The Master

One of the highlights of my excellent high school education was in choral singing.  I’d joined the Prep School Choir (after a rather terrifying audition), and when I moved from Prep School to College (a distance of about fifty yards — literally, College started in the next quadrangle over), I joined the College Choir.

The St. John’s College Choir was famous in South Africa.  We performed often, sometimes live concerts at the school and elsewhere, and sometimes radio performances (usually transmitted live from our chapel).  It was as close to a professional choir as one could get — actually, I’ve been in professional choral groups that weren’t as professional as we were.

The man who ran the thing was our choir master, James “Jimmy” Gordon, a tall, very classy 40-ish man of unbelievable talent as a singer, church organist (we had a 72-pipe organ in the chapel) and teacher.  It was generally accepted that Jimmy could have made a good living as a singer or an organist — even, perhaps, as a concert pianist;  but there he was, in St. John’s College, teaching a bunch of young hooligans such as myself to sing sacred choral music.  His mastery of the choir and of its music was absolute, yet he was patient, self-effacing but a relentless perfectionist for all that.  Here’s an example.

Our choir had about sixty members, and we were rehearsing a piece by, I think, Mozart or Handel.  At one point he stopped the choir with a raised hand, pointed to me and said, “Du Toit, that was a lovely harmony you sang at bar 28 — but it’s not what the composer wrote.  Kindly read your part properly and sing accordingly.  Now, again from bar 14…”  He could pick out not only a dissonant voice, but could identify its owner, out of sixty choristers.

As I said, he was endlessly patient, and I only ever remember him losing his temper twice, and venting his anger at the miscreants.  (No prizes for guessing who was one of them.)

We (and I) did not deserve to have him;  but we did, for five whole years.  And as my voice changed from soprano through alto and finally to first tenor, my ability grew and grew until I could read any piece of music, and sing any part of it.  It was, and remains, a priceless gift from this extraordinary man, James Gordon.  I’m only glad he never heard me perform with the rock band — he’d have cringed at what I did to my voice.

Jimmy passed away last week at age 91, and I only learned about it via my sister’s link to the school’s website.  Here’s his obituary, and if I can say anything about that and the tributes that accompany it, it’s that they don’t do him justice.

Thank you, Jimmy, from the bottom of my heart, and R.I.P.

Clayton House (1971)



  1. What a thoughtful tribute. I hope you add it to the ones so eloquently written with his obituary. A teacher can make such a difference in so many lives, you are fortunate to have had such a person in yours.

  2. There’s an outfit called Millennial Choirs & Orchestras with several chapters nationwide, including one in Dallas. It’s run by a couple of 30 or 40 something brothers, who seem to be clones of your Jimmy Gordon – in terms of the ears, musicianship, & relentless pursuit of perfection. Glenn Beck is one of their biggest fans; he’s a Mormon & says the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doesn’t hold a candle to the Stewart bros.

    Re: Mr. Gordon’s chops on the pipe organ – one of my bucket list items is to hear a badass player having his way with the Bach D Minor Tocata & Fugue on an old school instrument; with 10,000+ pipes in a cathedral where the acoustics morph the music into a physical force. It’s how they turned it up to 11 once upon a time.

  3. I’m sorry for your loss. Great teachers are very hard to find but when they are found, they’re a treasure that keeps on giving even after class is over.

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