The music room

Could the tutor of a struggling young virtuoso be instrumental in a case of foul play?

Image: Phil Disley

Clemency, at seven, was a musical prodigy. That was what James and Charlotte Firbank believed because it was what her music tutor Miss Penney told them. Nothing made James’s heart swell more than watching his beloved only daughter, hair brushed and back straight, sitting practising her scales. Plink! Bonk! Plink! Bonk! The baby grand in the music room had been an extravagance – but it was also an investment.

They had known she was special when, aged three, Clemmie had picked out the first bar of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star andantino on her Fisher Price xylophone. Three Blind Mice and Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day (at least Charlotte had been sure that’s what it was) followed. They had immediately enrolled her with Miss Penney, a multi-instrumentalist whose career with the LSO had been cut short by carpal tunnel syndrome.

Clemmie was still exploring where the mainspring, the central force, of her talent lay. She had started on the recorder and, keen to give her the best possible start, James had procured a baroque boxwood Terton. She had lasted six ear-piercing weeks before the exacting Miss Penney had decided that the bass recorder might more naturally suit her talents. It was close, as the farty noises from the music room suggested, but no cigar. From there they had ambled frustratingly through the woodwind section before finally settling on strings. Inquiries about an expensive Suzuki Method school for the cello were poo-pooed in favour of investing in a violin after Stradivarius. “So much more sophisticated,” Miss Penney had advised.

It wasn’t the money that troubled James. As he contemplated the far end of the music room – the instruments hooded and shrouded, the brace of metronomes, the stools and bows and curled strings, the boxes containing spare reeds and nubbins of resin, the stacks of sheet music resting on top of the abandoned clavichord in its velvet smoking jacket – he felt a sense not of waste but of perplexity. Could it be possible to have a prodigious musical talent that was nevertheless not quite suited to any instrument yet devised?

“What if she took up singing?” James had suggested hopefully. The look Miss Penney gave him had closed down that line of inquiry. And, truth told, Sunday mornings at church had nourished the hunch that his daughter was growing the vocal chords of a soprano donkey. So on it went. The music room squeaked and boomed and wailed. James would gently urge Clemmie, from time to time, to stick at a given instrument. “But Daddy,” Clemmie would begin, before Miss Penney intervened to argue his daughter’s case. The viola was close, but still not quite right. Could the problem stem from school, she’d enquired. “Children can be so cruel, Mr Firbank. Perhaps a guitar would improve her ‘street cred’.”

“To think it all began with this,” James thought, picking up the box in which that first recorder had arrived. He slipped the clip and opened it. Inside was... a plastic Yamaha recorder of the sort they dished out at primary school. “How odd.” He opened the case for the bass recorder. It was stuffed with rolled-up newspaper. The viola case contained a viola – but one that looked like it had been fished out of a skip.


“Miss PENNEY!” he boomed, in a voice whose abrupt volume caused his daughter to skip half an octave.

They recovered only about a quarter of the instruments – a handful were still on eBay and the odd one was distinctive enough to be traceable. Miss Penney’s contract of employment was terminated abruptly and, on Charlotte’s insistence, with no police involvement.

But once the unpleasantness was over, something changed. Away from the influence of her domineering teacher, Clemmie seemed… happier. It was a red-letter day when she was invited to a classmate’s birthday party and came home drunk on jelly and cake and clutching a goodie bag.

“I’ve got a new instrument, Daddy,” she told him that evening. “It was a present from my party.” She played it for him – the first few bars of Twinkle, Twinkle and an encore of what might or might not have been Five Little Ducks.

“What’s it called, this instrument?” she asked.

“That, my darling, is a kazoo,” he replied.