★★★  Inter Act  ★★★
with
Dr. Jill White
FRAM FBSM HonRCM HonDMus(Bristol)
Jill White
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1
Emma:
At what age did the promise in your voice become apparent?
Jill:
Almost 14 years old - singing Christmas carols at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve. They told me I had ‘contralto’, so I left and asked mum to ring the doctor as I was ill! Mum didn’t know what contralto was either, so looked it up in the dictionary. We only had a dictionary in the house.

I wasn’t ill! I was then asked to join the church choir and. following that, the organist entered me into singing competitions; I won all the contralto classes, including all ages and all voices. ‘Art Thou Troubled’ and ‘Che Farò Senza Euridice’ served me well at competitions!

I became known as the next Kathleen Ferrier but had no idea who she was. My school cast me as The Mother in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The Leicestershire County Council Music Advisor heard me at one competition and, when I was 15, offered me the Drunkard’s wife in Gluck’s ‘The Reformed Drunkard’. We toured Norway…didn’t know what an opera was…ignorance, curiosity and daring to have a go have served me well, despite having no confidence! I come ftom a working class background - dad was a painter and decorator and mum began work as a scullery maid.
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2
Emma:
Was there music in your family? Did anyone else sing?
Jill:
My dad taught himself the mouth organ whilst in the Army Artillery Unit, serving in North Africa and then Greece, in World War II. Both he and mum sang around the house, mostly lyrical popular songs. The BBC Light Music Programme was our only music and neither joined choirs.

Both my parents were self-taught and they left school at 14 years old. They married during the war (1940) and I was born in 1942 but dad never knew me till 1948, when he was demobbed and I was 6 years old. Mum and I lived with dad’s parents in their 3-up-2-down-outside-lavatory, rented house - just like Coronation Street!

Dad was a Master Craftsmen Painter and Decorator and was very gifted. After the war, he set up his own business and was employed by the aristocracy (including Diana Spencer’s father at Althorp), as he was such a gifted craftsmen. He eventually lectured at Leicester Polytechnic. Both my parents would have been professorial types, had they lived at a later time…that’s why they encouraged me to get into the Grammar School in Market Harborough. I went on to win major scholarships to the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall but I chose the RAM, where I studied with Bruce Boyce. I am completely ‘state educated’ and had to work since I was 8 years old. Yes 8!
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3
Emma:
I know art has a particular significance for you - would you describe for us how?
Jill:
My father’s brothers and sister were all gifted craftspeople...and all were gifted painters. In another life, dad could have been a Journeyman Artist.

I started to draw before my voice was discovered. I entered a National Drawing Competition aged 12 - an open class - and won 1st. Prize! I then won another prize in a Portrait Competition! But once I started singing, I dropped art for music… My parents bought me a honkytonk piano when I was 15. I had piano lessons but was never good as a keyboard player. I think I’ve visited more national art galleries than I have opera houses…but I promised myself that I would return to art, once I’d retired from music!

All arts and sciences are related…and singing and breathing are important for every instrumentalist - I have given lectures on that but a full answer is too long to write out here!
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4
Emma:
What moments in your life would you say were choices, or has fate directed you down your very varied career path?
Jill:
Destiny, fate/coincidence and deliberately putting myself forward have all played an important part in my extraordinary career. Common to all is hard work, honesty, humility and a burning desire to do my very best in everything I do. I am known to be straightforward, persevering, philosophical and optimistic. I believe in a life-force greater than man and that humility and a continuing appetite to learn is more important than making money for egocentric motivation.

I have a deep care of and for others.

I experienced some very frightening things in my childhood and, at 25, lost the man I was going to marry. Shortly afterwards, on the brink of making it as an opera/concert singer in Vienna (whilst on an Austrian Government and Arts Council Scholarship), the family laborador attacked me - unprovoked - and bit me in the throat. It didn’t break its grip! Blood everywhere but he didn’t damage either my vocal cords or my jugular but the damage took over a year to heal.

I returned to Vienna eight months later but then I changed career, registering to become a medical student in London. I popped into the BBC for a part-time job until my studies started at the Middlesex Medical School…but never did do medicine! Eventually, I produced over 3,000 programmes for BBC Radio 3. Therein, a very long tale…a book’s worth actually…
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5
Emma:
Is there any particular music which you always return to listening to?
Jill:
If pushed, I would say Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ and ‘Fidelio’ but too many great works to single any out….Mahler's Symphony no. 8 is deeply important too.
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6
Emma:
Do you prefer instrumental or vocal music?
Jill:
All music is important to me!
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7
Emma:
What do you think makes a good team, musically or otherwise?
Jill:
Humility, hard work, dedication, curiosity and respect for the task in hand and the determination to develop structures of authority that do not have a ‘pyramidal line management structure’. The prepositions ‘with’ and ‘for’ as well as the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ are more more important than ‘I’ and ‘me’!
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8
Emma:
As this stage of the world’s evolution, what do you think ‘classical music’ means now?
Jill:
I need a two-hour lecture to answer this question! If the world fails to understand the value of sound in their lives, humans will bring about their own extinction. I have given long lectures on this topic…the human voice is THE most undervalued instrument for good, politically and in every day life.
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9
Emma:
Do you have a special memory of your BBC broadcasting days?
Jill:
Just too many to list…I have been hugely fortunate to work with legends and develop the early careers of many who have become international artists.
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10
Emma:
Given the ever more prevalent ‘indoors’ and personalized lives that we are being driven towards, do you think that there is still relevance for live players and live performances?
Jill:
Yes and yes!!
Jill White
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11
Emma:
Do you think that music really has the power to heal and if so, how?
Jill:
Classical music has the answer to heal the world…and many cultures around the world have a song for everything.
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12
Emma:
Would you have changed anything in your journey?
Jill:
It was a great pity that I was physically assaulted at the age of 9…it took me another 9 years before I told anyone…I coped with that trauma entirely on my own. It was another sadness that the dog bit me in my throat…but NO, I wouldn’t change anything.

Life is tough at every stage…we must learn to live with our disappointments and use them to gain wisdoms that we otherwise may never learn. I think it is important that young people learn to be resilient, brave, considerate of others and able to handle rejection. Life is one long learning curve and just think how boring that would be were it otherwise!
Jill White
An enormous thank you must go to Jill from me; her abundant and generous answers created a fascinating interview.

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3rd. November, 2022