Making Music: a lifelong passion

George Newns, violin

For many years, George Newns was a regular member of the 2nd violins in Solihull Symphony Orchestra and its predecessor, Knowle Sinfonia. Despite failing eyesight, he was able to keep playing until the age of 97 with help from the RNIB's Music Advisory Service, and his story is told in and article from the May 2013 issue of Libretto, the journal of the ABRSM.

Unfortunately, George is no longer able to play, but he remains an Honorary Member of the orchestra, and attends all concerts.

Violin playing was a lifelong passion for 97-year-old George Newns. So, when failing eyesight made his orchestral activities increasingly difficult he turned to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) for help. RNIB Music Adviser and violinist Sally Zimmermann tells his story.

George has been an enthusiastic violinist all his life, taking his ‘best friend’ with him on his travels around the world. His father gave him his first violin in 1925 when he was 10 years old. Still playing at 97, he says ‘it’s a great way to keep young. It keeps your mind active and improves your coordination.’

George has played second violin in the Solihull Symphony Orchestra since it was founded (as the Knowle Sinfonia) in 1990. The orchestra rehearses weekly and gives three concerts a year. For George ‘the orchestra is a great way to make friends’.

So when the damage affecting his eyes, due to age-related macular degeneration, began to take its toll, and George found the music really hard to read, he started his research into what could be done. He first experimented with stand and pedestal lights and this worked for several years. The lights, however, all had their disadvantages and eventually they were no longer adequate.

Enlarging the music photographically on to A3 sheets was the next step, choosing yellow-coloured paper and marking symbols with highlighter pens. The large sheets needed a large music stand and had to be bound in book form to facilitate page turning, so out came the tape and glue. However, sometimes poor quality originals made even poorer quality enlarged copies and the enlargement did not always make bar numbers and dynamic instructions large enough. Moreover, frequently there wasn’t enough space to include additional symbols, such as bowing and finger markings and instructions from the conductor. And the music itself had its own problems. For example, the notes and rests in fast runs remained too close together making reading difficult.

Just when it seemed that the problems were becoming too great for his failing sight, George was put in touch with RNIB’s transcription service which produces Modified Stave Notation (MSN). This can turn ordinary printed music into tailor-made enlargements.

‘A very helpful lady,’ reports George, sent him MSN samples with different sizes, different layouts and different coloured paper. George then spent time imagining how his orchestral music would look in each layout. Eventually, he contacted RNIB's Music Advisory Service (MAS) with his analysis. He described his eye problems and listed the problems he had encountered. He also went on to list the solutions to those he had solved and made suggestions for further modifications that might help. These went beyond changing the size and shape of the music to editorial changes, such as leaving out some notes.

From theory to practice
A page of the orchestra's repertoire, Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, was sent to MAS. The team at MAS not only modified it, taking into account George’s requests, but also supplied a detailed description of the changes made. George was pleased with the new copy and said it was ‘without doubt a great improvement on the enlargements I have hitherto been working on’. However, there were still plenty of things that could be improved – further enlargements or extra space – and additional versions were exchanged.

Eventually MAS produced a computer file of the transcript, the orchestra’s chairman (a computer expert) made the first print, the orchestra’s librarian pieced it together on A3 yellow-tinted paper and, finally, George stuck it together in book form. The problem had been solved.

The enlargement necessitated more frequent page turns but this was a minor disadvantage compared to the enormous advantages of the MSN transcript. Then another problem arose. The librarian was experiencing difficulty over the legality of making accessible copies – dealt with by a little publicity about the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002.

At last George played the Mendelssohn symphony in a concert, using MSN for three of the four movements. Afterwards George said the quick passages were ‘beautifully spaced and clear’ and he ‘wasn't confused by tail markings or double stopping’. For his next concert, George asked for a slightly larger copy. As his preferred settings for individual elements in the music had been saved, it was a moment's work to execute his request. The next concert had more complicated music. Again scores were produced with discussion as to modifications. After the concert George reported: ‘I was very pleased with my own performance because I did better than I thought I might.’

The determination of George had paid dividends. Having clearer music on the stand is, though, only part of the music making. George continues that ‘at 97 you have on and off days and I think on the concert day I had one of my on days.’ He sums up his playing: ‘I'm absolutely sure that because I didn't give up, my nimbleness and mental alacrity have lasted longer than they would otherwise have done and I’ve been able to benefit from the joy and exultation of playing beautiful music with people of like minds. And this in one's old age is a wonderful thing.’

Sadly, George has now lost his sight completely, but still wanted his story to be told. May others be encouraged by George!

© The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Musici 2013

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