CD: "An Energising Presence" A Thanksgiving for the life and work of Sybil Pentith 1927-2004
Hemingbrough Minster 30th April 2005
Two compact discs
(The Association made these available at £10.00 per set. After £5.00 to cover production costs the remainder was equally split between Macmillan Cancer Care & The Woodland Trust. The recording itself is available in the Planned Environment Therapy Archive at MB3 in Gloucestershire)
Sybil Pentith - An Energizing Presence: A Personal Reflection by John Belcher
At the Thanksgiving for Sybil's life, held in her parish church, Hemingbrough Minster, on 30th April 2005, the many who attended were living witnesses to just how full and rich a life she had led and to how many she had providentially touched. That life began in London in 1927.
She was born into the artistic milieu of the Pissarro family, which in her childhood and adolescence gave her great material support and encouragement. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where her joint studies were piano and viola. On graduating in 1949 she had intended to join an orchestra or chamber group; that was until she saw the advertisement for the post of Director of Music at Wennington. The description of its educational ethos and communal life spoke eloquently to her inner spirit, which then, and throughout her life, was adventurous and eager for challenging and innovatory experiences.
The tributes of her Wennington pupils speak of those years more authentically and authoritatively than can I, but she made me an honorary Wenningtonian, so warmly, frequently and enthusiastically did she share with me her experiences there. It was clear that Wennington provided the formative environment in which her humane values were forged and the foundations of her teaching philosophy established.
Sybil left Wennington in 1953 to marry Gerald and raise three children, Laurie, John and Katy, who were each to spend time at Wennington. Gerald's work with British Coal took the family to Cumbria and the Midlands. In 1966 they moved to Country Durham, where Sybil took up teaching again as a peripatetic string teacher, in charge of music in a secondary modern school and director of a music centre in Barnard Castle. It was there that we met in 1970 and the seeds of a profound life change were sown.
By 1972 we were convinced that we were kindred spirits. We left our families and employment to set up home together in a decrepit farm cottage. From there we were each to find work in South Yorkshire, Sybil as a peripatetic teacher and I as the founder-director of a housing association providing for homeless families. In 1973 Sybil secured the post of Director of Music at Thomas Rotherham Sixth Form College. There all her innate skills once again found fertile ground for their application during the next twenty years. She spoke proudly of her record of not having had a single absence for illness during those years; a reflection of the rigorous work ethic and tenacity which impelled her and which she instilled in others.
The years at Thomas Rotherham were rich in academic rewards as she successfully prepared many pupils for Oxbridge and music conservatoire entrance and gave equal devotion to the development and cultivation of the latent talent she perceived in her more tentative pupils. Her pastoral gifts were greatly valued and earned her a place as senior tutor and member of the management team. During these years she worked as a chief examiner, assistant examiner and reviser for the Joint Matriculation Board and its successors. She also applied her creative talents as a joint scriptwriter for the `Masterclass' series broadcast on Classic fm.
Sybil looked with dismay on her approaching retirement in 1993. Retirement was neither a term nor concept she was prepared to apply to herself. With her characteristic penetrating drive and ingenuity she secured for herself a post as lecturer with the Worker's Education Association at various locations in South Yorkshire. As a basis for a comprehensive course she devised the title `Musical Journeys and their Connections', a catch-all which permitted a wide range and depth of teaching. She threw herself into this with her natural ebullience and life-affirming energy. Sybil was always at her charming best when in front of a class, where she found deep satisfaction generated by researching and transfusing her enthusiasms and latest discoveries.
It would be a travesty to leave the impression that Sybil's life was entirely taken up with work. She applied to her recreation the same energy and enthusiasm as she did to her teaching. After we were both retired we drew great pleasure from developing our small urban garden in Rotherham. Though of moderate size it was large when compared with the postage stamp sized plots we had known as children in our South London homes. Sybil became a knowledgeable plantswoman - on our excursions, as driver, I was not permitted to pass any nursery or garden centre without stopping to inspect its plant stock. With characteristic generosity visitors would depart with cuttings or seeds of her latest discovery.
From childhood Sybil had been and voracious reader and collector of books. It was our joint pleasure to make an annual trawl of the second-hand bookshops in Oxford and Cambridge. There we discovered treasures to add to a rapidly expanding library - every room in the house, save the bathroom, contained books. The range of titles represented discloses the interests of a polymath. The love of books fired her with the desire to write fiction. Her fertile mind, fired by an incurably romantic nature, was frequently engaged upon developing plots, a process which continued even in her sleep; she would wake in the morning and immediately try to relate to a semi-comatose partner the latest development or twist of plot. This aspect of her life informed her teaching and the creation of what one of her pupils has described as `impeccable taste'.
In 2000 we moved to a bungalow in Hemingbrough, a village near Selby. This exactly met our need to provide for my failing health and to be close to members of our families. The property immediately sold itself to Sybil on the strength of a substantial and well developed garden, into which she was to throw her energy in the few years she was to enjoy here. When in 2002 my ability to drive became curtailed we devised a distance-learning scheme for our WEA groups, using recorded media.
In June 2004 Sybil was admitted to York District Hospital, where she was diagnosed with cancer with the worst of prognoses, survival of just a few months. With characteristic selflessness her first response on being diagnosed was 'What will happen to John, who will look after him?' Our caring roles were reversed. Death and illness were entirely alien to the life-affirming Sybil. She betrayed to those close to her nothing of the suffering she endured, which must have been more psychological than physical. She spent much of the time left to her showing great courage and concentrating her waning reserves of strength on others.
During her last three months her work-ethic and fortitude prevailed to the point where she dictated, very lucidly, her final course notes for the WEA a mere ten hours before she died. In the same way she showed great determination to attend her last Wennington Reunion. Though discouraged by the family, she made it very clear that if we did not cooperate she had a `Plan B' prepared to ensure her presence. She died at home ten days later in the small hours of 28th September.
In accordance with her passion and support for `green' issues, we carried out her wish for a woodland burial at Terrington near Castle Howard. There she rests on an escarpment which overlooks the Vale of York with the profile of York Minster piercing the far horizon.
Attached to the front of Sybil's computer is a slip of paper bearing a quotation from a U.S. Quaker, Stephen Crelleth (1773-1855), which reads: `I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creatures, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. 'Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Sybil will appreciate just how fully this expression of her life's philosophy was realised to our benefit.
Tribute by Nicholas (Nicky) Maw
I have always thought of Sybil as one of the most important people in my early life, and although I have not now seen her for many years I have always retained very fond memories of her. She was the person who, when she taught at Wennington, initially encouraged my musical and composing activity. She greatly helped me by giving me my initial composition lessons and arranging performances by the school students of the few small-scale works I wrote at the time. I shall never forget how encouraging she was at that early stage in my life, how she made me feel I had the possibility of composing music, and how she greatly increased my knowledge and appreciation of music that in those early teenage years I had not heard before. I have always regarded Sybil as the person who started my subsequent musical 'life', and I will be forever grateful to her for doing so.
She remained a dear friend for a considerable time after we had left the school, and I recall with great pleasure the many visits made at that time to her and her family at their various residences. Very regrettably, I have not seen her since I came to this country (the States) twenty years ago, but I have always retained the very fondest memories of her.
Tribute by Ann Wynblatt (Whitehouse)
"When I think of Sybil I see a lively and talented young woman whose life at the time I knew her was dedicated to music, the arts and Wennington. She opened our eyes to all the joys of music be they playing, singing, composing or listening. She encouraged her students to be the best
they could be whether or not they went on to follow a career in music. Even though she may have inwardly cringed when listening to the first scraping and scratching of violin and viola players, the fumbling of piano students or the early struggles of our future composer to express himself, she had enough patience for us all and always inspired and reassured us in all of our efforts. She also contributed to the general musical education of everyone at Wennington with her lucid comments on the music presented at morning assembly. Many are the Wenningtonians who, when they look back, will attribute their lifelong love of music to her. She was a beacon to us all.
Tribute by Gill Nicholson (Brighton)
"I write in the first instance as one of a group if Sybil’s pupils whose life was profoundly affected by her unique qualities as a music teacher. She came to Wennington, as she said herself, inspired by its ethos and the enthusiasm and dedication of its staff. Wennington’s breadth of vision gave Sybil opportunities to share with her students her deep appreciation and lively practice of a huge range of music. She was able to convey her belief that whatever we undertook, we would succeed in. Sib intuitively and intelligently realised the importance of success breeding confidence until she built self-belief into one’s psyche. Specifically she affected her group of music students, but generally through music assemblies, YSO concerts and numerous professional recitals, she brought the whole school under the magic umbrella of her knowledge and love of music.
I also write because my relationship with Sybil was generously extended far beyond that of teacher and pupil. We continued to meet through my college years, marriage, child rearing and beyond. Whenever I visited hospitality was free gratis and she always found space, no matter how pressured, for a good natter. We corresponded until her illness made communication impossible, about gardening, music, our families and writing. As John has said, "she was someone from whom energy flowed", and along with that energy, curiosity and industry, was a generosity of spirit that was her hallmark."
Tribute by Karen Hindley (Graham)
"Sybil was the most important teacher I ever had – important because through her I saw that music wasn’t just a matter of practising the same pieces over and over again (she wasn’t a stickler for technical perfection) but a vast world of riches and excitement which she opened up and helped us to explore. Sib had a seemingly inexhaustible library of piano duets and we happily murdered all the great classical and romantic symphonies and much chamber music including the late Beethoven string quartets. She introduced us to every significant development in Western music from Monteverdi to Vaughan Williams, except, for some inexplicable reason, Brahms, of whose existence I was almost unaware till I left school. She encouraged us to have a go at everything and she shared her enthusiasms with us. Looking back, I realise she must have very skilfully maintained some teacher/pupil boundaries without us being aware of them. She felt in many ways just like a close friend, and that’s exactly what she became after I left school."
Tribute by Irene Hill (Salkeld) and Grace Roberts (Hindle)
"Sybil was head of music when I arrived at Wennington. I found that, rather than force activities on them, she created an atmosphere in the music department that inspired pupils to participate in making music whether it was playing an instrument, composing, singing in the choir or appreciation.
She left me free to teach in my own way, nevertheless I learnt much about how to teach from her. She was also a good friend of Brian’s, having many discussions with him about poetry and literature. It was Sybil too, who arranged all the music for the Medieval Fair, a Parent’s Day in which troubadours and Morris dancers appeared alongside market stall holders, a bear baiter, courtiers and peasants, with Kenneth and Frances as Lord and Lady of the Manor.
Sybil was always interested in people, not judging them but accepting them for what they were.
At Wennington Old Scholars’ Reunions Sybil took a quiet but intense interest, was always an enthusiast who spoke forthrightly and to the point in discussions, fighting for issues that concerned Wennington’s continuation. She always hoped, right up to the sale, that it would somehow survive."
Tribute by Andrew Lockett
"Teachers who kindle a love of their subject in their pupils are rare; Sybil was such a person for me. By her enthusiasm and encouragement and her quiet insistence that I could be a better musician than I thought, she gave me a desire to become both more knowledgeable and more accomplished, even to become a teacher myself.
Memories of those times come flooding back: trios with Nick Maw and Julian Hall, piano duets with Ann Whitehouse, chamber music and orchestral arrangements with all who could blow or scrape an instrument. There was encouragement, not only to perform, but also to compose, to improvise, to arrange and orchestrate, and study music outside the normal repertoire.
She is sadly missed by all who knew her. Thank you Sybil.