Obituary: Joan Dickson

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The Independent Online
Joan Katharine Balfour Dickson, cellist: born Edinburgh 21 December 1921; died London 9 October 1994.

THE DEATH of the cellist Joan Dickson will leave a void in the music teaching profession which is unlikely to be filled for some time to come. She was one of the most sought-after teachers in Britain and continued to teach to within a few weeks of her death.

Joan Dickson was born in Edinburgh, the daughter of a lawyer and amateur musician. She recalled that many famous musicians including the gifted and controversial Donald Tovey were frequent visitors to her home. Joan's first music lessons were on the piano at the age of five and she took up the cello at nine. At the first ever performance of the St Matthew Passion in Edinburgh, although only 13, she led the cellos in the second orchestra and played the famous solo.

During the Second World War she taught piano and gave concerts under the auspices of CEMA and ENSA, and in her free time drove a mobile canteen. She had given a debut recital in Edinburgh in 1942 and in 1945 she won a scholarship to study with Ivor James at the Royal College of Music. After leaving college she studied for a short time with Pierre Fournier in Paris, during which time she was fulfilling many solo engagements and made her first foreign tour with the Will Smit Trio. She was also a founder-member of the Andre Mangeot Quartet from 1948 to 1950.

When she was 27 she met the Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi and found the teacher who gave her exactly what she needed. She studied with him for three years in Rome, Salzburg and Lucerne, after which she made her highly successful Wigmore Hall debut. In 1954, she was appointed Professor of Cello at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music where she taught for 27 years. She formed the Edinburgh String Quartet in 1953 but left after five years to join the Scottish Trio. She appeared in her first Prom in 1957 playing Edmund Rubbra's Soliloquy with the LSO under Basil Cameron. She played concertos with the Scottish National Orchestra and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival.

At the invitation of Keith Falkner, she joined the staff of the Royal College of Music in 1967 and remained a professor there until her death. It was when she moved to London that she met the pianist Joyce Rathbone and recognised a kindred spirit. She maintained that Rathbone made her rethink almost everything she did. She once said: 'Her extraordinary intellectual grasp of music has been most beneficial, not only to me - because I'm more intuitive - but also to my teaching.' The partnership and friendship between Dickson and Rathbone remained secure throughout the years. They continued to give annual recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London for many years and a number of modern composers wrote works for them. Their summer school ran for 15 years at Westonbirt School, in Gloucestershire, where the two musicians took their students through the piano trio, quartet and quintet repertoire. They never invited other tutors because they felt that with only two of them there would be no conflict in their ideas. If they occasionally took a different approach, they would let the players decide for themselves.

For many years Dickson also taught at Dartington Summer Course, originally as chamber coach and later taking the cello class. Here she played piano trios with William Glock and Orrea Pernel and also learned a great deal from the other tutors who included Sandor Vegh, Hans Keller and the Amadeus Quartet.

It was at Dartington that Dickson first met the revolutionary teacher Paul Rolland, and he invited her to be a guest teacher at his summer workshop at Exeter University. She was so convinced of the validity of his method that she never returned to Dartington. She once described him 'the moment he started talking about teaching and basic technique, you were transfixed. You realised that he knew his subject and had worked it out in the simplest way and explained everything in words of one syllable.'

Rolland helped Dickson to overcome her own problems and in so doing enabled her to pass on this valuable information to her pupils. She held many strong beliefs about the general approach to teaching and maintained that teachers need to be trained to teach 'some who know they want to teach in the public sector take higher education and achieve qualified teachers' status, but most of the others who attend the conservatories - generally the most talented - do not want to teach. Unfortunately 90 per cent end up teaching in order to pay the rent.'

Another subject in which she was interested was the effect of bad posture on performers, and she made an intensive study of how to root out the cause of problems caused by wrong use of muscles.

Although she was probably one of the best known teachers in Britain and certainly one of the busiest, Dickson did not gain her reputation by taking on only talented pupils. But she also enjoyed taking on younger pupils and achieved excellent results with children as young as eight. This was evidenced in her success at the Purcell School, in Harrow, where she taught for some 16 years. In 1965 she was awarded the Worshipful Company of Musicians' Medal for Services to Chamber Music.

Dickson was emphatic about the need for pupils to become independent of the teacher as soon as possible, and she held strong views about teachers who hold on too long. Once she had taught them the basics of how to study music in ndepth and freed them from bad tensions, she sent them elsewhere.

It was her common-sense attitudes to most aspects of teaching that was the inspiration behind her tireless work for ESTA (European String Teachers Association). Since it was founded in 1973 it remained a very important part of her musical life.

Joan Dickson was that rarity, a fine performer who devoted the main part of her career to teaching bcause she thought she had more to give in that respect. She once told me 'I was never a dazzling cellist. In fact, I always think of myself as a musician rather than a cellist.'

As a person she was loved and respected by her pupils and her colleagues providing they understood straight talking when the need arose. It was her warmth of spirit, her absolute honesty and her innate humility where her own gifts were concerned, that made her a very special human being.

(Photograph omitted)