Profile: Stuart Reed

Violinist Stuart Reed has an unconventional history. After learning to play from music, Stuart spent many years playing by ear. He’d be the first to confide that even though he plays in four amateur orchestras at the age of 78 his sight reading is still less than perfect. He envies the ability of his fellow musicians who’ve played from notation all their lives and can play note-perfect at a glance. However, some of them say they wish they could extemporise like him.

Like many of his fellow musicians, Stuart began learning the violin young. He began at eleven. After three years he was leading his grammar school orchestra and also playing in Sunderland Youth Orchestra in his native County Durham.

In his early twenties Stuart met a guitarist in a music shop in Newcastle who asked him to join a Country and Western band called the Nebraskans. The Nebraskans all had day jobs but played most weekends in working men’s clubs throughout the North East. They also played every week in the legendary Balmbra’s Music Hall in the centre of the city. None of the members could read music. They played by ear, learning their repertoire from listening to vinyl records.

Stuart moved to London to develop his Civil Service career in the early 70’s. He played briefly with Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra but was soon drawn into playing fiddle with hillbilly Bluegrass bands on the metropolis’ barn dance circuit. Bands with rustic American names like Barnstorm, Betsey Jefferson and the Ridge Runners, Hoedown and Orange Blossom Sound had full diaries of lucrative engagements. Saturday night dances were their bread and butter activity but Jewish synagogues gave them work on Sunday nights too.

Stuart appeared on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks in 1963 after composing a song for Plant a Tree Year. He played in European folk festivals and did week-long tours of Belgium and Switzerland performing with the bands and selling their albums.

Stuart worked in Whitehall throughout the 70’s and 80’s as a Government Information Officer with the Ministry of Defence. His work also took him overseas so he took his violin with him. He’s played in Bush dances in Australia, a floating hotel on the Mekong River, the Arctic Hotel in Murmansk, dockside bars in downtown Belfast, army camps in Bosnia, in warships at sea and with the Army in the Arabian Desert during the Gulf War.

For ten years Stuart led Squinty McGinty, a highly successful band specialising in Irish music. The band still plays at Goodwood Races every year and has two popular CD’s to its credit. Squinty McGinty was going from strength to strength but Stuart wanted to return to formal, classical playing.

In his late fifties, to make up for neglecting sight reading for so many years, Stuart took up formal violin lessons with professional teacher Lorraine Masson. He threw himself into playing with the Havant Symphony Orchestra, the Portsmouth Light Orchestra, the Meon Valley Orchestra and the Charity Symphony Orchestra. Stuart is a regular player at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Rusty Musicians days and string tuition weekends at Hawkwood College in the Cotswolds as well as Winchester Summer Music Courses and Julia Bishop’s Baroque tuition days in Lewes.

Stuart privately admits that he feels a bit like the grasshopper in Aesop’s ant and grasshopper fable with the added twist that after a lifetime of musical fun and frolics he hopes it’s never too late to knuckle down to some hard work.

Stuart writes many of the pieces on The Noticeboard.

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