Saturday, 7 April 2018

A labour of love: new musical directions at Finchcocks House

Finchcocks Manor House
Finchcocks Manor House
Buying a significant country house is not for everyone, it takes a particular type of bravery and clear-sightedness, particularly when the house comes with a significant history. Finchcocks is an early Georgian manor house near Goudhurst in Kent which from 1970 to 2016 housed the much loved Finchcocks Musical Museum, Richard Burnett's collection of historic keyboard instruments. But that is what Neil and Harriet Nichols have done

Neil Nichols visited Finchcocks Musical Museum as a small boy and had a memorable trip, but then never really thought about the house again. In 2016, Richard Burnett decided to downsize, part of the collection of historic keyboard instruments was auctioned off and the house put up for sale.

Neil was taking piano lessons, something he had returned to as an adult, and happened to notice a brochure for the auction at his piano teacher's. He had missed the auction, but the house intrigued him and when they saw it, he and his wife, Harriet, fell in love with it. Having two pairs of twins, the eldest pair about to go to school for the first time, they conceived the idea of buying Finchcocks and using it as a family home.  It was a lovely setting and an ideal time to relocate before the children started school.

The piano cellar at Finchcocks
The piano cellar at Finchcocks
Though the main house was to be used as a family home again, Neil and his wife wanted to keep something of the musical atmosphere of Finchcocks, and so the idea of running courses for adult learners was conceived of. Neil explains, from his own experience, that adult learners do not always progress and they can find it difficult to fit lessons into ordinary life. So Finchcocks would provide short immersive courses aimed at adults.

In addition to the main house, Finchcocks also has a coach house, a huge and rather unloved place which they converted into accommodation with eight bedrooms and bathrooms for the visiting pianists.


During the 1960s Finchcocks was a ballet school and the basement of the main house used as a canteen, this was transformed into the cafe when it became the musical museum. Neil and his team determined to restore the space for use by the piano courses. Having stripped off the layers of paint (using half a tonne of alkali), they revealed the fine brick arcading providing the main basement area (under the main hall) as a recital area which seats 80, and smaller practice areas each of which holds a grand piano comfortably.

The new business is well underway, and they have done three-weekend courses already. These follow a format, with people arriving for dinner on Friday and leaving late on Sunday. They are planning to average one weekend per month, which means that there will be around 100 places each year. Neil wants to run the courses fairly full, partly because he feels that people benefit from learning amongst their peer groups.

Learning the piano can be a solitary business


Inside the restored Coach House at Finchcocks
Inside the restored Coach House at Finchcocks
He points out that learning the piano can be a solitary business, and to do it with seven other like-minded people around can be a benefit, all talking the same language and going through the same struggles.

The organist and conductor David Hall, is the musical director of the courses. Neil has known David since university (when David was the organ scholar at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), and David helped set up the template for the courses. David will be teaching some of the courses, and there are also visiting professors.

Neil wants his family to grow up around music and the boys, now six, are having piano lessons and love the courses, taking themselves down to the cellar to introduce themselves to the students (though Neil admits, with a grin, that he is not so sure whether the students get the same enjoyment from meeting the boys!).

A labour of love, a wish to keep music at Finchcocks


Neil explains that he is is not doing the new project for commercial purposes, and is realistic enough to admit that it is a labour of love, a wish to keep music at Finchcocks, and he adds that the family had no use for the cellar and it would have been a shame to let it lie fallow. Neil used to work for a private equity firm, but decided to go freelance and now has a number of businesses including a properly managed company, and another which helps small businesses grow by providing a one-stop shop. He is clear that Finchcocks will be the worst performing of his businesses, but it is the one he loves.

He is clear-sighted and feels that making money from something you love is not a sensible choice, you either end up not loving it anymore or it is a commercial failure, and feels that it would be a shame to lose the love of the subject because business interests were not being met.

Celebrating Broadwood's gift of a piano to Beethoven


Piano class at Finchcocks with David Hall
Piano class at Finchcocks with David Hall
Also involved in the project is Dr Alastair Laurence (chairman of the piano makers, John Broadwood & Sons Ltd.), who was the curator of the Finchcocks Musical Museum. Alastair has helped with the selection of the pianos used by the new project. Alastair has been organising a number of events to celebrate Broadwood's gift of a piano to Beethoven, and as part of this, there is a concert at Finchcocks on 27 May 2018. This is a charity event, in aid of Help Musicians, and pianist Paul Roberts (who actually lives nearby), will be playing a programme of Debussy and Beethoven.
[full details at the Finchcocks website]

It is a chance to try out the acoustics of the main performance space in the basement, and the start of a possible concert series at Finchcocks.

Future courses include an Upper Intermediate Weekend with Graham Fitch (1 to 3 June 2018) and a Jazz and Improvisation Weekend with Dr Mark Polishook (6 to 8 July).
[See the Finchcocks website for full details]

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