A personal tribute to Christine Pembridge:1926-2011

I studied the piano with Christine Pembridge in Brighton from the beginning, aged 5, until I left school at 18. The influence she had on my life is immense, profound, immeasurable and irreplaceable. Christine did not just teach me about playing the piano: she taught me about all aspects of music and indeed life. The skills she taught me are not only about playing the piano, but all aspects of music, performance of all kinds, teaching, communication, leadership and love. The principles she instilled in me are ones that I call on every day of my life, and have been a direct part of everything successful I have ever done.

One of Christine’s great principles was that the role of a teacher should be to make themselves redundant, that is, the aim should be for the student to become independent of the teacher. The best way of doing that is to teach someone how to teach, because then they can teach themselves as well as others. Although I am mainly a teacher of mathematics, I still apply that principle; it is my guide for how to be a good teacher.

Chopin Ballade no. 3

From the Memorial Concert for Christine Pembridge, 12 March 2012

With Christine Pembridge and my parents after my performance of the Grieg piano concerto with the (high) school.

One way in which Christine taught us this was to hold masterclasses for all her pupils before competitions, in which we all gathered in her music room and performed our pieces to each other. Afterwards, everyone was required to give constructive criticism in turn, without repeating any criticism that had already been given. Even the smallest pupils did this, from the age of 5 up to 18. We learnt to listen attentively and critically. It was an exacting but edifying experience. Now performance criticism comes very easily to me, and I always prepare for concerts by recording myself and listening critically. Moreover, I am not daunted by performance of any kind, whether it’s a piano concerto or a maths lecture to an audience of some of the fiercest mathematicians on earth, or – perhaps worse – an audience of sceptical teenagers.

Last, but certainly not least, these masterclasses created a feeling of strong camaraderie among Christine’s pupils.  She had no children herself, and often said that we, her pupils, were her children. In that sense, her pupils were all brothers and sisters. There are certainly “family” traits among us, and I can feel these even when I meet pupils of hers from different generations with whom I have no directly shared experience.  This is how deep her teaching runs.

It is impossible to sum up in words everything that Christine meant and continues to mean to me. As a small expression of this, I organised, along with several other pupils, a concert in her memory in March 2012. 13 of her pupils played, ranging from the age of 9 to 73, to an audience of several hundred.

Probably the greatest thing I can do in her memory is to continue playing music and passing on as much of her teaching as I can. The last time I saw her, I didn’t know it would be the last time, but in retrospect I realised that she knew; I suppose those close to death have a clearer vision of these things. We listened to a recording of me performing the Ballade no. 3 by Chopin, which she chose out of all the recordings I had brought with me to the hospice. As she walked me out she said,

“Thank you for putting that lovely tune back in my head!” and then she said “You’ll be playing the piano for the rest of your life, won’t you.”

I thought it was an extraordinary question as the answer was so obviously yes, but then I thought about how few people actually continue performing on the piano when it isn’t their full time job. Christine was always very tickled by and proud of the fact that I was a mathematician and a pianist. I still marvel at the fact that my continuing to play the piano was something that could give her such joy all the way to her death. But that’s how she was – when her performing career was cut short, she was utterly dedicated to her pupils.

She kissed me goodbye with so much love; I have never seen so much love inscribed on anyone’s face.

Her influence on me was so valuable and important that I dedicated my first book, “How to Bake Pi” to her memory.