Nick Gleed

Teacher of Music, Bedales

MA Cambridge, PGCE Durham

“I cannot remember a time when I had not accepted an inspirational and formative role for Music in my life. To a large extent, therefore, I have never suffered from too many conflicting educational or career choices,” says Nick Gleed. “It wasn’t that I lacked a wider curiosity. Quite the contrary – I have always been attracted to Art, Architecture and English Literature as well – but for me, everything began with and continues to emanate from my relationship with Music. First it was playing the piano, then being a chorister and learning the organ. Having the opportunity to attend the Cathedral School in Bristol, through what was in those enlightened days the Direct Grant scheme, became a transforming and life-enhancing experience.”

Although all music was an enormous thrill for him, Nick is happy to admit that he was simultaneously attracted to the ritual and environment which particularly accompanied sacred music. “Very much so and, although one naturally develops away from innocent belief, the constructs which have been created around what is considered sacred, lose nothing of their initial attraction when deeper meanings, and complex questions, reveal themselves.”  Nick observes, “In a ritualistic setting you have an audience which is not only present emotionally but also participating in the narrative for which music is supplying a backing-track.  I think I might instinctively have been indulging what I considered to be potentially “spiritual” – educationally and musically – when I went on to teach at King’s Canterbury and Durham School after Cambridge; institutions where good traditions, ritual and a genuine love of learning were prized highly.”

Nick had long believed that teaching would be a part of his music career. “Well, that was what lay behind my studying PGCE at Durham,” he explains. “But I didn’t think teaching would become a full-time occupation. However, while I was taking the PGCE itself, the King’s Canterbury post came up; an opportunity which I felt I had to grasp. That hooked me; I loved working with young musicians of really good quality and I also began to realise how crucial in a school it is to get everyone involved whilst also ensuring that the talented ones thrive. There must be some form of elite which feels comfortable and well looked-after, otherwise an institution’s higher ambitions, in every aspect of cultural, academic and social behaviour, can’t function properly.”

In 1990, resolved to broaden his music-making away from an essentially sacred base, Nick became Director of Music at Bedales, in succession to Jonathan Willcocks. He was inheriting a tradition that stretched back to the school’s founding father. “John Badley always gave music a high place in the life of the school,” Nick notes. “As a brilliant classicist, Badley understood that music really did have charms to soothe the savage beast and that it was a civilising influence. I believe that making music remains the ultimate example of the union of head, heart and hand which Bedales seeks to promote.”

Changes to the music programme under Nick were therefore usually of emphasis, not structure, and were introduced gradually: “I was probably seen as someone who was bringing in something more of the sacred, which, since I couldn’t help my background, was true,” he agrees. “I happen to think that the sacred repertoire in the music canon contributes most prodigiously to its greatest achievements, so I wanted to do plenty of it.  That said, Bedalians tend to detect the spiritual in many things.  Although I value my own upbringing in ecclesiastical surroundings, the absence of a school chapel at Bedales has never frustrated a Bedalian’s perception of what is innately sacred or conceived spiritually.  A Haydn Mass performed in the Quad, just as much as a secular symphony or concerto performed in the same place, becomes a multi-layered artistic experience which connects directly and movingly in a very special way with its performers and audience.”  Nick’s other preoccupation was to improve the involvement of boys in the musical life of the school. “There were far more girls than boys involved in “classical” music-making at Bedales, which rather shocked me after my time at King’s and Durham, which were predominantly male establishments. The boys at Bedales often need just a little extra encouragement or reassurance that it isn’t un-masculine (picking an obvious example) to sing tenor or bass – after all, girls can’t do it!”

Bedales has long been renowned for the enlightened fostering of its most talented musical pupils. Nick Gleed places great emphasis on the importance of this tradition, while sounding a note of caution about the future. “The relationship between a school and a particularly talented pupil isn’t always easy,” he begins. “A talented musician is usually very able academically, with a well-established work ethic and analytical intelligence. However much an institution might wish to do so, it probably should not crowd that person’s timetable with too much teaching, too many subjects or, even more significantly, too many time-consuming (“box-ticking”) lectures on welfare issues.  In my 35 years of teaching experience, a talented young musician already has quite a good moral compass as well as ambition.  With the best will in the world, even good schools can fall into the reactionary trap of over-teaching and an over-concern for well-being which actually frustrates the educative need for reflection, imitation of good example and, however painful it might sometimes be, practical experience. What works best for an individual is what counts most and this must inform a school’s structures. Structures have always influenced attitudes but now, more than ever before, if structures are uncomfortable or conflicting, a gifted student is just as likely to feel victimized (by the onerous obligations which necessarily accompany that talent) as is a student who has yet to find his/her motivating focus. There is a balance between teaching and learning which we try very hard to get right at Bedales; if we can’t always succeed, how much harder must it be at other schools?”
Despite this warning, the pleasure that Nick has derived from teaching has ripened with the years. “When you start teaching, you’re only a few years older than your pupils. You become a senior sibling of sorts to them and then, some years after that, the relationship is a more parental one, which is the stage I’m probably at now,” he suggests. “The great thing is that at Bedales, you have a perpetual conversation with students which remains a genuinely great delight. I’ve always thought that you get respect from your students in direct proportion to the respect you show them. Music is very good at feeding that sort of exchange.”

Today’s music department at Bedales caters to a more dizzying variety of sound than ever before. Concerts, Rock Shows and Festivals of the highest quality are welded into the DNA of the school. “I can’t micro-manage everything, nor would I wish to,” Nick insists. “We have so many talented people, on both the permanent and visiting staff, that such a situation would be as unnecessary as it would be absurd. The students know, for example, that I have no personal experience of rock music, but we want to have it here and it has to be of the highest standard. I think that we have achieved this.” Perhaps one of Nick’s hardest tasks is to convince some parents that their children are not, after all, musical prodigies. “This difficult task manifests itself more often in the ‘populist’ arena than it does in the ‘classical’ sphere,” Nick observes. “My challenge, our challenge, is to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to achieve their own musical potential. If a student had once been a big fish in a smaller pond and now finds that no longer to be the case, it is my job to work with a parent (who might be temporarily angry or question how we do things) whilst, at the same time, preventing any student from ever feeling crushed.”  

Looking back over his 25 years at Bedales, Nick declines to pick out a single highlight, preferring to celebrate the school’s musical culture and the life-affirming enjoyment it has given him. “I’m proudest of the fact that, at a time when the atmosphere in the country at large seemed to be aiming for the lowest common denominator, we stuck to our guns and kept everything going at a higher level of challenge,” he decides. “The environment in which we operate – with BACs as well as GCSEs, the installation of Pre-U Music in the sixth form, brilliant Rock Shows as well as wonderful Classical Concerts – is what enables us to flourish and to produce music of such profusion and quality.”  That Bedalian environment is clearly particularly special to Nick.  Despite being on sabbatical during the 2012 summer term, he was unable to resist frequent forays back to the music department to check on his charges and their well-being. “Just couldn’t leave it alone,” he laughs. “Studying, teaching and making music mean almost everything to me and I can quite honestly say that working with my charming Bedalian students and brilliant colleagues over so many years has been the greatest privilege. I know that I have been, and continue to be, a very lucky man!” 

Nick was interviewed by James Fairweather in September 2013. Updated January 2015.