Mr Shoenherr arrived at the school in 1964 in his red Skoda Octavia estate car. He had apparently been unannounced, introduced only by a large assortment of musical instruments in the back of his car, all of which he could play. He was hired on the spot; so the story goes anyway. His name was German (meaning beautiful master), but he originated in Czechoslovakia – a country which no longer exists – and he regarded himself as Czech, hence the car. He didn’t speak about it, but apparently he had had a difficult war with the Nazis, and a difficult peace in its communist aftermath, which had resulted in his exile to the UK.
My earliest memory of Mr Schoenherr was as a fourth former being taught to play the recorder as part of our music lesson. Actually I remember nothing of actually playing the recorder, but only of marching round the school with our recorders over our shoulders rifle fashion while he looked for a classroom where our frightful whistling would not disturb anyone else. I don’t think he ever found anywhere, and our recorder playing came to an abrupt halt. The music block was the obvious place, but we started there and soon received plentiful complaints, even from the musicians themselves.
About a year later, when I was aged 15, both the double bass players in the school orchestra left, and an urgent call went out for two pupils to learn the instrument. I put myself forward together with my friend Bill Wragge. We both were learning the piano, so we had a grounding in music, but virtually no experience of string playing. I had learnt the basics of violin playing at the age of ten but that was of limited use as the bass is tuned in fourths rather than fifths, so the fingering is all different.
Because the school needed us rather than vice versa we never had to pay for learning the instrument, which may account for the limited instruction we received. Luckily most of the bass parts we had to play were simple. Although bass music can be incredibly difficult it can also be very easy, with one or two notes to the bar and plenty on open strings, and with the school orchestra it was mostly the latter.
Our teacher on the double bass was Mr Schoenherr. His method was to seize the instrument and demonstrate how he played a piece. He would then hand back the bass while we made inadequate efforts to copy him. His broken English did not help the lessons go well, and they never lasted very long. His frustration at our poor musicality would drive him to distraction. We never progressed beyond the first position and the basic one octave scales in E, G, A, C, and D. Even then I think top D was a bit too far. Most of our learning came from practising on our own. It was an inauspicious start to my bass playing career, and it did not really take off until ten years after I had left school, when I actually paid for lessons. I never would have taken the instrument up again if my father had not bought me a double bass which stood there in the basement at 29 Surrey Street asking to be played. It asked in vain for 10 years. I also took up the recorder again at the same time, playing the tenor he had also bought me. I had not been without a musical instrument in the interim, but it was the guitar I played.
Having had difficult life as I have suggested, Mr Schoenherr was appalled by the easy lives the gilded youth of Gresham’s lived. “You haff too much money” was his frequent cry. We didn’t feel well off at all, but of course he was quite right; we did have, or at least our parents had provided us with a disproportionate wealth that we had done nothing to deserve. Other members of staff may have thought the same thing, but it was only Mr Schoenherr who said it. He was always very straight with us, and we liked him for it.
And then one day he disappeared. There were many rumours about where he had gone and what had happened to him, but we never had an official explanation; what ghost from his past had emerged to take him we never knew. He went as mysteriously as he had come. He lived in the Melton Constable area and had two sons, a little younger than me, and a Scottish wife. His family remained. The boys did not attend Gresham’s school although as the children of a staff member I’m sure they could have done; it was a school their father plainly disapproved of. I believe that one of them became an optician who practises in Gorleston.