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Musicís at the centre of Gerardís life

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date online: 11 March 2014

Martyn meets...Oldham Music Service chief Gerard Booth

BEFORE I met Gerard Booth I was warned he was a workaholic — a man who can’t say no.

Having spent a couple of hours in the company of this amiable, affable young man, I can agree. And he’s persistent, too.

I had to keep him on track as he skilfully kept turning the conversation away from himself and towards Oldham Music Service, of which he has been head since the legendary Eileen Bentley retired in 2009.

That he loves the service, his job and music with a passion is a given. I have no idea in what order he would place them, though I presume that somewhere on the list would also come his wife and family.

But he does love music and the service and Oldham, so maybe Tracey Booth and their children Aaron, Ben and Anastasia have to take a back seat, occasionally.

For two hours we chatted about his life and times. He lives, eats and breathes music in his day job and, at weekends plays tuba for several orchestras and bands. Yes, tuba. That’s a big piece of musical kit and Gerard ain’t the biggest bloke I have ever interviewed.

He’s a giant of a musician though, and I conjured this mental image of him sat behind his monster instrument and the audience straining to see him. I’m doing Gerard a disservice now. He isn’t all that tiny. And his energy is unnerving.

In addition to running the service from the Lyceum in Union Street (45 full-time staff, 40 of them musicians), he conducts and cajoles the Oldham Youth Orchestra on Wednesday evenings — what he delightfully describes as the “highlight of my week, when I actually get to teach music!” — and, of course, there are the weekend concerts.

“I love playing, I really do, but I am selective about which concerts I accept, otherwise I would be out every day,” he says.

There are no secrets and no conspiracies with Gerard: what you see is what you get, a genuinely good bloke who has taken Oldham and Oldhamers to his Lancashire heart.

He’s a Blackburn man, the only son of Vincent and Heather, who was a piano player. The young Gerard took up music at school in Whalley and always played tuba: “I also played trombone and euphonium, but I think they happened to have a tuba and needed a tuba player, so I was volunteered.”

He began playing in Darwen Brass Band and his father became a huge supporter, eventually becoming president of the band as a direct result of his talented son’s enthusiasm.

A career in music was an obvious route through adolescence and Gerard was the only tuba player who auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music to be offered a place in his year - and this from an international intake.

But Gerard Booth is not one to blow his own tuba. Give him a platform and he will talk about the Oldham Music Service all day though

After four years study he spent three more years working through an Open University course to become a music teacher.

He has never worked anywhere but the Lyceum, starting as a brass instructor and later becoming a brass teacher. His progression through co-ordinator of orchestral brass to head of the orchestral wind department was seamless, as was his promotion to acting deputy director and interim head of service when Eileen retired. The job was advertised nationally and he won it.

His time at the Lyceum has seen a myriad of changes — from funding strategies to ownership of the building — and his delight at the sheer number of Oldham people who make use of the exceptional facilities shines through.

“On any given week we have around 1,000 children enjoying music. We also have an Adult Community Wind Band of 50 people, the eldest 82, and most of them are new to music.

“We also have toddlers’ classes on Friday morning, more about musical movement, but we literally cater for every age group.”

And there are the choirs, for voice is as much a part of the service now as when Eileen was the singers’ champion.

The service has also embraced social media with Twitter feeds and Facebook pages informing people of the goings-on inside that imposing building, which is now owned and operated by the service, having been handed over by the trustees.

That imposes another financial burden on the service, with only 20 per cent of turnover coming into the centre via central government funding through the Greater Manchester Music Hub, a nine-borough collaboration that allows each borough to share best practices and acts as a conduit for the best students to work with their peers in jazz, brass and string ensembles.

Gerard leads the Greater Manchester String Orchestra, which features several young Oldhamers.

The orchestra rehearses at the world-renowned Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and is working with Chetham’s on a concert at the Bridgewater Hall on June 15, when the cream of the area’s musical talent will showcase their skills

There’s a joie de vivre to Gerard when he talks about music that is heartening and uplifting.

“I spend only five per cent of my time actually teaching music,” he laments, but soon brightens when the conversation wanders towards the music service and its imminent trip to New York.

Eighty-eight students are going and they need some cash. Gerard has already abseiled down the Civic Centre to raise money and Jonathan Leadale, the deputy director of brass, is cycling 3,500 miles — the distance from Oldham to New York — to help raise more.

I have no doubt whatsoever that they will reach their target. Gerard isn’t a man who fails.

He balances his love of music — he’s a former player with the Halle, BBC Philharmonic and the award-winning Grimethorpe Colliery Band — with raising 80 per cent of the Music Service’s financial needs.

So what, I ask, does Gerard do away from the Lyceum?

I quickly realised it was a ridiculous question - after all his wife is a celebrated oboe player and his three children also play; Aaron the clarinet — with Halle Youth no less — Ben the French horn and 12-year-old Anastasia the violin.

He, Tracey and probably Anastasia played together at Ripon Cathedral in February.

As we parted, the words of the Jon Miles classic song “Music was my first love, and it will be my last...” floated into my head.

Except in Gerard’s case the tense is definitely in the present.


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