With gratitude and thanks to Bette Gilmore, 1938-2020. Thank you for the music and so much more
Perhaps it’s the historian in me, but I am something of a hoarder. From old electronics that I know I’ll never use again but which I perceive to have some sort of historical significance, to books and old records that remind me of times past, I collect it all.
Occasionally, and completely understandably, family members sometimes talk some sense into me and I part with things I don’t really need to hold on to. However, whenever it’s time for another decluttering phase and I’m inevitably asked if I really need a battered old Braille copy of the Homai College Choir songbook that is now a little under 40 years old, I always answer with an emphatic, “yes, don’t you dare throw that out. That book is special”.
It’s special because the memories are special. And the person above all others who made those memories special is Bette Gilmore, who died last week aged 81. Bette was a gifted teacher who went to extraordinary lengths to both develop, and help us express, our love of music.
Having spent a lot of time with Bette, particularly in my teens, I learned a little about her life, although I am relying on my memory for these recollections. Bette was quite the local Auckland child celebrity,, having become a member of the famous 1 ZB Friendly Road Choir conducted by broadcaster Thomas Garland (affectionately known by all listeners as Uncle Tom). She had a natural strong singing voice, and when she was around 4, sang a short number on her own, a song called “Mr and Mrs Mickey Mouse” which brought the house down. I believe a recording of this still exists in the Sound Archives.
Bette received formal musical training including in singing from Dame Sister Mary Leo, who trained some of New Zealand’s most successful operatic vocalists.
As was common for many New Zealanders, Bette eventually decided to spend some time in England, where she had quite an extraordinary career on the cabaret circuit, including a popular male impersonator act in which, among other things, she did a quite impressive impersonation of Acker Bilk.
Returning to New Zealand in the late ’70s, Bette was looking for work opportunities and by chance learned that Julian Lee, probably New Zealand’s most famous and successful blind pianist, was looking for assistance. Through this contact, she learned about Braille music, and was inspired to study to be a Braille music transcriber. Much to the delight of the Foundation for the Blind, she had a rare aptitude for Braille Music, sailing through a course which was usually expected to take at least a year to complete in a much shorter time.
In 1978, when the senior music teacher role at Homai College, the school for the blind, became vacant, Bette applied for and was offered the role.
The Foundation’s school at Parnell, which preceded Homai College, was legendary for its musical prowess. Even in the 70s, old-timers talked about the famous Blind Institute band, led by Captain George Bowes way back in the 30s. While there were still many blind children who loved their music and were extraordinarily good at it, I think it’s fair to say that formal musical ensembles at Homai were going through a bit of a lull.
Bette wanted to share her love of music with her pupils, and began making changes. She took over the Choir, and began changing the repertoire, introducing a variety of songs and more ambitious arrangements.
It was a treble choir which in those early days would meet in some of our lunch hours. She was an excellent pianist so would accompany us, as well as painstakingly teach each vocal part to the choir by ear. Sometimes there may be three or even four parts, while at other times we sang in unison. The most glorious moment for me was when Bette had completed teaching each respective part, and invited us to try singing a new song together for the first time. There is something wonderful about hearing how everyone singing together could make such a beautiful sound. A lesson for music, and indeed a lesson for life.
Bette produced Braille Homai College songbooks for choir members. They would sometimes come literally hot off the press from the thermoform machine at the Transcription Department as we received periodic updates. Having easy access to the lyrics took the pressure off us so we could consult the lyrics while we committed a new tune to memory. It also acted as an incentive for us to hone our Braille skills, because some of the songs moved along at quite a clip, and we needed to keep up.
Bette thought her choir was pretty jolly good, and looking back, I have to agree. We were excellent. She realised very quickly that she was blessed with something very rare, a disproportionate number of people with perfect pitch. This allowed us to do some pretty slick introductions that would start completely unaccompanied. There was no need, as many other choirs had to do, to play a surreptitious note to help us get our bearings. Enough of us knew exactly what the starting note was to get the choir underway, and Bette would just count us in.
Eventually, she took us on the road. We performed at schools, shopping malls, at rest homes, even on television where, much to my mortification, I fainted on one occasion. Thankfully, it wasn’t live and we did it again.
We also performed at Holy Trinity Cathedral, I believe with several other choirs, where we sang the mass of St Francis of Assisi.
Looking through the songbook which holds so many precious memories, I’m struck by the eclectic repertoire.
“The Great Meat Pie” was an old English folk song that seemed to go on and on and on. But it was trickier than it appeared because while the melody was dull and the song was sung in unison, this one was all about the lyrics. Looking back, I think Bette inserted it to encourage us to enunciate. “the tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips”, she would say in a very clipped precise manner. The lyrics were moderately funny, so we knew we were getting it right if the audience was laughing.
Bye Bye Blues was an up-tempo, jazzy number we loved to sing.
The late Kathy Dobson and I got given a solo in the song “One Little Candle”, one of those songs that started cold without any accompaniment. It’s a lovely lyric,
“It is better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark. Better far that you light just one little candle, all you need’s a tiny spark. If we’d all say a prayer that the world would be free, the wonderful dawn of a new day we’d see. And if everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be”.
There was a large selection of Christian material from the beginning, including a fun little song called “I Nearly Forgot to say Thank you”, a musical version of the good Samaritan parable, Willie Bring your Little Drum, Unto us a Boy is Born, Born a King, Softly the Night is Sleeping, Dare to be a Daniel, Jesus Bids us Shine, the 23rd Psalm, Tell me the old old story, The Day Thou Gavest, Onward Christian soldiers, He’s got the Whole World in his Hands, the Lord’s Prayer and a couple of medleys, the Rejoicing Medley and The Battle Medley.
We sang versions of two Albert Ketelbey pieces, In a Monastery Garden, and Bells Across the Meadows. The latter was one of the songs that made use of a collection of handbells owned by the school. Bette realised that when we were playing in some of the larger venues, playing the handbells traditionally, by flicking them and letting the internal beater hit the inside of the bells, wasn’t making enough noise. I think also that some of the children had difficulty flicking them hard enough. So she decided we should hit the bells with a beater instead, which created a more metallic sound that resonated much better. As I’ll mention later, little did I know as a 10-year-old what a profound impact those bells were to have on my life.
A few Disney pieces made their way into our repertoire, including a couple from Bambi, “Little April Shower” the solo of which was sung by several people including the late Lisette Wesselling who went on to perform and study music herself. We also performed a crazy version of Twitterpated. In the middle of it, we would lapse into “body percussion”. People would clap their hands, click their tongues, beat their chests, just do anything to make noise. Somehow, I had worked out a method of hollowing out my cheeks and hitting the side of them in a way that allowed me to make any specific note that I wanted. So I managed to do a body percussion solo, carrying off the melody line. The whole thing was brilliant fun.
When I told Miss Gilmore as I called her then that I had entered a competition called the Shower Aria Competition, where you had to record yourself singing in the shower and then phone Radio Pacific to play it on the radio, and that I had chosen to sing Twitterpated, she dissolved into uncontrollable laughter.
Bette introduced music listening classes, where she played us some famous classical works and told us the stories of some of the composers. She made sensible choices that were easy for kids to appreciate, such as the 1812 Overture and the Peer Gynt Suite. I will remember her laughter when she told me that in one exam at the end of a year’s music appreciation, someone identified a piece of music as the “1812 overchewer”.
She encouraged our interest in music by taking many noisy kids to attend concerts, including at the Auckland Town Hall. There were few McDonalds restaurants in New Zealand at that time, so sometimes, if we’d behaved ourselves, she would treat us all to a burger. I am pretty sure she paid for them all herself.
Thanks to Bette, many of us took exams in both theory of music and practical piano from the Royal Schools of Music. We would have one-on-one piano lessons and work on our theory in groups. On the theory side, this created the need for amanuenses. Print music is completely different from Braille music, so it was necessary for us to write our answers in Braille music, then dictate them to someone sighted who would write them in print.
Eventually, this need was met through a mutually beneficial partnership between Homai College and Pakuranga College, a high school in East Auckland. Their head of music, Neil Guyon, needed some handbells for a production he was working on, and heard that Homai had some, so he contacted Bette to see if he might borrow or rent them. Bette came up with the inspired proposal that Neil could borrow the handbells if Bette could borrow some Pakuranga College music students to be amanuenses. Win win! The deal was done, and after Neil returned the handbells, they decided to maintain the tradition of Pakuranga College students assisting with the exams. That’s how I met my first wife, and mother of my four wonderful children, Amanda, a Pakuranga College student who wanted to help a blind student out with their music exam. It’s fair to say that without Bette, I doubt Amanda’s and my paths would ever have crossed, and my children wouldn’t be alive today.
Without pretty drastic measures that I wasn’t prepared to take despite my love of the choir, very few boys are able to remain in a treble choir forever. With many of her top students leaving Homai to attend mainstream schools, Bette moved choir practices to after school, so we could get together at Homai to keep the choir going. But nature eventually intervened and my voice broke. So did Mark Wilson’s, who has gone on to become a successful composer, musician and music director. Bette wanted to continue working with us, so she formed a vocal trio. Mark and I were in it throughout, but the young women in the group changed a little, and included the late Leah Kurei, Lisette Wesselling, Louise Henry and Marcella Rota. At one point I believe we made it all the way to a quintet.
It all got quite professional, with Bette enlisting the help of Molly Donald who Bette had worked with in the past. Molly at one time was a theatre producer for the Auckland Light Opera club. She kitted us out in very smart-looking uniforms and assisted with our visual presentation, while Bette worked on forming our little group into its own incorporated society. We called the group Kaleidoscope. We knew we were forming a very different kind of relationship with Bette when one day, after one of us called her Miss Gilmore as we always had, she responded, “I think it’s time you just called me Bette”.
We entered singing competitions, played at a wide variety of venues, and loved the sound we were able to make now that I sang bass and Mark sang tenor, giving us a much wider range of material to choose from. We even performed at the Auckland Town Hall with the full Auckland philharmonia. It was an absolutely incredible experience.
Rather than continually treating us as children, something teenagers are sensitive about, Bette was happy to acknowledge we were growing up and for the relationship to evolve accordingly. She recognised my enjoyment of talking in front of audiences, so I got to be the MC for our little performances and to even recite some poetry. It was turning into a kind of variety performance.
With more of her students having reached their teens, she set up Friday afternoon jam sessions, where the music room was opened up for us to grab whatever instrument we would like to play, to play whatever music we liked. I remember the first few times feeling weird and self-conscious as we worked our way through songs by The Police and Billy Joel in her presence. This was young people’s music and she was old, I mean she must have been over 40 by then! I still have no idea whether she had heard any of that kind of music before, but she didn’t complain, she seemed happy to just facilitate us making music.
On Thursday evenings, some of us would gather together in Bette’s presence for social nights, where we’d listen to a wide variety of music and comedy. One memorable night, Bette played us a new album she’d discovered by The King’s Singers with Judy Dench consisting of kids’ favourites. I was enthralled by the clever arrangements and elaborate vocal harmony and vowed that I would play that album to my own children if I ever had any. Years later, my oldest daughter used to go to sleep to it every night when she was little until the tape wore out.
Some students, myself included, even spent many happy weekends and part of the school holidays at her house, something I doubt would be allowed today. I have always had a love of the old British comedies like The Navy Lark, Take it from Here, ‘Round the Horn” (which could actually be quite risqué for its time), Dad’s Army, Hancock’s Half Hour, and of course my favourite of all, The Goon Show. I don’t think Bette would have been into Monty Python. Bette had quite the collection of these old shows, and when I stayed with her, we could listen to seemingly countless hours of them. I never got tired of it, and as far as I can tell, neither did she.
In a world that seemed so much larger before we were all connected by the Internet, I was listened spell bound as she would tell me stories of her work in England, including with some of the actors we were hearing on those shows.
We continued with Kaleidoscope during my first year at university, but while Bette’s faith was if anything intensifying, mine had vanished. Constitutionally, Kaleidoscope was a Christian organisation, and I felt like a fraud singing things I no longer believed having declared myself an atheist, something I remain all these years later. People argue about whether Yoko broke up the Beatles, but I don’t think there is any doubt that I broke up Kaleidoscope. We did reform for one special occasion at the request of a principal who was leaving and really wanted to hear us again.
Once she became a committed Christian after returning home from the UK, Bette’s faith was enormously important to her, and I was moved to find this video clip in which she talked about her faith just before she died. I am glad her faith brought her such peace, sustenance and certainty at the end of her life as it did through all of the latter part of it.
There is no greater example of the nobleness, the impact, the worth of the teaching profession than the legacy Bette has left. Her kindness, her willingness to go well above and beyond, her infectious love of music, the way she made so many of us feel valued, her knowledge which she so fully and graciously shared have all touched and changed many lives. To this day I often hear a song, or think about comedy she introduced me to, or remember how she opened my mind to the wonders of jazz, and I think of Bette fondly and smile.
Bette, I can never find words adequate enough to thank you for all you did. Thank you for the music, and so much more. I will never forget you, and I will light one little candle for you.