By Heart

for the students, tutors, leaders and supporters of the Just Brass programs


The euphonium was almost as big as he was. Youngest learner in the local music program, James was the most curious and lively of all the kids involved. Well, that was putting it nicely. He drove the conductor Michael to distraction with antics and incessant questions. Small and scrawny, he made up for it in volume and impact. Fortunately, Michael was armed with a team of community tutors (for whom he loudly gave thanks at every rehearsal, to the kids’ amusement). All of them dedicated and enthusiastic, but James was sure George was the best. 

Patient and grandfatherly, George sat beside James every week. Peering through round reading glasses, his beaming smile kept pointing James to the right spot on the score, tirelessly redirecting his sparrow-like attention. High fives and silly jokes were their ritual greeting. George always had a spare pencil at the ready. And when James’ mum couldn’t find a babysitter, it was George’s wife Marilyn, kind as her husband, who clucked over his three younger siblings during the end of year concert (and spoiled the whole family with a batch of fresh choc-chip cookies). It was then that James had noticed his mum looking at him with new eyes. That was the turning point, he realised. That concert. 

James looked up from the old photo with a sigh. Gosh, how he missed George and Marilyn. No one else in his family had a sniff of musicality, so while his mum had gladly sent him to band, she didn’t really understand how important it had became to him. His stepdad had even thought it a waste of time – though he’d grudgingly conceded it kept James out of trouble. But George, George had always listened. About how hard it was reading the music. How he hated school, and the big kids picking on him. It was George who’d taught him to count to ten, just the way he’d helped him count to stay in time. Learning to manage his instrument and his temper, together.

“I reckon have a crack at that solo line, you know all those notes in it now. Find the brave James, mate. I know he’s there.”

School started slowly to get easier. No one else in their estate had gone past Year 10 for ages. But James, on the back of a Junior High music bursary, not only tackled Senior School, but graduated with solid results. And to almost everyone’s amazement, auditioned successfully for the State Conservatorium. George had been chuffed – though not at all surprised – cheering him on at his final school concert.

“That’s it! Nailed it, really brought the music to life.Well done, mate, I knew you would.”

James could hear George’s voice in his mind, though it had been twenty years since he’d seen that gentle old face. Twenty years of hard work, mastering musicianship and other instruments. Finding his sweet spot with the fractious but rewarding French Horn. Graduating Performance with Honours. Winning a chair in the National Symphony. Solo work. Touring. Masterclasses. And all the way, deep in his memory, a familiar voice.

“Just keep looking ahead. Next note, then the next, and the next, and before you know it you’ll be playing it all by heart.”

He was so glad he’d made it home in time. He felt the tears gathering, the lump of sadness heavy in his breathing. Clearing his throat, he stood, straightened his suit jacket and walked to the lectern.

“It’s my great privilege today to bring you a eulogy – and my tribute – to George Patterson. The man who changed my life. The man who taught me to play by heart.”