said it was a real privilege to listen to him play.

“It’s just going to show that no matter what time in life you do things like these exams, you can do them.

She added, “We are now actively seeking more members for the community orchestra. It’s a great way for adults who may not have touched their instruments in years to pick them up and try their hand in a friendly, supportive environment,” she added.

Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias director Meinir Llwyd Roberts said: “People may think music lessons are just for children and young people, but there is a welcome for all ages at Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias – there it’s never too late to start lessons. The number of adults benefiting from private lessons has increased in recent years, which is very good news.

“The lockdown caused the doors to close for a while and forced us to adopt other ways of working, mostly online, but things have kicked back in earnest now and it’s great to see the full orchestra back in Anyone can participate, regardless of experience, and the emphasis is on the enjoyment of making music.

The Caernarfon Community Orchestra, organized by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias, meets on Tuesday evenings, normally 8-9.30pm at Theatr Seilo in Caernarfon. More information online at www.cgwm.org.uk or call 01286 685230.

Pictured: Desmond Burton, who gave up the cello as a child but decided to take it up in retirement, has now reached the highest mark, Grade 8.

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