Blodwyn Whitehead – 1932 to 2015

On Wednesday morning, 6 January 2016, the Burleigh Heads Uniting Church was filled to overflowing with family, friends, associates and members of the Blackstone-Ipswich Cambrian Choir who had come together to farewell, and celebrate the life of, Blodwyn Gwladys Whitehead OAM.

Blodwyn, her husband John and members of her family have had a long and distinguished association with the Choir. Blodwyn joined the organisation as a member of the Junior Cambrian Choir, eventually moving up to sing with the Senior Choir. In 1965 she became conductor of the reformed Junior Cambrian Choir, was appointed founding conductor of the Cambrian Youth Choir in 1970 and in 1974 took responsibility for the Senior Choir. She conducted all three choirs for 10 years.

At the time of her passing, Blodwyn was a Life Member and Patron of the Blackstone-Ipswich Cambrian Choir. Throughout her life she had used her God-given gifts to the fullest to enrich the lives of others. She was so many things to so many people, as is exemplified in the eulogy which follows.

A tribute from Matthew Hickey

Thirty year ago, almost to the day, a young mother parked her car in front of a picture framer’s shop, which then stood beside the railway station at Station Road, Booval.

Her son, ten years old, sat in the passenger seat.

It was a Saturday morning. Apprehensively, they sat together in silence, waiting for the clock to tick over to 9:00am.

The summer holidays, recently ended, had been for them largely unremarkable, except for two events.

The first was that the mother had taken her son to the Ipswich Civic Centre, to witness a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Their seats had been in the very centre of the front row. The boy was transfixed by the oratorio and by the performers. But, perhaps unsurprisingly given his age, he had become increasingly sleepy as the night wore on.

Finally, the Hallelujah chorus arrived.

As the mother struggled to bring her sleepy son to his feet, the conductor, a remarkably elegant woman with kind eyes, had understandingly smiled at her and then, the boy noticed, kindly and encouragingly at him.

The boy was simultaneously embarrassed about having fallen asleep, but dazzled by what seemed to him to constitute the nearest thing to a brush with celebrity he’d ever experienced.

The second event occurred at Reids’ record bar. While a choir of caroling children, positioned on nearby stairs, struck an appropriately festive chord, the mother bought a cassette of Mario Lanza singing Christmas songs, which she brought home and played to the boy.

For the rest of the summer – even after Christmas had come and gone – the boy sang along with that record. Over and over it had played, and more and more enthusiastically he had sung along.

The mother decided a choir might channel the boy’s nascent interest in singing. Which is how they found themselves at Station Road, sitting opposite the Cambrian Centre, that Saturday morning, thirty years ago.

The young mother was mine. I was the boy. And the elegant, smiling conductor to whom I referred was, of course, Blodwyn Whitehead.

My mother had spoken to Blodwyn before we arrived that morning. She has since confessed that she had felt quite nervous about telephoning Blodwyn to enquire whether there might be space for me in the junior choir. Blod’s stellar reputation preceded her, which was certainly not lost on mum.

Although she had recently handed over the reins of the Junior Choir to one of her protégés, Alison Rogers, Blodwyn was keeping a close eye on the choir – and, no doubt, on Alison – from behind the piano, as its accompanist.

When we walked up the side stairs of the hall and through the doorway, Blodwyn was standing behind the keyboard of the grand piano.

She spotted us immediately and welcomed us, warmly. After going through the polite formalities, pleasantries and introductions, my mother was invited to leave.

After she did, Blodwyn fixed me with those twinkling eyes of hers, placed her hand on my shoulder, and, in the serious tone she reserved exclusively for rambunctious- looking boys of a certain age, said “alright young man, sit up straight in the front row near me, here; let’s see what we we can do with you”.

Of course, I obeyed.

With the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight, that moment was – together with being born, married and becoming a parent – among the most decisive of my life. But for it and for Blodwyn “seeing what she could do with me”, my life as I know it and have known it would have been utterly unimaginable.

My mother could not possibly have understood, and I most certainly did not, that in delivering me into Blodwyn’s care that morning, she had changed the course of my life forever, and enriched it in ways that I continue to enjoy and celebrate today, here, surrounded by all of you, Blodwyn’s family and friends.

A few months after joining the junior choir, I became one of Blodwyn’s private pupils. I remember still the very first song she taught me – to which I will, shortly, return.

Week in, week out for many years thereafter, my parents drove me to John and Blod’s place at Lloyd George Street – where, in the afternoon and early evenings, with the sun hanging low in the sky over Eastern Heights, I was taught by Blodwyn.

Musically, those lessons were always for me deeply enriching experiences. Blodwyn prided herself on selecting repertoire that extended and challenged her students, songs that were different from those being sung by others, and allowed each singer’s individual talents to shine.

Not only did Blodwyn instil in her students the technique necessary to establish a lovely tone, she developed in them the art of interpreting lyrics, often poetic and arcane, deconstructing them, finding in them their beauty and meaning. Perhaps most importantly of all, she taught her students that the singer’s greatest art is in connecting with their audience, in communicating the song’s story, and moving the listener in a truly human way.

Blodwyn always impressed upon her students and her choirs that it was not enough for a song merely to sound beautiful (and it always did), but that it had to mean something.

Most nights, upon finishing my lesson, I would come out of Blod’s studio to find John chatting with my dad. John, always insisted he had no musical ability whatsoever. Despite that, he was an ever-supportive and unsung contributor to the success of Blodwyn’s students and her choirs.

I want to say to you, John, and to you Greg and Andra and to your families, on behalf of all of Blodwyn’s pupils, thank you for sharing so much of Blodwyn with us, so often. Your sacrifices were not insignificant and were not unnoticed. For them we were and we remain, truly, grateful.

Many of Blodwyn’s pupils became formidable singers and musicians, going on to enjoy considerable success and critical acclaim, as singers, conductors, teachers and associated professionals, here in Australia and abroad. They always did so after being lovingly and generously encouraged to spread their wings and fly into the world. Blodwyn never selfishly retained her students once she had formed the view that, as she put it to me, she had “taken you as far as she was able”.

She was extraordinarily generous and gracious in that way.

It is almost impossible to explain how enormous was her musical talent, how diligently and capably she trained her students, how fundamental her guidance was to their ultimate success, and how significant was her contribution to the cultural landscape of Ipswich.

Of course, those are things of which Blodwyn should have been – and was, although always with her remarkable humility and reserve – justifiably proud. But much more significantly in my view than the number of formidable musicians she produced – the true mark of Blodwyn’s greatness is how many of her pupils and choristers went on to become formidable human beings.

Frankly, I marvel at the successes of those who were, at one time or another, among Blodwyn’s young people, as she referred to them. Now, in all manner of far- flung places throughout the world, they occupy interesting positions and professions – in many, many cases, at the very highest levels of their respective spheres.

And the spontaneous outpouring of love and grief from those with whom I remain in contact has been as overwhelming as it has been unsurprising.

The success of those young people (many of us now not-so-young people) is not mere coincidence – those young people always were a disparate group. Some came from privileged backgrounds, but many did not. Some came from happy homes, but many did not. Some had faith-filled upbringings, but many did not. Some were compliant and diligent adolescents, but many were not.

The element common to the success of them all, was Blodwyn. All of them had come to know, and like me will never forget, that brief look of love, gratitude and fulfilment that Blodwyn gave in the moments after the performance of a song had ended, whether over the top of her conductor’s lectern or over the top of the music stand on the piano on which she was accompanying you.

That look, that brief wonderful look was so completely nurturing and filled with pride that, as a young person, it gave us the belief that we – ordinary kids from Ipswich – were capable of anything, and it made all of the hard work that Blodwyn insisted upon worthwhile.

And she did insist upon hard work.

Ostensibly, students came to Blodwyn to learn to sing, to improve their art. But that was the least of what she taught us.

She was a formidable, principled woman who, by her own constant example, demonstrated to each and every one of us young people what it meant to live as a person of character, integrity and dignity.

The values she instilled were then, perhaps, already becoming a bit old-fashioned: discipline, respect (especially for elders and tradition), loyalty, honesty, humility and service. That she insisted upon them made us all the more determined to avoid disappointing her, by not living them from time to time – which, of course, as young people we did, but which she always forgave.

Now, it is readily apparent to me – as it must have been to Blodwyn all along – that more than ever, the world needs values like that and young people who respect them and will pass them on to the future generations.

Beyond the songs, beyond the friendships, beyond the treasured memories of music-making moments that lifted us up out of our often mundane Ipswich childhoods, respect for those values and virtues were the richest gifts we received from Blodwyn.

Of course, as we grew, Mrs Whitehead became Blodwyn to us, and she was as much to us a much-loved friend as she had been our mentor and teacher.

In the days before she passed, I spoke with Blod. I tried to to impress upon her just how much she was loved by so many of us, and I endeavoured to explain to her all of what I have just said to you.

Characteristically, deeply humble to the very end, while Blodwyn thanked me for what I had said, I wasn’t at all surprised that she avoided accepting direct credit for it.

Rather, she told me that her parents had taught her that one’s purpose in life was to use the gifts one had been given to enrich the lives of others. She said that to the extent that she had done that for me and for many of you, the real credit was owed to her beloved parents, who had instilled that in her as a girl.

In that moment, I could not help but call to mind that first song Blod had taught me. And finally, thirty years later and now a grown man with a son as old as I was when she taught it to me, I understood that it laid bare, simply, the blueprint for her life’s work, and for what she had striven to achieve.

The lyrics, which will be familiar to many, were these:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song
If I can show somebody that is travellin’ wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain!

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought
If I can bring back beauty, to a world that is wrought
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught
Then my living shall not be in vain.

By that measure – indeed by any measure – Blodwyn’s living has most certainly not been in vain.