At age 26, following the birth of her fifth child, wife of Roger Best, principal viola with the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, she took up the double bass. She had played the cello from the age of 14 and studied that instrument at the Royal Manchester College of Music, qualifying at the age of 19.
Largely self taught on the bass, adapting her cello technique, she inadvertently broke the convention that the bassist does not use the third finger and used the so-called ‘guitar’ pattern of fingering. Within a few months of becoming a bassist, she began appearing alongside principal bass Bryan Maynard in the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra as a freelance second bass.
Gary Karr appeared as soloist with the orchestra and his astonishing virtuosic prowess convinced her that she needed to learn how to extend her range from the orchestral two and a half octaves to the four octaves plus needed for solo playing. She spent two months in Halifax Nova Scotia where Karr was bass professor at the University of Nova Scotia. Working intensively for up to six hours a day on the ‘Bel Canto’ exercises developed by Karr she created the basis of a technique, enabling her to take her first steps as a soloist.
Solo bassists were scarce at that time; female ones were even more so. Being tall and blonde turned out to be a useful attribute in that, as confessed by one impresario who booked her to play…. ‘Even if it sounded awful, at least there would be something good to look at!’… That would be all very sexist nowadays, but quite useful at the time.
Not being a full time orchestral member and despite the five children, there were many teaching and playing opportunities locally and life was extremely busy for some ten years or so. With a problematic marriage, there was a split and, with the five children, she relocated to rural North Wales to the beautiful Cwm Pennant valley which has been her home on the family farm ever since. (Roger Best moved to London, continuing his illustrious career as soloist, as member of the Alberni Quartet and becoming Professor of Viola at the Royal College of Music)
With considerably reduced earning possibilities she became even more reliant on her solo career and forceful in its development. She sought out any and every opportunity to find work and became a fairly familiar figure not only at the Purcell Room and Wigmore Hall in London, but also in the television chat shows which were popular at the time. She became a regular at Pebble Mill and gained significant street cred with her children and their friends when she appeared alongside the racing driver Jackie Stewart and the hugely popular comedian Spike Milligan. Apart from the extended publicity, these appearances paid more for a five minute slot than did a whole recital or concerto booking.
Repertoire increased steadily, with a strong emphasis on works which general audiences might find familiar. Initially these were light music Classics such as Meditation from Thais by Massenet, Andaluza by Granados and Vaughn Williams’ arrangement of Greensleeves which showed that the solo bass was equal to the task of expressing these pieces with conviction and emotion. Progressing to more ‘serious’ works led to Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, often played on viola or cello since the arpeggione itself no longer exists. Bach’s solo cello suites and gamba sonatas were satisfyingly challenging as were the original works for solo bass of Bottesini and Koussevitzky. Less appealing were Dittersdorf’s more lumpy works as they did not have the same wide melodic lines and range. Gradually, with the increasing fame of Gary Karr’s work, more contemporary composers began to write for his style of bass playing. Paul Ramsier’s Suites became particular favourites as did those of Serge Lancen. She commissioned works from young British composers with ‘Welsh Incident’ by Gareth Glyn an exciting project, composed for Criccieth Festival in 1990.
Since the start of her solo career, performing to schools was a priority and over the years, she honed those skills through storytelling, using Bartholomew the Beautiful Bass as the main character.
She became adept at playing to big audiences of small people, often to the whole school, taking up the challenge of keeping the attention of so many youngsters in her stride. Short and snappy music threaded into an attention gripping tale with plenty of joining in and visual interest.
Three times she toured the Channel Islands, including Sark which does not allow cars and where the bass had to be transported in a cart pulled by a horse. A film of one of these tours was made by ITV Wales which used, as background music, the pieces which were recorded during the concerts.
Teaching the Gary Karr approach to bass playing has been a significant part of her career, since passing on the technique ensures its continuation. Part time peripatetic work for Gwynedd Music service, teaching both cello and bass meant that she had a ready pool of enthusiastic youngsters with whom to work and hone not only their playing, but also her teaching skills. Part of this involved double bass quartets and practising the Bel Canto exercises in a group. The marvellous sound of twenty basses in unison playing across the whole range of the instrument is quite something to experience. Her double bass workshops as part of the North Wales Summer School were well attended and exciting affairs.
Finding a pianist willing and able to learn new works and put in the hard graft needed to produce full recital programmes was often a challenge. Notable were Jacqueline Metcalfe in Newcastle, John Wilson in Manchester, Jennifer Russell and Angela Chidell in London, Helen Davies in Anglesey as well as Mai Newman in Bangor.
She was approached by the CEO of Pelham Books after one of her London concerts, to write an autobiographical account of her bass playing career to date in 1983. At their meeting, when she claimed that she did not know how to write a book, he waved away her protestations saying “Just write exactly the same way as you talk”. She took him at his word and “Another String to my Bow” was the result. It is a light, sometimes hilarious account of how to blaze a trail on the double bass whilst trying to bring up a family of five. It sold well despite being published during the same week as the biography of the world famous pianist John Ogden which garnered most of the publicity. Her book can be found on Amazon books. (click here)
By the late 1980’s, having recorded an album of light classics, she realised that much of her strength as a performer lay in her ability to connect with an audience as she talked about the solo bass and its repertoire and of her own experiences as a woman playing this seemingly ungainly instrument. Through her TV appearances, she learnt to think quickly and develop light hearted comedic banter with her interviewers. Becoming more attracted to this side of performing, she fortuitously heard a pianist who seemed to have what she needed to pursue this path.
In her position as Artistic Director of the newly formed Criccieth Festival, she engaged the Max Jaffa Trio for an evening show. As a young girl, she had been enthused on the radio by the Sunday night Light Programme ‘Palm Court at the Grand Hotel’ and had been enchanted by the violinistic skills of Max Jaffa and his orchestra. Max was in his eighties by the time he came to Criccieth but his new pianist was only twenty five and as soon as she heard him play, she knew that he was exactly the kind of pianist that she wanted to work with. Maurice Horhut brought a perfect skill to the project , not only as a hugely gifted pianist across all styles of music but a capacity to understand what would work in a bass/piano duo. There began a more than five year collaboration where all manner of possibilities were explored and the recital became a fully fledged ‘show’ entitled ‘SLAP AND TICKLE’…..implying ‘Slap the Bass Tickle the Ivories’.
Her first visit to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival was a one woman show entitled ‘Lady on a Double Bass’. It was followed by several more as a duo with Maurice in which they not only played significant works such as a Porgy and Bess Suite, an arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodie No.2, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and a comical arrangement of The Pink Panther. Their opening number was a novel arrangement of ‘The Stripper’…..
Discussing an alternative opening to the strip routine, they considered a pastiche of a conjurer’s performance during which magic tricks could be an introduction to producing the bass from inside its cover. Maurice laughed and said ‘Then you can saw the bass in half….can you play the saw?’ They both understood immediately that this was too good an idea to ignore.
Taking a cello bow to the nearest B &Q store, she tried several saws and found one which, being very cheap, was also very pliable and discovered that she could get some notes out of it. Taking it home, working very hard and putting up with some awful noises, she finally found its voice and it first appeared in Skegness playing a short medley of Viennese Waltzes. Restricted by only just over a one octave range, she contacted the saw’s makers in Doncaster who helpfully made one twice as long and with almost two octaves a far bigger repertoire has become possible. She now has a significant repertoire ranging from Over the Rainbow through Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to Avo Paert’s Spiegel im Spiegel.
In 1991, as a very new saw player, she went to Los Angeles to compete in the International Festival of the Musical Saw, held at Disneyland. She competed in two categories, namely ‘Classical’ and ‘Novelty’. She won both competitions and became a double International Champion. Many years later she returned with her saw to New York to take part in another Musical Saw Festival which was no longer competitive. By this time, much more experienced, she performed Rimsky Korsakov’s Song of India.
In the middle nineties, disaster struck as an old injury to her hip caused arthritis to set in and very soon it became impossible to carry the bass, to stand and play it and to do the essential daily practice. ‘Slap and Tickle’ gave its last performance in Holyhead’s Ucheldre Centre in 1995.
Having been appointed as an Examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, there then began many years of travel across all parts of the UK and Ireland as well as lengthy spells in the Far East and Africa. After an operation the hip was restored, but a significant left shoulder problem which defied diagnosis and treatment, prevented a proper return to performance. A combination of caring for ageing parents next door on the farm, meant that the solo world was closed off. Occasional chamber music and orchestral work gradually dried up, and her reputation as a notable bass soloist was gradually forgotten.
She met Dr Bernd Atenstaedt, lawyer and businessman, through her abiding interest in politics and they were married several years later. Bernd shares her love of Snowdonia, having first visited as a schoolboy in the fifties and deciding to make his home in the UK. Although not a musician, Bernd is a great encouragement and offers practical help whenever it is needed.
Following the death of her parents, she returned to the cello in an effort to indulge the one ambition she had never fulfilled: to perform all six of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites. This she did and once again took advantage of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival to prove that she still could perform as a soloist and enjoy the experience.
She had already initiated a local concert series entitled Music in Criccieth which presents Sunday afternoon small scale concerts and these still continue, as do the ones she presents during the Criccieth Festival.
To raise money towards buying a piano for a local community venue, she formed a Baroque Quartet with long time friends and professional colleagues, violinists Edward Davies and Gillian Radcliffe and with harpsichordist Helen Davies. It proved so successful and enjoyable that they decided to continue playing together and gave many concerts in North Wales and in the Midlands. This only ended when Edward and Helen moved away from Anglesey.
In 2018 Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis visited her and spent a happy few days taking in the sights on the Ffestiniog Railway and discussing old times. Gary played her bass and pronounced it as being ‘unplayable’ because of the way it had been set up. He encouraged her to have it corrected and in November she took part in a commemorative programme on Remembrance Sunday alongside her old student David Heyes who had composed a special series of works inspired by the First World War. This return to performing galvanised her to return to developing once again, her Bel Canto technique which returned reasonably quickly.
In June 2019 to celebrate the year of her 80th birthday, alongside her perfect pianistic partner, Maurice Horhut they presented a Slap & Tickle programme during the Criccieth Festival in June which was very well received by an enthusiastic audience.
Since 1977 she has been keeping bees in Cwm Pennant and produces fine and relatively rare Welsh mountain honey which is increasingly difficult to find, as crops encroach into previously wild areas. Bees can fly three and a half miles in any direction and the valley, being seven miles long and wide ensures that her bees can forage only over uncultivated land.
Her home, a cottage almost derelict when she took it over, has been lovingly restored largely by herself, learning woodworking and other building skills as she coped with demands for more space as her family grew. Although still able to climb ladders to clear gutters, she has reluctantly had to concede some of the more recent improvements into the hands of professionals. The place has become a haven for family and friends to visit far from the madding crowd and it continues to resound to the sounds of double bass and musical saw on most days…..