There are many people who influence your life and who have really made a difference. One such person is my second teacher Bronwen Naish, who I have known for over forty years and we are still in contact. Bronwen lived and still lives in North Wales, in an isolated cottage in the middle of Snowdonia where the only sound you can hear is birdsong and the stream flowing through the valley. She was originally a cellist and, if memory serves me well, was asked to play double bass by a friend in a local orchestra, she borrowed a bass, and from then she was hooked. She studied and had lessons but after either hearing about Gary Karr or hearing a performance decided she wanted to study in Canada with him.
At the time she had five young children but Bronwen is not the type of person to let something like that hold her back. She arranged to study with Gary for six weeks and for her sister to act as housekeeper and surrogate mum for that period. We often talked about Gary Karr in lessons, who was her main influence as a player and teacher, and she said her first memory was at the airport and was amazed that his car was so big that her bass would fit comfortably in the trunk (boot) — we didn’t have cars of that size in Britain in the early 1970s. She had lessons with him and would practice six hours a day and learned everything she could about Gary’s style of playing, which she later taught to her students.
I met Bronwen in about 1977 or 78 at a Bass Workshop at Normal College in Bangor (North Wales), where 15-20 bassists worked together on Gary’s exercises alongside a daily masterclass and a dash of bass ensembles, where everything was so new to me and so exciting. She was a great teacher and a true advocate of Gary’s playing style and we spent a long time playing slow bowings towards the bridge, also lowering the string heights and even having the bridge re-cut and the strings set closer together. These were really great times and I loved studying with Bronwen whose main aim was to allow the double bass to ‘sing’.
She played all the solo repertoire that I wanted to play and many of us often traipsed around the country to hear her recitals or concertos and we were a loyal bunch, and after forty years some of us are still in contact. After the initial workshop I began to have lessons with Bronwen in North Wales and would travel there for a weekend, once a month, and would take a Friday and Monday off from school to create a long weekend.
Travelling there was a trek indeed — a car journey to Doncaster station, with my bass and a bag of music and clothes, then a train to Leeds, then a train to Manchester, then a train to Bangor, and finally an hour’s car journey from Bangor to Bronwen’s home. Bassists are nothing if not intrepid! The first lesson would be on Friday evening, followed by lessons and practice on Saturday morning, the afternoon was free to explore the beautiful countryside, lessons on Saturday evening and on Sunday a one-day workshop in Menai Bridge with her local students. We worked on Gary’s exercises and his ‘vomit’ would last almost thirty minutes which was certainly a waker-upper on a cold and wet Sunday morning.
On Monday morning Bronwen would drive me back to Bangor station, often with a loaf of homemade bread — she bought flour by the sack and made the most glorious bread in her Aga for her five children — and then the journey back home. These were very happy times which I remember with great affection and am so pleased that Bronwen opened up the solo repertoire to me but especially the love of harmonics. We saw her a few years ago when we had a short holiday in North Wales and the valley where she lives is still as beautiful and isolated as I remember it.
In 2018 Bronwen asked my wife, Sarah Poole, and I to give a concert in Criccieth, North Wales, to mark the centenary of the ending of the First World War. It was a perfect opportunity for Bronwen and I to play together again and we included Passchendaele — a Meditation for 2 double basses and piano, which I had composed a couple of years before. I think we were both nervous to play with the other but it was a joy and privilege to make music with her again after so many years and her wonderful sound and musicianship were as bright and crisp as the day we first met.
Bronwen celebrated her 80th birthday with a celebratory concert and party in 2019, which we were so happy to attend, and as a present I composed a short piece for solo bass called Cwm Pennant, which is the name of the valley where she lives. The following day we had morning coffee at her cottage and, as we were leaving, she nonchalantly mentioned that maybe the single piece might be better as part of a suite, with the addition of two more pieces. I thought this was a perfect idea and she suggested Moel Hebog as the title for one piece, which is the mountain which is visible from Bronwen’s cottage, and Afon Dwyfor as another, the name of the stream running through the valley.
Sounds of Snowdonia was the result and the three pieces are happy memories of great times studying with Bronwen Naish in North Wales and remaining friends for over forty years.
Maybe it’s time for a reunion of some of her students — remember I’m not getting any younger!