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Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Prim, the magical choir and music teacher in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, has caused quite a stir with her great black cloak and frizz of white hair, her otherworldliness, and her spirituality. I am often asked if she was based on someone, and what is the key to that student-teacher magic.

Author Jennifer Ryan's bestselling book, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, tells the story of a music teacher, Prim.
Musical events and competitions became popular throughout the Second World War, and teachers found themselves with plenty to do

As a teenager, I had a very inspiring music teacher, the formidable Miss Newing, and Prim is very loosely based on her. The irony is that for such a magnificent and imposing woman, she was small and rather slight, probably around five foot tall. Her soft white hair was always meticulously curled in the old-fashioned way, and she’d wear traditional tweed suits in bright colors: turquoise, cerise, and blue, not unlike the queen. Her voice had a piercing quality, although it was her intonation that was especially transfixing, speaking about music practice as if it were the single most important thing happening on the planet earth that decade. As young teenagers, we’d hide our smiles as she pronounced the word piano in the Italian way: Pee-ahh-no.

She had that sense of magic about her, and if there was any drama in my life—which, as a 14-year-old girl was practically always—as soon as I walked into her music room, it wouldn’t matter; we had music and ourselves, and that was the most important thing.

Sometimes that’s all it takes: someone having faith in you, taking you away from all the small annoyances of every day, showing you the bigger picture. It was a very special time; she taught me that, whatever is happening, it often helps to take a small step back and let music carry you away.

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