Harpenden Musicale

40 years of music making in Harpenden

We started Harpenden Musicale in 1977. Husband and wife Gill and David Johnston invited some of their pupils to play in the front room of their Cravells Road cottage.

David Johnston. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

Gill Johnston. Credit: Harpenden Musicale








Gill was a Guildhall graduate and bassoonist and David, a clarinettist, read music at Queens University in Belfast before moving to study at London University’s Institute of Education.

Gill did her teaching at home, surrounded by the four children who arrived in very quick succession, while David was Head of Instrumental Teaching for the London Borough of Barnet.

From our front room … to a room High Street Methodist Church

We had not planned to set up a music school, and we had no idea of the incredible interest in the Harpenden area for music making opportunities. The group which met in our front room wanted to meet again, and ‘could they bring along some friends?’  But the front room was not big enough!

A room was hired in the High Street Methodist Church to accommodate the rising numbers. A red tin was used to collect 50p from each player who turned up on a Tuesday evening. The money was collected by a helping parent.


At this point, we asked the members to choose a name for the group. The name Harpenden Musicale was chosen. ‘Musicale’ in the dictionary means a ‘private musical gathering’ and right from the outset, we wanted all the activities to be completely self funding, and this has been the case to this day.

Then came another development. A parent enquired if we could give violin lessons. The answer was “no”, but we knew someone who could. Before long, parents were offering rooms with a piano in their houses, and teachers would arrive to do an evening’s teaching with pupils arriving every half an hour. It was not long before every orchestral and band instrument was catered for.

The group activities also grew. Soon there were 5 wind bands and three orchestras all graded to match abilities and an adult stage band was formed. Music making for 4 – 7 year olds was started in which the whole idea was to gradually introduce children to instruments with a view to learning one from the age of 7.

Launching the shop

Station Master’s House – offices and Musicale shop in the 1980s, it was demolished in 1988. Credit: LHS archives

David had a meeting with a good friend of his, a fine amateur bassoonist, but also a Barclays Bank Manager in Islington. He remembers a very pleasant lunch over which it was decided that £5000 was needed to start a music shop. In those days, a business plan was unheard of and anyway, David didn’t know what a business plan was!

We opened our music shop, which was housed in the attic of the now demolished Station Master’s House, at the same time as the birth of our second son. Gill was known to have been placing trade orders while waiting to go into labour! The shop was run by Gill’s parents, Mr and Mrs Dent with David assisting from time to time. It has always specialised in the education market. Today the shop boasts a very good sheet music stock servicing a healthy customer base including school music departments. It also supplies student instruments to pupils and their teachers all over the country and abroad.

5th anniversary in the Royal Festival Hall

Buses setting off for the Royal Festival Hall. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

It was decided to celebrate the first five years of Harpenden Musicale by holding a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The players travelled in fifteen double decker buses to their rehearsal, and the audience arrived for the afternoon concert. Imagine a packed Royal Festival Hall with an audience from one town. Everybody knew everybody else. The atmosphere was fantastic. At this time a Parents Association was formed, and money was raised to buy the expensive instruments such as the bassoon, baritone saxophone, tuba and so on.

Two more projects appeared

The first was ‘Musicale Holidays’. These are 5 day non residential courses held at venues all over Britain during the summer holidays.

The courses cater for instrumentalists of all ages and abilities and also for children who do not yet play a musical instrument.

The other project was the Musicale Primary Schools’ Instrumental Teaching Scheme.

Musicale offers a package to parents in which they can have tuition, and buy an instrument by paying a monthly amount. It is a direct arrangement between Musicale and the parents, and costs the school nothing.

By 1982

The shop was on the High Street.

There was the ‘cottage industry’ of tuition every night in houses all over Harpenden while the Methodist Church Halls and rooms were booked 4 nights a week.

Musicale Holidays was growing and so to was the Primary Schools’ Instrumental Teaching Scheme

Keeping sight of all that was going on was becoming a full time affair. There was the famous occasion when the Harpenden Bank Manager who was a parent, asked David if he realised that he was running a business!

National Children’s Wind Orchestra

Then in 1984 we set up a charity called the National Children’s Wind Orchestra. The first course held at Oakham School had 45 members. Today the charity has grown to three chamber orchestras and three wind orchestras, and in the summer of 2000 our National Youth Chamber Orchestra appeared at the BBC Proms.

1986 – the big turning point

The Bourne, Salisbury Avenue. home to Musicale from 1986 to 2000 – soon after it was demolished. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 13407

The Bourne, a beautiful three storey Edwardian House in Harpenden with its own concert hall, pipe organ and beautiful grounds came on the commercial market. This was the home of the Williams School of Church Music which was closing down. Yes there were two schools of music in Harpenden at this time!!

A well connected parent asked to meet with us to discuss the acquisition of the building. It was decided to form Musicale PLC which would have shareholders, and a board of directors. This was a business expansion scheme set up by the Thatcher government. People paying high rates of tax could obtain considerable relief if they invested in small businesses. Suddenly Gill was Managing Director, and David was the company secretary. The chairman and the rest of the board were all very successful businessmen, and the first board meeting was an eye opener for us.

This was an incredibly busy time of consolidation. Everything, including the shop could now happen under one roof, and there was even the luxury of office space. There was an increasing national interest in what was going on in Harpenden, and Musicale was the subject of a full page spread in the Telegraph as an example of a successful business expansion scheme.

Musicale at The Barbican

At the Barbican Centre. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

At the same time as moving into the Bourne, we embarked on another London venue concert, this time at the Barbican. Once again this major concert venue was filled with the good people of Harpenden and the surrounding districts, and the whole event was a rip roaring success.


On stage at the Barbican. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

Musicale Young Artists’ Programme

Our next project was to set up the Musicale Young Artists’ Programme, inspired by our visit to the Tanglewood Music Festival in America. Using St George’s School, which has its own boarding department, David attracted players from all over Britain as well as locally to form the Musicale Young Artists’ Wind and Symphony Orchestras. These groups rehearse alongside junior and intermediate courses for a week in August to perform in the Harpenden Music Festival.

Harpenden Music Festival – final orchestral concert in Harpenden Public Hall. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

In the Festival there are lunchtime recitals given by the most senior players of the Young Artists’ Programme, most of whom are looking to go to music college. Members of the public come in and out during their lunch hour, and the concerts are very well attended. Professional artists perform in the evening. All members of the course are expected to attend and entry is free for them. The general public also attends, producing a unique atmosphere.  Recent performers have included the Fine Arts Brass, Duel, The Kings Piano Trio, Nash Ensemble, the Apollo Saxophone Quartet, Dominic Seldis, Guy Johnston, the Navarra Quartet and Julian Bliss.

All of this is definitely the highlight of the Musicale Year.

Musicale Young Instrumentalist Competition

The Musicale Young Instrumentalist Competition was the next project. The prize was a concerto opportunity with the National Youth Chamber Orchestra and the competition, which was held over a series of weekends, attracted a nationwide entry.

Each weekend would produce an afternoon and evening concert in front of a large audience in the beautiful Bourne Concert Hall. During the following week, players going through to the final concert would be informed. The final concert was adjudicated by well known national educators, names include George Caird from the Birmingham Conservatory and Jill White from the National Youth Orchestra. Many of the players who took part are now in the profession. Since that time the competition has evolved, and is now known as the Musicale Eisteddfod which embraces all standards. Recent adjudicators have included Nicholas Daniel and Dominic Seldis. Prizes still include a concerto opportunity and free membership of the Young Artists’ Programme.

Musicale PLC

In 1990, the chairman of Musicale PLC invited David to take up a full time position. The company had recently acquired the license to manufacture and distribute the Lyons C Clarinet worldwide. David felt he had done all he could at the London Borough of Barnet, and the invitation was a very timely one. The C Clarinet introduced David to the delights of working with a manufacturing company, and he also found himself travelling far and wide promoting the instrument which was a small lightweight clarinet designed for use by children not big enough for the conventional instrument. As well as this, David also got more involved in the day to day running of Harpenden Musicale, and as the Millennium approached Musicale now operated:-

  • The music school
  • The shop
  • The Holiday Music Courses, incorporating the Musicale Young Artists’ Programme and the Harpenden Music Festival.
  • The Primary Schools Instrumental Teaching Scheme
  • The Eisteddfod and
  • The Lyons C Clarinet

In 1999 local developers approached the board of Musicale PLC with an offer to buy them out of their lease. The offer was substantial and was accepted. The only problem was where to move to!

Move from The Bourne

David approached St George’s School, which Musicale used for its summer courses. St George’s were very interested, and it was agreed that it would be possible for Musicale to move into the ‘Old Sanitorium’ Plans were drawn up from which it was possible to have a sizeable studio, a generous reception area, 12 teaching rooms, storage rooms and 3 offices. There was also space for car parking. The building work and refurbishment took almost a year.

Harpenden “Community Music Centre”, Sun Lane. Credit: Harpenden Musicale

Musicale moved into its new premises in April 2000

At the same time we offered to buy out the shareholders in Musicale PLC. This was a windfall for our loyal supporters and the board, who had given up so much of their time in the running of Musicale. All the shareholders accepted, and we once again found ourselves sole owners of the business.

This position made us a little nervous. Now there was no-one to turn to for advice, and so we appointed a retired business sector Bank Manager to be at the ready to input any time we needed him. In the first three months he was ‘like a bull in a china shop’. Coming to the business from the outside showed up many bad habits. Everything was scrutinized from the wheely bin collections to the gas supplier. Musicale even changed its accountants, and the office became fully networked to cope with the ever increasing demand, which now included a significant growth in the numbers of adults wanting to learn an instrument. Twice a year, Musicale organises an ‘adults only’ day in which adults can try out any instrument of their choosing in the company of an instructor and sign up for lessons. Television programmes with the likes of Jo Brand playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall have definitely sparked an interest, and now Musicale has its own Adult Band and String Group.

Instrumental teaching for St George’s

In 2004, St George’s School asked Musicale to take over their instrumental teaching from the Hertfordshire County Music Service. Up until this time Musicale was renting the building from St George’s and St George’s was renting Musicale’s rooms for the visiting peripatetic teachers. This was a ludicrous situation and coupled with this, the Head of Music at the school wanted to devote more time to the classroom provision, and was more than happy to relinquish the burocracy of organising teaching timetables and everything else that was involved.

Musicale – a ‘Community Music Centre’

Today, Musicale is still thriving, and now calls itself a ‘Community Music Centre’ offering musical activities to three month old babies right through to octogenarian saxophonists.

Regular meetings of the management team produces a continuous stream of initiatives and projects, and it is true to say that, like New York, Musicale never sleeps!

The photos below have been selected to illustrate the many activities and young musicians over the past 40 years. They are deliberately not dated or labelled.

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