John Ridgeon

John Robert Brown

Characteristically, John Ridgeon is candid: "I failed the eleven plus," he says. "I went to secondary modern in the East End of London. I desperately wanted to play the trumpet. My parents couldn't afford it. Fortunately for me, my parents were Salvationists." He learned the cornet in the local Salvation Army band.

By the time Ridgeon was ten he had won a junior exhibition to go to the Junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music. He played in the Academy orchestra ("with considerable success," he says), but left school with one GCE (as it was then), in music. By his own admission he was totally lacking in normal core skills, but got into the Senior Academy because they were only interested in his ability as a trumpet player and as a musician. "That really coloured my educational thinking, for life," he says. "Both at the Junior Academy and the Senior Academy, virtually everybody there was from private school or grammar school. I was the only one with no school uniform! In those days, in the Junior Academy you had to wear school uniform." His mum had to make him one.

"It was harrowing, because although I had the musical ability to cope, I didn't have the experience of learning. I remember going home from the West End to the East End with a tear or two coming down, because I was struggling too much. But it gradually came together. Then I won a scholarship to the Senior Academy, having played principal trumpet with my county orchestra. Born in Barking, I was between London and Essex. I played principal trumpet with the Essex Youth Orchestra. Everything was going brilliantly for me on the trumpet."

Then, shortly into his career at the Senior Academy, Ridgeon had a complete embouchure breakdown. "For a year, my working range was five notes," he says. "No one at the Academy could help me. I tried all sorts of people outside, until I found old Phil Parker, who was then 83. He helped me to get a feel of what an embouchure was about, a real understanding through physiology. I didn't want to have a collapse again." The collapse had happened because of bad teaching. As Ridgeon was doing more and more playing, the weaknesses were exposed more and more.

While he was trying to play again, Ridgeon read physiology in depth, relating information on the bone and muscular structure of the face to the playing of brass instruments. Eventually this led to a joint publication with a well-known respiratory consultant from Papworth Hospital though, curiously, Ridgeon won't reveal the consultant's name. "Gradually, I built up the teaching," he says. "I realised that I had something special to offer because of the problems I'd had. I decided to drop the playing."

Ridgeon realised that as a player he would be adequate, but no better than the average professional player. An affable yet determined man ("I can be stubborn," he admits), Ridgeon realised that as a teacher he had a lot more to offer. "So I became a brass teacher for the London Borough of Redbridge. Then I became responsible for the supervising of the instrumental work in Redbridge. That was up until 1974. I did a lot of conducting during those years. I formed the Redbridge Band. We broadcast for the BBC on Radio Three from Maida Vale."

He ended his period with Redbridge in 1974, as Supervising Brass Teacher. From there he moved to Barnet, becoming responsible for all instrumental teaching from 1974 to 1977. During that time he started writing his many books on brass playing, covering beginner materials through to a comparative study of great brass teachers from across the world: The Physiology of Brass Playing. "I fell out with B&H, because they took so long in publishing it," he says. "Then I decided to set up my own publishing company."

Without doubt, Ridgeon was - and still is - a very successful teacher. "In my band in Redbridge I had 25 players out of 100 in the National Youth Brass Band, and nine players in the National Youth Orchestra." In 1977 he left Barnet and moved to Leicestershire. "I was Senior Music Adviser in Leicestershire for 19 years," he says. "It's a big county. There were three of us. I was there with Peter Fletcher and John Whitworth. John was the 'other half' of the late Alfred Deller, the counter-tenor. He was very churchy. Peter Fletcher specialised in orchestras and choirs. I was all instrumental.

"I worked there until I became so frustrated with them; they were so traditional. They wouldn't allow me to introduce popular music into schools. They allowed a few brass bands. They had Peter Lloyd doing the big band, but that was all that the Director of Education would allow."

But this is something of a bald understatement. Ridgeon's departure from being a music adviser in Leicestershire was nothing short of spectacular, marking the beginning of Access to Music, later to be described as the 'UK's leading designer and provider of popular music education'.

And that's another story.

An edited version of this article appeared first in Music Teacher. Used by kind permission.
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