Dave Milligan


Bill Kinghorn (1935-2021)

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!”

Yes, Bill.

Ever Since It All Clicked

Ever since it all clicked, creating original music has been as important to me as anything else I do, as elemental as breathing. I do it nearly all the time, even when I’m not composing or playing. 

At the age of six, I was sent for piano lessons. I remember being very excited; it seemed like a fun thing to do – my great aunt had showed me how to play a simple tune on our piano, and I loved that. So I guess the idea of doing more – and being able to play ‘properly’ – was very appealing.

As a professional musician and educator, perhaps I’m not expected to say this: but I hated it. After one or two lessons, the magic, fun, joy all disappeared. I pleaded with my mum & dad to let me stop. Everyone seemed to think I showed promise and had a talent for the piano, but I didn’t get it. For almost ten years I was made to go, every Wednesday, despite my efforts to convince my parents that I’d be much happier playing football with friends than stumbling through Bach and Czerny pieces. This is not an uncommon story. Of course, I liked music – as most youngsters did, I listened to the pop charts and bought albums of my favourite groups and dreamt of being in rock bands. But as a teenager I heard Jazz – and something changed. My desire to avoid my Wednesday lessons didn’t change, but it was around this time that my parents finally gave up the fight to get me to go. I realise now that the problem all along was lack of connection – with my teacher, with the music, with the piano. But after almost a decade I could, actually, play. And besides – it had just all clicked.

My dad had a modest but varied record collection. One of the records I remember in particular was “Satch and Josh”, a 1974 recording by Oscar Peterson & Count Basie. This was a record that made we want to play the piano; I started teaching myself some of the melodies I heard, learning to play bits of solos. Other pianists that I remember featuring in the collection included Meade Lux Lewis, Alan Branscombe, Dick Hyman and Art Tatum.

Luckily for me my older brother was slightly ahead of me on his voyage of jazz discovery and even as a teenager was a prolific collector of music (He still is). He always seemed very hungry for new things and I got to hear a lot of things that blew my mind because of him. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Frank Zappa

When I left school I went to study at Leeds College of Music.

Composing music always feels like a deeply rich and rewarding process. I have listened to and loved so very many different pieces of music, from so many different genres (even Bach!), that the language I draw inspiration from is so diverse that it can only be hugely exciting. And it is a language. I think that a composer’s vocabulary is the thing that can define his or her work. When I write, I sometimes think of it as answering; the idea of articulating a response to a conversation makes more sense if you think of music as a language. And it can be a conversation that’s been going on for years. Or maybe it just started that day. I’ve been a musician for over two decades and, oddly, I feel like I’m only just starting to speak.

Music and culture have never been as diverse as they are today. It’s incredibly interesting to witness. Yet in parts of our culture (including music) we’re starting to lose a sense of connection, tenderness and belonging.

One of the more curious aspects of my own writing process that I’ve noticed recently: I’m quite often inspired by rather dark, dissonant and oblique music. Yet in those moments, when I’m moved to write something – respond to it – I very often create something that’s quite the opposite, something almost vulnerable.  Of course, that’s just my take on it, but I guess I’m beginning to get a sense of what moves me to compose music; the desire to communicate or connect – to be in the conversation.

* * * * * * * *

As an improvising musician and composer, my aim has always been to create music that makes me, and others, feel good. At this point in my life, I would say that my aim has become somewhat transfigured: I aim to create music that makes me feel something. While I’m fairly certain I’ll never write anything with the intention of making anyone feel bad, I am now very clear about embracing an approach to creativity that doesn’t involve fear – fear, that is, of producing something that ‘people won’t like’; that’s ‘too dark’, ‘too sad’, ‘too inaccessible’ – or even ‘too happy’. Emotional response to music is personal and unique to each of us. I think I’ve developed as a composer to a degree where I take my own response as the one that matters most.

Spring Can Really Fire You Up The Most

Here we are, Spring.

I spent last week at Ardkinglas House by Loch Fyne. I was  hanging there with some pals from the Pathhead Music Collective, writing, sharing & practicing music. Turned out to be a very creative and inspiring week. Not difficult for me when the view from the piano stool was this:

And, lucky ol’ me, heading off to another residential weekend in Galloway to do some mentoring for the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of The Year finalists.

So, one of the things I’m working on at the moment is a new solo piano album. Can’t say when it will appear, as I just don’t know. But I’ll do my best to make it sooner rather than later. But have to say I’m excited about it – it’s been a long time since I really connected with playing solo piano, but I feel like I have recently. And the decision to make a solo record  happened almost unconsciously.

Been playing the piano in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall quite a lot this last year.

I. Love. That. Piano.

If anyone knows of another piano to rival their Steinway, do let me know.

Also working a lot with choirs at the moment. (I didn’t see that coming).

Currently in the studio with the Big Big Sing project, recording choir resources with fantastic Stephen Deazley, Fraser Fifield, Graeme Stephen, to name a few. All very good for the soul, as are the Big Big Sing live days we’ve been doing around the country. (Next up: South Bank Centre in London on April 20th). The events are led by Stephen along with the incredible Eugene Skeef, who seems to be followed wherever he goes by awesomeness.

Very much looking forward to revisiting some projects and bands later this year: Playing with the Corrina Hewat Band (watch out for some TV we did for BBC Alba recently), returning to the great Førde Festival in Norway with String Sisters in July as well as renewing some projects with my friend Enzo Favata from Sardinia.

But let’s get April done first, shall we? Wonderful.

The Problem Sweet


Yesterday I found myself with an unexpected childcare dilemma. Actually it wasn’t a dilemma at all – my four-year-old daughter got chicken pox last week, and naturally she couldn’t go to nursery as she usually does on a Monday. I reckon she’s past the infectious stage, but rules are rules and we have to wait. Normally this sort of thing is fine – stuff happens and we deal with it. But on this particular Monday I had way more work to do than I should ever have taken on, and with my wife working in the US for two and a half weeks, my options were… well, limited.

I’m faced with some large-scale music to write and arrange; brochures, postcards, posters & CD artwork to design and multiple rapidly-approaching deadlines… and instead of the free day I thought I had to heroically nail each and every one of them, I suddenly have a spotty, but otherwise very happy, active, energetic and eager child to entertain.

So. I made a brave, but ultimately foolish decision to attempt to do both. That is, work and care for my daughter at the same time. The first hour or so was bearable for both of us – I probably got about sixteen bars written and she got dressed up, made tea and cakes for all her toys, followed by some half-hearted colouring. But as lunch time approached, it became clear that neither of us would make it to the end of the day on that particular course, so there was only one thing for it. “We’re going out!” I said with great resolve.

After a bit of wandering and a few dawdles in to various shops, I had a great idea. The Zoo! We hadn’t been for over a year, and what better way to spend the afternoon? I would just have to abandon any notions of prolific creativity (there’s always night time, right?), and Ella would have a hugely exciting adventure – “Think of all the amazing animals we’ll see!” I said to her in the car. She seemed pretty excited.

When we arrived I paid the small fortune it costs to park and enter the zoo, thinking – “It’s worth every penny”, “she’s going to love this” etc. etc.

We wandered in, and the first enclosure we came to was empty. Ella peered through the glass and said, “What is it?”

I read out the sign that informed us they were preparing for a new exhibit: ‘coming soon’ it said. “But look over here – Flamingos!”

“I don’t want to see Flamingos,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like their beaks.”

“Oh. Well look at these guys over here – they look pretty cute, don’t they?”

“What are they?”

“Um…” I read the sign: “Oh, they’re Chinese Goyals. They look a bit like…”

“CLIMBING FRAME!!” screamed Ella, as she started running toward the play area.

Temporarily resigned, I sat and watched her for a few minutes on the climbing frame, trying to compose some music in my head. The part of my brain that processes musical ideas and remembers them was continually being interrupted by the part of my brain that processes the fact that I’d just paid over £30 for Ella to clamber up a climbing frame and hurl herself down a slide, over and over again – an activity that can be done for free within a 5 minute walk from our house.

“Come on Ella. Let’s go see the penguins!” I said, virtually rubbing out the score in my head.

“But I want to play here”

I hunkered down to her sightline, and tried to convey the very adult-orientated notion of going somewhere that costs money and making the most of it – and not spending the time doing things we can do almost anywhere, any time. I could hear myself talking and wasn’t even buying it – it’s no wonder she wasn’t.

But we made our way toward the penguins. We got about 100 yards, and Ella sat down on the knotted roots of a large tree by the side of the path. She was in full role-play mode now. “Pretend this is my house, and you’re a monster coming to visit me for tea.”

It’s one of the things I love most about her – her ability to completely inhabit any make-believe world she conjures up. But I’d hit a wall of tiredness. And frustration. I wanted us to be looking at penguins, because that’s what I’d paid for. I wanted to be spotting weird and wonderful creatures we’d never seen before and saying “what is that?? Wow!!” And I really wanted to be getting my work done.

I sat down on the grass next to her. “I think we should just go home Ella.”

“But I don’t want to go.” she said, busying herself with her new house. I realised that I probably hadn’t made a very good job of hiding how distracted I was all day.

I lay down on my back and looked up into the tree. I’m pretty sure I sighed.

Then she did something amazing. Now, when Ella is in role-play mode she very often ‘chats’ in a sort of adult-mimicking way. She acts out the motions of having quite an expressive and animated conversation, and it rarely makes any sense. This is exactly what she was doing here, but what happened next made more sense to me than anything else that had happened all day. The conversation went like this:

Ella: “Dad?”

Me: “Yes?”

Ella: “I want to talk to you.”

I sat up.

Me: “OK…”

Ella: “There’s problems. You have problems. Everybody has problems.” She was waving her arms about.

At this point I wonder if she even knows what the word ‘problem’ means. I said nothing. Ella reached up toward a branch of the tree and pretended to pull something off it.

Me: “What is that?”

Ella: “It’s a problem sweet.”

She put it in my mouth. I pretended to chew it and made the obligatory ‘Mmmm’ sound.

She looked me very intently in the eye, arched her eyebrows and said: “Do you have a problem?”

I stopped chewing and shook my head.

She pursed her lips, gave her head a firm nod and said: “Good.”

I smiled. The pointed, knowing look in her face turned back into the wee cheeky one from a few moments before. “Can I have an ice cream?”

The rest of our day was beautiful.

Once she was fast asleep in bed, the very fact that I sat to write this down instead of furiously scribbling new music tells me that, once again, my four-year-old daughter has taught me a valuable lesson about what’s important in life.

I think it might be ice cream.