I recently learned of the passing of William (Bill) Kinghorn at the age of 86. He was Senior Lecturer in Harmony and Composition at Leeds College of Music from the early 1970’s until his retirement in 1995.
He was also my piano teacher for the last two years of my time as a student there, and hearing of his death I can’t help but reflect on the impact he had on me.
Apart from a couple of visits in the few years after leaving Leeds, I hadn’t seen Bill for the best part of 25 years. I have thought of him often over that time; to this day I still carry his teaching and musical insight in to my own practice and in particular my own teaching. But in April of this year he was, weirdly, on my mind more than usual. I was trying to re-work and finish a tune for a project, and had a flashback to the old college practice rooms, and my 21-year-old self; struggling to string two notes together, let alone a whole piece. And Bill came to mind, as he regularly did. I found myself wondering after his well-being; where was he? Was he even still out there? Must be well in to his 80s now… He was the most humble of men and never appeared to have any interest in publicity or profile or indeed any of the things that makes music a business. I found a website under his name which was, I suspect, not updated too often. It lists his compositional works and gives some biographical information, but other than that he appeared to be almost invisible to the world wide web. How extraordinary that such a deeply thoughtful, creative, inspirational and prolific composer & musician could remain so unsung to the rest of the world, save the countless students and colleagues who were lucky enough to have known him. I hovered over the ‘contact’ page with a fleeting notion to send an email to the address listed. “ I doubt he’d even remember me” I think was the feeble thought as I closed the page. Damn.
I went back to my tune – kind of based on a hornpipe – and got it finished. I don’t know if Bill had any passion for hornpipes or the like, but I felt like he helped me over the finish line – so I named it for him: “King Bill’s Hornpipe”. Today I realised that he had died just a few weeks later.
I studied piano with him in my third year at LCM and continued through my post-graduate year. I was actually all set to leave the college after my second year and move to London. My plan was to study with John Taylor at the Guildhall. Bill said to me “That sounds wonderful, but you do know he’s on the road a lot of the time? You mightn’t get too many lessons.” Ha! Maybe he was just doing his bit as course leader to keep the student fees coming in, but we chatted round it and he encouraged me to stay at Leeds and study piano with him; I’ve never doubted that was the right decision for me since.
My memories of those years are precious and vivid. Before Bill was my piano teacher, I often used to practice in a room that was next-door to his office in the old Civic Theatre building. (Was it C14?)
Initially it didn’t occur to me that he could hear me, until one day the door burst open and he was standing in the doorway:
“What are you doing”? He asked, gently but wearily.
“Um… I’m… practicing?”, said I.
“Practicing what? What is it you’re trying to achieve? If it’s Carpal-tunnel syndrome, then I’ll just leave you to it.”
Wait, this is what musicians do, isn’t it? We need to stay in shape, work out. Technique’s all-important, right? Gotta stay fit! I reckon that would have been my thought process anyway.
He walked over, pulled up a chair, and closed my prized copy of Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist on the music stand.
“You can clearly play it – but I don’t think there’s much to be gained by repeating it hundreds of times”
In the space of half an hour, the scales and exercises I was compulsively torturing myself (and him) with, had gone. They stopped being mechanical; He turned them in to music. He drew some lines on a piece of manuscript; no notes or stems or beams – just diagonal lines. “Play that instead.” He talked of shapes, gestures, colours, light. It was a huge turning point for me. I’m not sure I even opened the Hanon book again: Soon after that – as my teacher – he was encouraging me to design my own exercises.
I also started using a different practice room.
His extensive knowledge (and love) of the music of Bill Evans was well-known and much-admired, and I’d say all of his students benefited from that. A strong memory from my post-graduate year was working on a Chopin prelude. We covered very little classical repertoire but Bill had an incredible way of analysing music and demonstrated these amazing connections between the Chopin and a transcription he had done of one of Evans’ recordings. It was like a mine of harmony, texture and tone-control; but I was starting to get frustrated as we had spent what seemed like several weeks on going over and over just the first 8 bars of the prelude. I remember thinking “at this rate, we’re never going to get to the end of this before I leave college!” Then at the point where it felt like we might move on to bar 9, he said “Okay. Play the whole thing”. I’d love to say that a consummate rendition followed. Not even close, of course, but the point was I felt – for the first time – like I was starting to understand how to interpret music in a way that was meaningful to me. The lessons were often small in terms of content; but the impact was always huge. He rarely ‘showed’ you how to do something. He would challenge you to figure it out; teaching you to teach yourself.
He had an ebullient but gentle manner that inspired so many students. His slight figure, most often adorned by a bow-tie or hand-knitted tie, belied his considerable presence in the environs of the City of Leeds College of Music. Cheeky humour but proper FUNNY; quiet wisdom, always delivered with humility. His approach to harmony – ‘functional harmony’ – is still fundamental to the way I educate, and I love that I still remember him (and learn something new) every time I teach a class. His harmony classes were fascinating and entertaining: looking at a room of perplexed faces as he analogised harmony to the orbiting of satellites and planets, he’d say: “Do you understand? Say ‘yes’, Bill!”