THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC
Former Westholme pupil Jade Jones talks to recently retired Eric Millest who, as head of music, built a legendary reputation for inspiring young musicians of the future
During the final scene of Mr Holland’s Opus (1995) the teachers’ orchestral piece is performed for the first time ever. Gertrude Lang takes to the podium explaining to Holland that the symphony he wrote is not his only legacy – that legacy also includes the people he has inspired and taught throughout the years, dramatically declaring: “We are your symphony!”
Paralleling this Hollywood movie, Westholme’s recent gala concert brought past and present pupils together to celebrate the lengthy and successful career of their own hero, Eric Millest, who has spent the last 30 years as head of the music department. Eric’s dedication, musical ambition and energy as a teacher, nurturing talent and encouraging musical pleasure for others could certainly be considered to be his ‘best work ever.’
Music has always been part of Eric’s life from a young age: “My parents were in the Salvation Army church, as I am still today. They sent us along to the choir and young people’s band and my two brothers and I learnt to play the tenor horn and the piano from the age of seven.”
Knowing he wanted to pursue music for a career, Eric left Scunthorpe as a young man to read music at Durham University, later graduating from his teacher training course in London. His teaching jobs took him to the Sir John Nelthorpe School in Brigg, Healing Comprehensive in North Lincolnshire, Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn and eventually to Westholme in 1990.
“As I drove down Preston New Road on my way to QEGS every day I often wondered what it would be like teaching at the school down at the end of Meins Road. After a few years a job became available there, I applied for it, got the job and found it was very pleasant driving down Meins Road to work at such a wonderful school every day!”
Performed in the Croston Theatre, Westholme’s productions are a big part of the school and the lively orchestra pit is usually filled with tubas, pianos, bass guitars and every orchestral instrument you can think of, never missing a beat thanks to Eric’s enthusiasm and co-ordination.
“We have performed many musicals, including my favourite, Miss Saigon as well as operas such as Mozart’s Magic Flute and Bizet’s Carmen. There have also been so many choral and instrumental performances that have really stood out for me, probably too many to mention! Although performing Mozart’s Requiem to a large audience in Paris’ Eglise de la Madeleine a couple of years ago was certainly a highlight.”
Initially working closely with the established music teachers when he arrived, Eric seized the opportunity with both hands, taking over as musical director for his first production, the Wizard of Oz in 1991, adding: “It was a bit nerve wrecking!”
Eric’s sense of camaraderie with his work colleagues appears to be just as important as the companionship he encourages within the choirs and instrumental bands: “I really must say that none of these projects would ever be possible without such a supportive and strong team of staff.”
Whilst reminiscing, Eric recounted stories that would fill a biography and I was intrigued to learn what Eric considers to be his biggest achievement: “Personally, it would have to be teaming up with my wife Zoe to bring up my two lovely children, who are now making their own way in the world. Professionally it would be the musicals as well as the choir tours for the last 23 years,” he smiles nostalgically.
“Our first tour was Austria, 1996. You’re not really sure whether you’re going to survive your first attempt at travelling but we managed it!”
Whether it be tours to Poland, New York, Copenhagen, Slovenia and many more, classical performances in various splendid settings have been inspirational for Westholme’s young musicians over the years. “I have tried to encourage all levels of musical development and I have been fortunate in that I have had the opportunity to work with so many great colleagues and talented pupils. It’s so enjoyable to make music instrumentally and vocally.”
Embarking on a well-deserved rest, when asking Eric what he’ll be doing in his retirement he replies: “I’m looking forward to spending time with my grandchild.
“Over the last couple of years I have been training to be a music examiner for Trinity College and hopefully I’ll be writing encouraging comments for students. I’m not sure how much of that I’ll do just yet though, my wife says I need to paint the front door first!”
To quote Mr Holland himself: “A teacher has two jobs: fill young minds with knowledge. Yes, but more importantly, give those minds a compass so that knowledge doesn’t go to waste.” Eric Millest has done just that. As a teacher Eric has always gone above and beyond his job title, touching the lives of aspiring musicians and constantly encouraging those around him. Good luck with your retirement Mr Millest and thank-you for the music!