Some years ago, Robert Shepherd was contacted by Dr Shirley Trembath, a former student of his father, pianist and teacher Roy Shepherd (1908–1987). She was keen to write a biography about Roy Shepherd with her colleague Janet Williams; Robert was delighted at the proposal.

Dr Trembath embarked on the task, but eventually became too ill to continue, so her daughter found another former student and published author to continue where she had left it – Martin Comte.

Comte spoke to Limelight about his experiences with Shepherd as a student, and the journey of writing the book.

Roy Shepherd

Roy Shepherd. Photo supplied

You were a student of Roy Shepherd. When did he teach you and for how long?

Roy was my teacher from 1964 to 1968. To this day I regret that I never resumed having lessons 10 or 20 years later! I would have approached them so much differently – principally asking him to explain many aspects of playing that he simply instructed me to do. I wanted to know the reason behind much that he said to me in relation to pure piano technique and, of course, interpretation. As a young student, I tended to do what he said without questioning it. But I came to learn later that some other students challenged him frequently – and he respected it. I wish I had had the courage to do this!

What kind of teacher did you find him?

He was exacting and didn’t suffer fools or those who hadn’t practised! Initially, I feared him – I had never had such a strict teacher – but I gradually saw his ‘other’ side, initially when he was with his two young sons, Robert and Peter, and later when I met his charming wife, Denise.

I came to realise that beneath his gruff exterior, he had my best interests at heart. Although he was a perfectionist, he was also a realist and didn’t expect students to do what they were not capable of (after, of course, he had pushed them to their limits!).

He focused on the ‘performance’ aspect – and never let a few ‘liberties’ get in the way of a credible performance. Some teachers were such perfectionists that the ‘notes on the paper’ and every other indication were the ‘Bible’, not to be tampered with. But for Roy it was the performance – with ‘allowances’ or adjustments made for anything that the student might not have been able to fully master. A credible performance, as distinct from an obsessive focus on minutiae approached out of context, was his goal.

Time and again, people describe him as very private and sometimes irascible and short-tempered. Did you get to know him well as a person?

Yes, this was a fairly common impression – and, certainly, it was mine in the first few years until I got to know him better. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that he genuinely was concerned about me and was doing his best to bring out any musicality I might have possessed. It was expressed in different ways, but one that sticks out is that on some occasions he would see me in the corridors of the Conservatorium in Parkville and if a student had cancelled a lesson at short notice Roy would call me into his studio to have an impromptu lesson. “Let’s spend 15 minutes trying to get that Chopin right!” At the time, I tended to regard it as a sign of how incompetent I was – and, indeed, on a few occasions I even hid when I was aware that he was looking for me!

Later in life, I came to see just how sensitive and genuinely caring he was. I came to like his raucous laugh and his shiny red face. Although I had some idea of his talents and achievements in his youth and during his studies in England and France in the 1920s, I never realised it fully until much later.

Shirley Trembath set out to write the book, but she was unable to complete it due to ill health. At what point did you become involved?

Shirley had been working on the book for about 25 years. Several times over this period, when she and I would chat or catch up for a meal, I would offer to help because it was obvious that she was ‘floundering’ to some extent. Sadly, it always came to nought. I understand that others had also made similar overtures to assist her.

It was only after she had been admitted to a nursing home that I was approached and asked if I would have a look at what the family could find of the biography and advise if anything could be done to ‘salvage’ it – principally so that they could produce a small, ‘in-house’ publication for Shirley herself. It was with this in mind that I agreed to help.

At the same time, I felt that one of the biggest ‘gaps’ was a focus on Roy the teacher, and to this end I interviewed a few of his outstanding students: Ian Munro, Victor Sangiorgio, Tony Gray and Sister Paula Moroney. It was stressed on me that time was of the essence in producing something to hand to Shirley. Had there not been a degree of ‘urgency’, I would have spent more time locating other former students; this remains a regret. But having said this, I have been delighted at the feedback from some other students of his; the most common comment has been along the lines, “I never knew this!”

How much work had been done by the time you came on board?

There were parts of chapters and some relatively complete – albeit very short – ‘chapters’, but it did not ‘hang together’ as a biography. My first reaction after being asked if I could bring it to some form of a limited publication was to say no. But what drove me to do something was my friendship with Shirley – and the fact that I and many others had been looking forward to the biography.

In truth, if I had been involved much earlier I most certainly would have undertaken the project differently; it would have been a scholarly study of the man, his teaching philosophy and his influence on piano learning and performance in Australia.

How much research did you do?

Far more than I envisaged when agreeing to ‘assemble’ what I was given! The interviews with the four former students was a good start, along with some work I did in ‘amplifying’ a few chapters. Given that it was only to be a small ‘family publication’, I thought that there probably was enough to bind it and present it to Shirley.

To this end, I subsequently had a meeting with Shirley’s daughter, Liz Stoyanova, and a friend of Shirley’s, Sue Buxton, who had originally contacted me about the possibility of my involvement. At this meeting I was made aware of quite a large ‘black box’ that had newspaper cuttings, photos, etc. This necessitated going back to the drawing board again and I spent over six months reading snippets of newspaper cuttings from here and overseas, photos, programs and reviews of Roy’s playing, etc. It was only then that I thought that perhaps the publication could be a little more than a mere presentation to Shirley Trembath.

This was complicated by the fact that at one point Shirley did enlist the help of a friend, Janet Williams, but no one knew precisely what this assistance entailed and how much Janet contributed. During this period, Janet passed away and we have been unable to ascertain the extent of her contribution. Her name appears along with Shirley’s as one of the two authors.

Was there much first-hand material? Roy doesn’t seem to have written a great deal about his teaching methods and there isn’t a huge amount of detail about his study overseas and his sabbatical.

Apart from the papers in the black box, the ‘first-hand’ material is contained in the interviews I conducted as well as information from past students who, over the years, had written to Shirley detailing their experience of Roy. Even here it was not easy and sometimes we did not know who had written some of the tributes she had.

It seems a shame that he had to return to Australia on the death of his father and forfeit a career as a concert pianist. We can only speculate, but do you believe he could have had a good career as a pianist?

In some respects it was a great shame, clearly his talents were recognised in England and France – including by his teacher in Paris, Alfred Cortot (1877–1962), one of the most renowned classical pianists of the 20th century, who clearly thought greatly of Roy.

Cortot was particularly renowned for his sensitivity in performances of Chopin, Franck, Saint-Saëns and Schumann. (It was a privilege to be lent some of Cortot’s own music when I was learning from Roy – although I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. Roy also gave me some of Cortot’s old 78 recordings – but it was the era of ’33 microgroove’ recordings and at the time I found the 78s too ‘scratchy’).

Roy’s performance reviews prior to leaving Australia for abroad, whilst in England and France in the 1920s, and also in the early years after his return to Australia in 1931, attest to an extremely gifted and sensitive pianist. I have no doubt that had he remained in Europe, the world would have known of Roy Shepherd, concert pianist. But the other side of this is that we in Australia have had the benefit of what really was his own school of piano playing. The success of numerous students over many years is testament to this.

How important a teacher do you believe he was?

Extremely important. For me, he was important for what he taught me and, somewhat perversely, for what he didn’t teach me – but in retrospect I wish that he had. Indeed, it was because of what he had not explicitly taught me that I have embarked on a lifelong quest in my own teaching of the piano. Many times I have asked myself, “Why didn’t he mention this?”

But, somewhat ironically, that has been a ‘positive’ in my own quest as a teacher who has always had a few private piano students. Roy’s unstinting praise, encouragement and support of so many Australian piano students in their music journey both here and abroad cannot be exaggerated.

What was his contribution to the musical life of Melbourne?

Roy and Denise established their own ‘salon’ in their home in South Yarra. Their son, Robert – who has been instrumental in getting the project fully off the ground – has talked to me of the numerous artists, thinkers and others who were regular visitors to their home. Denise established a career not only as a teacher of French but as a coach for singers in operatic roles for major opera companies. (There is an excellent chapter in the book based on a biography of Denise by David Flowers.) Those who visited their house in Clowes St and enjoyed their immense hospitality still talk of their ‘French salon’.

Those who learnt from Roy still speak of him with respect (albeit tinged to varying degrees with an element of ‘fear’). And countless piano students who have sat for AMEB exams around Australia still remember hearing in hushed tones, as they arrived at the examination centre, “Mr. Shepherd is the examiner!”

Roy Shepherd can be purchased here.

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