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The Glasshouse

Les Oliver's Make Music Story

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“I’ve been making music all my life.”

Les Oliver started his musical journey aged 11 years old. The former journalist has been an avid attendee of Sage Gateshead since 2010. However, a challenging period before lockdown meant he might not have continued with his passion for music due to his deteriorating eyesight and being registered blind.

Illya, his black Labrador Retriever cross enables him to travel safely to and from his classes on public transport. The support of his guide dog means Les can still practise music in his groups.

“When I retired, I decided to learn to play the guitar; it was Beginner Guitar. Dean Moulding soon became one of my teachers, and I was playing and singing in his classes for years,” he says.

Les also joined the Folk Band and Intermediate Guitar class and currently attends Sing and Strum with Ian McKone.

“In both classes you are encouraged to sing along as well as play the guitar, but singing’s not compulsory.”

From a teen, Les played the Tenor Horn in brass bands. He was fortunate to travel all around Europe: Norway, Germany, France and even as far afield as America and Canada as a proud member of the Sunderland International Concert Band. After leaving school, he joined colliery bands spanning 30 years.

“Sometimes we had to sight-read. Occasionally the conductor would put a piece of music in front of you that you had never seen before, and you had to play it without having practised it,” he says.

“Brass bands get involved in not just concerts, but in contests, so you had to go all over the place to compete and see who’d win the championship. We played Belle Vue in Manchester, and even the Royal Albert Hall.”

Alongside brass music, he has always been interested in folk and immersed himself in clubs throughout the North East. Les became more involved by performing with his harmonica; a recommendation led him to Sage Gateshead’s Make Music programme.

“Someone said, ‘You’re sure to find a group that will help you come on at Sage Gateshead,’ says Les. There weren’t any harmonica classes, but I joined the violins and took my harmonica to the class. It was great playing the melody line alongside the violins, and we did a few concerts.”

An interest in a guitar kept surfacing.

“Over the years, I’ve given everything from The Beatles to The Beach Boys a go. I’ve been taught hundreds of songs and wish I could still remember them all; I’m gradually not as bad as I was, he says.

“My eyesight started deteriorating steadily over the years. When it got really bad, I was classed as severely sight impaired [blind], and I qualified for a guide dog,” he says. “With the help of Illya, she brings me from my house in Sunderland, on the bus and Metro. She knows her way to Sage. She’s brilliant.”

“It was a wonderful feeling as it meant that I was able to continue making music. I’ve been doing it my whole life; it helped me to continue,” he reflects. “You can manage without eyesight, but it is better to be able to read the music. Fortunately, you need good ears and good fingers to be able to play the guitar.”

Les is thankful to the Guide Dog Association for giving him the ‘lovely’ Illya who gets him everywhere.

“In class, she lies down, puts her paws over her ears and goes to sleep – unless we play something by Bach!”

Les Oliver and guide dog Illya