Singing and music have added value and richness to every aspect of Peter Gatto’s life from listening to the radio on 3AR with his parents and playing with Wonthaggi Brass Band as a child, through to courting his wife Glenys as a young man in the 1960s.
From their very first date, singing remained an integral part of this couple’s love story, featuring consistently in the tapestry of their life together until Glenys’ death from ovarian cancer in 2012. At that point, as a quiet companion to his heavy loss, music acquired a new relevance for Peter, and played a significant part in dealing with the grief that persisted and still persists. Music offered him an opportunity for solace and therapy, it became the bond between his present and his past and a window to the memories of Glenys which light up Peter’s face as he speaks of her. Community singing became a reason for Peter to get out and connect with people, an opportunity to talk and reminisce about the happy times he’s been blessed with. He agrees with Nietzsche, that without music, life would be a mistake.
Peter is a born story-teller with a string of entertainingly moving warm memories to share about the importance and place of music in his life.
“Music and Community Music Victoria have been significant in dealing with my grief and loss. Glenys was a very capable and competent person, she had wonderful attributes. I mean she wasn’t perfect, Peter smiles, she had a fiery little temper!” Peter’s ambition now, is to write down his life story to pass on to his children and grandchildren as a tribute to Glenys. “I can’t write about my life story without mentioning music and Community Music Victoria which has played a significant part so far.
For the past nine months Peter has sung each week with Flinders Lane Community Voices. “I can’t wait to get there; it’s a source of enjoyment, I’m meeting new people, there’s encouragement and camaraderie and you feel secure in this group. My only criticism is that it’s only once a week and then for just an hour.”
Peter encountered the work of Community Music Victoria whilst doing ‘a bit of surfing’ and looking for ways to extend his music therapy. Having taught recorder to kids at school during his many years in education, Peter decided to return to the instrument and extend his playing ability after Glenys died. “I’ve taught myself how to play some of the masters… Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, on the recorder.” Making music by himself was one thing, but Peter felt the need to be part of a group.
“It’s been a lovely journey really. The other thing with music now I’m able – and it’s taken this long – is to use music to bring back the beautiful memories, and I have some superb memories of Glenys. It’s comforting, and it’s grieving because it’s gone. Although does music go? What happens to music?” Peter laughs. ”It can’t be destroyed. Music is a vehicle for facing, accepting and dealing with great loss. I think I’m done with my crying, the tears I cry now are of happiness for the wonderful life we shared.”
It wasn’t long ago that Peter couldn’t speak about it. One of his first memories of Glenys is taking her out in Melbourne. “I must have been 19, she would have been 17. All of a sudden, walking past the Arts Centre I heard this beautiful voice singing I’ll take you home, Kathleen, and it was Glenys and I can still remember it, and it was lovely. Music became an integral part of my courting with her. Glenys would ask me to sing to her. I wasn’t listening to much radio then, I’d be playing football or busy teaching and so the songs I would sing to her were school songs.”
Glenys said and believed that she couldn’t sing, however two people in her life told her that she had a lovely voice. One was Peter, and the other was Dr Clare O’Callahan from Melbourne University who ran a musical therapy program for people in palliative care.
“Clare came out to Kew where Glenys was in the hospice and started playing one of our songs, I don’t know how that happened, but Clare started playing and then Glenys joined in – I can’t remember what the song was – and then Clare stopped playing and said, ‘Glenys, you have a beautiful voice!’ and I was forever grateful that happened, because I know Glenys was very pleased. She was one of the many people out there who was told by somebody else that she shouldn’t sing. That belief is so stifling. I have vowed and declared to never do anything to dissuade anyone from singing and I would never ever deny anyone the chance to sing!”
One of Peter’s earliest introductions to music was sitting around the radio as a twelve-year old, listening to the world-famous Italian tenors with his mum and dad, something he later discovered Glenys had been doing at the same time.
“I lived in Wonthaggi, she lived in the hills on a dairy farm in the hills about 12, 13ks away, so we’re listening to the same song and loving the same song at the exact same time which then came to mind about 40 years after the event driving through the Outback in Queensland. Glenys said ‘I know that song, I used to listen to that song with my parents on a Sunday afternoon’, I said, ‘so did I!’. The song was Mattinata and I used some of the lyrics when I delivered Glenys’s eulogy. ‘Ove non sei la luce manca; Ove tu sei nasce l’amor.’: ‘Where you are not, the light is missing; where you are, love is born.’ And Glenys exuded love. She was a wonderful teacher with a great reputation and she didn’t discriminate with the way she gave out the love: if a kid needed affection and attention, she’d give it out. Of course, she was able to dish out the discipline too!”
“We were very, very close, we did a lot of things together. One of the things Glenys asked me do was help her put on a production of Oliver at North Melbourne Primary School. Now she had no musical knowledge, she believed she couldn’t sing so when she asked me to help I said of course I would. So I taught all of the difficult songs and left what I considered to be the easiest song til last. But of course when things go wrong they go wrong, and at the particular time when I was ready to teach that song I was committed elsewhere and couldn’t go, I said to Glenys, ‘you’ll just have to do it’. Well, she was very unsure about doing this, having never taught anyone to sing before.”
Some days later Peter recalls dropping into Errol St Primary School and hearing ‘some beautiful singing’ of Oom Pah-Pah coming from Glenys’s room. “I thought, who’s doing this? I sneaked around to take a look through the window and there was the greatest sight that anyone could see because the kids were all up on their feet singing in full voice with huge smiles on their faces and I turned around to Glenys’s table and there she was in full flight and I mean full flight! She was up on the table, she was singing in full voice, the kids were singing with her, it was the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard so I went in there and I said to Glenys, ‘now who could top that? No one!” The kids never, ever sang that song as well as then and to see that gave me great joy.”
Throughout the course of his own career, Peter taught at schools all over the state, including at a one-teacher school in Strzelecki. “When I got there, there were 30 children in seven grades and one teacher. Discipline was a major problem. What I used to bring a little bit of order, was singing.” Peter would sing with the children every hour on the hour for around three or four minutes at a time. “They were beautiful singers and it had that wonderful calming effect of music. They loved it and I loved it.”
“During mid-winter in the Strzelecki Ranges it gets really miserable sometimes and it also gets absolutely beautiful. You can go from not being able to see metres in front of you and then the weather clears up and you get the clearest blue skies and the sun streaming down and it’s magnificent. On one of those days in mid-winter the kids had been inside all day and then at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the weather broke so I said to them ‘go outside and play.’ It was at the time when you had district inspectors overseeing everything. Sending the kids outside to play outside of regulated playtime hours was a risky thing for me to do. Anyway, the kids were out there playing in this beautiful sunshine and I look up the drive and there are two cars coming up to the school… and everyone recognised the inspectors car. Well I thought my career was in tatters, but the inspector, Mr Bull, stopped me and then he said, ‘look, I’ve got both my family and my wife’s family with me, do you mind if you bring them in as I’d like them to hear your kids sing.’ I bought them in and explained to the children that there had been a request for them to sing from Mr Bull. And the kids sang in full voice and it was a glorious, triumphant moment, and thank god for the kids of Strzelecki – that’s the power of music.”
Peter’s final story about the influence and importance of music in his life, is of a song his mother used to sing.
“My mother was illiterate. She’d never been out of her Southern Italian village, had never listened to radio or anything like that; never been to a concert, nothing. She then travelled from this little village right across the world carrying a beautiful tune with her. I’m sitting in the pea patch with her in South Gippsland as a ten or eleven year old and I hear her singing with the other Southern Italian pea pickers and I love it. I loved hearing her sing in the pea patch with all the other ladies. Then later, as a teacher I introduced one of my favourite composers to the kids, who was Tchaikovsky. And I played some of Tchaikovsky’s music and it was the same tune that my mother had sung in the pea patch. She carried it within herself, she couldn’t read or write, had never been to school, never read a newspaper, didn’t listen to a radio until the 1950s, and yet she knew this. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky spent two years in Italy, during which time he travelled around and collected the Italian folk tunes. The piece of music is called La Caprician Italienne, which, by the way, I can play on the recorder!”
As our time for talking drew to a close, Peter had one last thing to say in reflection: “Music gives you so much to discuss, and to think about. What is it that we’re doing, in our schools, that is more important than teaching our children music? Why aren’t we making music an integral part of the curriculum? It just doesn’t make sense.”
As told by Peter Gatto to Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria
Flinders Lane Community Voices meets in Ross House on Thursday lunchtimes at 1pm during term time. Led by Sarah Mandie and John Howard. Open to everyone!