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Patrick Gale on the Inspiration for Take Nothing With You: The Real Life Jean Curwen

Posted on 21st August 2018 by Martha Greengrass

A brilliantly drawn and tenderly written coming of age story, Take Nothing With You is also a novel about a life transformed by music and by one music teacher in particular, Jane Cowan. Here, author Patrick Gale reveals more about the real woman who inspired the fictional Jean Curwen and the imporant lessons music can teach us about our lives and ourselves.

As the acknowledgments at the end of my new novel, Take Nothing With You make plain, the story draws a lot in inspiration from various life-changing teachers who taught me the cello. Particularly memorable were Fiona Smith, my first teacher who took me on as a nervous little boy tremulous with homesickness and turned me into a confident young player who lived for weekly orchestra practice and David Waterman (nephew of the legendary Leeds piano teacher, Fanny) who really polished my technique and made me learn wildly ambitious pieces like the Elgar concerto, which were probably far too advanced for a teenager. They each passed on a sense that music making was at once enormous fun - a kind of sport - but also every bit as important as anything I learned at a classroom desk.

But the most life-changing teacher was almost certainly one who had taught both these teachers: Jane Cowan. To shield her family but also to enable me to have some fictional fun with her, I turned her into Jean Curwen in the novel, but I hope that the grande dame I portray is really close to the incredible character she’s based on. 

Jane ran the International Cello Centre in a beautiful old house at Duns in the Scottish Borders. She did so with her family, none of whom I suspect would have dared be anything other than a musician, or would have dared married someone who wasn’t. For most of the year this was a pretty tiny school, as she had only a handful of regular residential pupils alongside the few local pupils she took on. Her star full-time pupil at the time I met her was Steven Isserlis, now an internationally renowned star. Twice a year, however, she admitted a gang of about twenty teenagers for residential holiday courses and I was lucky enough to go on two of these, at thirteen and fourteen. They were exhilaratingly total-immersion experiences in which the entire day and evening would be consecrated to music and which were precious because suddenly we music nerds were among our own and no longer needed to apologise for who we were or what we wanted to be. We played in small groups, we lay on the ballroom floor to be played recordings, we were talked at (a lot) and we came together in mad, cello-heavy “orchestras” in which the strongest players would often play the violin lines. And all of it was driven by Jane who managed to be terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. The weeks were eccentric – with us sleeping in improvised, crowded dormitories all over the house, eating a strictly vegetarian diet (most unusual in 1974) – and would almost certainly have failed to meet today’s stringent child-protection guidelines. But they were life changing. 

For the precious, obsessive days we were with her, Jane gave young musicians a taste of how life might feel if we pursued music as a career, she showed us a world in which music mattered, really mattered, and was not simply a hobby. She gave daily examples of men and women who had sacrificed everything for their art - tales of unimaginable hardship from the Nazi holocaust or from behind the Iron Curtain were particular favourites - and made it plain that pursuing music involved dedication and sacrifice, not simply talent. However the greatest lesson she taught me was not directly musical.

After five years in a specialist music school, learning two instruments and singing every day, I was convinced that music was my only conceivable future. I was rubbish at sport, maths, Latin, history - those cornerstones of prep school life - but music was something at which I had found I could excel. But Jane showed me that even if I didn’t pursue it as a career, it would remain a lifelong blessing - something not only life-enhancing, but a pursuit that would give me resilience and discipline when facing trials or pursuing other studies. Something I’ve tried to show in Take Nothing With You is that classical music, like ballet or gymnastics, is a pursuit as much about failure and tenacity as it is about glorious success. It is special precisely because only about five percent of those who study it as children will prove to be any good and because only about one percent of that tiny group will then be good enough to pursue it as a career. And even of those, most will end up giving up or compromising their dreams.

In an era where narcissism is rampant, when psychiatrists are starting to warn us about the damage we can do by over-praising our children and in which there’s a risk that excellence in education - which after all implies rejection for the majority - is being lost in the admirable pursuit of fairness and kindness - it’s salutary to learn some lessons from classical music, an extraordinary world in which children are exhilarated even as they learn they aren’t ever going to be quite good enough…

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