EARLY YEARS - A whimsical retrospective ...
Born in Harrow, north-west London in 1961, the bass Alastair
Miles was educated locally before attending the now defunct St
Marylebone Grammar School, a two hundred year old institution whose
glittering alumni included Jerome K Jerome, the economist Professor Sir
Eric Hobsbawm, broadcaster and jazz critic Benny Green (who famously
said he hated every minute of his time there), troubled 80s pop star
Adam Ant (whose real first name was Stuart) and in the year below him,
Liverpool FC and England soccer legend John Bames.
His first musical experiences came courtesy of the local church choir
which enjoyed a thriving musical tradition. Indeed, his first
choirmaster went on to become organist at various cathedrals and Master
of Music for the Queen at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, before another
less attractive tradition caught up with him and he was arrested for
serial pederasty and imprisoned for six years.
Early piano lessons failed to reveal any talent in that direction but
at the age of 13 Alastair began flute and musicianship lessons with the
Welsh/Rhodesian composer Albert Alan Owen who was to prove highly
inspirational. A pupil of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, it was Owen
who first put the idea of music as a career into Alastair's head, as
well as introducing him to the rigours and mysteries of Species
counterpoint, Hindemith's Elementary
Training, Taoist philosophy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Flute players have brains, of that there's
But alack and alay, for they soon blow
proverb, courtesy T Wye)
Too much flute practice and hours going around in an I Ching-inspired
existential and adolescent miasma didn't help Alastair achieve as much
academically as he might otherwise have done. His less-than-amazing A
Level results weren't all his own fault though: despite being the only
A Level Music candidate at SMGS, his music master still felt it
necessary to dictate a full two hours of notes to Alastair over the
phone the night before the exam. He nevertheless received offers to
read Music at both London and Durham Universities, although his
subsequent crack at a place at Cambridge met with failure.
Alastair, however, was determined to become the next James Galway,
minus the jittery eyes and Irishness of course but also, as it turned
out, minus the phenomenal talent and success. He accepted a much
sought-after place on the Performers' Course at London's Guildhall
School of Music and Drama to study with the eminent flute pedagogue
Trevor Wye. The Max Miller cheeky-chappy of the flute world, Wye's
reputation as a teacher of many of the best flautists in the UK today
is indisputable. He didn't regard Alastair as one of them, however, and
tried to steer him in the direction of a career as a flute repairer and
maker instead. A couple of wrecked flutes and several near misses with
a soldering iron and blow-torch disabused Alastair of the notion that
he was ever going to be successful down that particular path.
It was roughly at this point that singing entered the picture. Purely
on a whim, and on the helpful and no doubt altruistic suggestion of a
lady in a church choir who happened to be sitting directly in front of
him as he bawled his head off, Alastair began lessons with the veteran
Bolton bass-baritone Richard Standen. Nothing much happened for a year
or so until, at the suggestion of ENO baritone Geoffrey Chard, Alastair
began studying with Bruce Boyce at the Royal Academy.
It was Boyce who introduced him to opera and from then on the
possibility of a career as a singer became more and more apparent.
Alastair discovered that the years spent honing a formidable flute
technique, particularly in the areas of breath control, diaphragm
support and sight-reading were equally applicable and appropriate to
vocal technique. Moreover, as a flute player he wasn't fazed when
presented with a page full of semiquavers, which gave him, as a
bass, a rare ability to sing fast coloratura such as in the music
of Handel and Rossini.
Alastair spent four years in all at the Guildhall, and after Trevor Wye
resigned he studied happily with both Peter Lloyd and Edward Beckett.
In 1983 he left and, in addition to teaching at Stowe School and
Chethams in Manchester, he spent the next two years playing chamber
music and freelancing with several orchestras, amongst whom were the
London Bach Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Royal
Meanwhile his voice carried on developing and he gained valuable vocal
experience as a session singer and as a member of the St Albans
Cathedral Choir. Interest in him as a singer seemed to be outstripping
interest in him as a flautist and when in 1985 he won the Decca
Kathleen Ferrier Prize at London's Wigmore Hall, and was offered a
contract with the touring company Opera 80, Alastair had effectively to
choose once and for all between the flute and the voice. The rest, as
the clich¨¦ goes, is history...