Derek Watmough MBE with students at Beacon Community College

Former students and staff have paid tribute to the memory of Derek Watmough MBE, an inspirational teacher of Music and highly respected colleague, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Affectionately known to fellow staff as WAM, Derek taught Music at Beacon from the early 1970s to 1992.

Since retiring from teaching, Derek devoted his time to a large number of musical activities and was music director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society for thirty years until 2004. Following this retirement, he was invited to be the society’s Vice-President. In 1992 Derek was awarded the MBE for services to music.

Derek was an inspiration to many during his time at Beacon and a large number of tributes have been made on community social media pages. We have collated this selection of tributes from former staff and students in his memory. A number of former students and staff attended a thanksgiving service at All Saints Church on Wednesday 25 September. Donations were accepted on behalf of The Friends of Crowborough Hospital and Rotherfield St. Martin.

On behalf of everyone at Beacon Academy, we would like to thank Derek for the wonderful work that he did with and for the young people of our school, many of whom have gone on to achieve illustrious careers in Music and the Performing Arts. His passion for his subject and his gifts as an educator will remain a celebrated part of our history within our school and the wider community. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Rumon Gamba, Conductor

I can assuredly say that I wouldn’t be doing what I do for a living today without Derek Watmough. From my first encounters with him as one of the (many) young princes in ‘The King and I’ as a new Beacon pupil to a lead role in ‘The Boyfriend’ and my music A level recital where he of course accompanied me, the points in between that saw my development as a young musician and indeed person are too numerous to mention. His energy, enthusiasm and enormous sense of fun touched everyone at the school, musician or not. As a musically curious student, he would spend hours of his own time talking to me about music, playing me interesting new things, lending me records and musical scores, pointing me in all sorts of different directions and encouraging me to explore as wide a range of music as possible. He could speak many languages and had a love of literature, classics and travel - all things he insisted would be useful in my future (he was right!). He allowed me to raid the school music library which had become sadly redundant post O-level and even let me take my first steps in conducting, something I have now done professionally for twenty years.

To say he was larger than life is not an exaggeration and whilst there are very few who could have given him a run for his money, the way he enthused people about music and the joy with which he performed is something I strive to do every day in my work.

Derek could play anything at the piano, with or without music (he was one of those people who could copy by ear something he had just heard). A fantastic thinker and orator, he regularly used to dictate whole essays off the top of his head for us to take down in our A level music class (total students - 2. We were really spoiled!).

One break time he decided to write an off the cuff waltz (straight to paper) based on the musical letters from my name. When I played it at the piano later it revealed itself to be a perfect miniature of charm, wit and genius. No wonder his school name ‘WAM’ happened to be the initials of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Music really was his life, school was just a small part - he conducted choral societies and orchestras, played chamber music, accompanied people in countless recitals, and attended as many concerts as he possibly could (kindly taking me along whenever possible).

This kind of education he gave is priceless and it was thanks to him that I eventually followed in his footsteps and read Music at Durham University and ended up studying conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.

Constantly supportive of students past and present, one of my proudest moments was seeing his beaming face at the stage door of English National Opera after I had made my conducting debut there. The great conductor, composer, pianist, author and polymath Leonard Bernstein once said ‘Life without music is unthinkable. Life without music is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.’ Derek Watmough was our very own Leonard Bernstein.

Liz Flint, Voice Coach

I wanted to share a few words on the glorious WAM.

I was one of, what Derek lovingly referred to as “The Bloomsbury Group” at Beacon in the 1988-1991 period. As a violinist, I took part in show bands, orchestras and concerts (where, on one occasion, he memorably challenged us to perform Mendelssohn’s (rather tricky!) Octet for Strings). I had the joy of singing in chorales, choirs, and spur-of-the-moment singalongs in lunchbreaks around the piano - where he introduced us to his huge repertoire and knowledge of songs from Noel Coward to Lennon & McCartney. He gave me the role of Maisie in The Boy Friend and Divorce Me, Darling - giving me a bug for performing which has continued throughout my life. Every single one of these extra-curricular activities and events were coordinated and led by WAM, and enriched and inspired my school and future life immeasurably.

He was an incredibly gifted musician, comedian, wit and raconteur whose passion for music, poetry, Latin and life inspired us all. The fact that I now have a career as a voice coach, teacher and performer is in absolutely no doubt due to the inspiration, encouragement, enthusiasm and energy of this quite brilliant man. He is greatly missed, but never forgotten.

We loved you, WAM. Thank you for making my life all the brighter.

Victoria Flint, former student

Derek Watmough was a total inspiration to me and so many other pupils at Beacon. It was thanks to him that - decades on (!) - I am still involved in musical theatre. His passion for music was infectious. He always had a twinkle in his eye as he roared “Mud, Mud Glorious Mud” in our music classes and introduced us to the delights of Flanders and Swann, a full repertoire of classical music and hidden musicals (I remember him soaring the soprano in ‘No No Nanette’ with particular relish). I was lucky enough to be involved in three musical shows that he was the driving force behind - his energy and vision was incredible - it always felt such a privilege to be involved. I looked through my programme to Oklahoma the other day and see that he is humbly listed as ‘pianist’. He was much much more than that - it was his vision that drove the whole production - they were wonderful shows that provided the foundations for many professional performers and musicians.

I also was fortunate to be involved in WAM’s choirs. He led a group of eager pupils to the Royal Albert Hall for one memorable performance of the Messiah. I can never ever listen to the Messiah now without hearing him declare “here comes the knitting section!”

He will be much missed by family, friends, and a huge number of former pupils who were fortunate to have been taught by him.

Becky Pettitt, Finance Officer at Beacon Academy

I was taught Music by Mr Watmough in my first years at Beacon. His passion for the subject was immeasurable, lessons were always great fun. There were some great School Performances and concerts during his time as well.

David Mayo, former student

I was at Beacon School between 1976 and 1982. It was the time of my life.

It’s often hard as a teenager to stand out from the pack - other than through disruptive means - but Mr Watmough was someone who made people stand out for all the right reasons.

He promoted and supported them. He encouraged them. He drove them hard. He wasn’t a soft touch either. If you did wrong, he made sure you knew you’d done wrong and why.

As for me, my best testimony is to say that I knew him almost all my life - from 1976 until this year. Over forty years of fun, silliness and intellectual sparring.

And I’m not the only one.

His wide circle of friends and associates, musicians, poets, odd balls, dropouts, knockouts and ordinary folk would all end up saying the same affectionate things about WAM.

He was complex and private but very much everyone’s public beacon.

Of course he will be missed.

More importantly however, he will be remembered by many as the person who provided a foundation in those early years and a compass in the years that followed them.

Jane Johnstone, former Teacher of Music at Beacon

I worked with WAM in the Music Department at Beacon for a couple of years before his retirement. Those years led to a friendship which lasted and which I valued enormously.

WAM was unique. He was one of those teachers who left an indelible mark - if you go into a hairdresser in Crowborough, or employ a plumber, electrician or builder who went to Beacon, they will remember WAM.

His humour was infectious and his enormous musical talent and intelligence could capture an audience, or a class of unruly kids, seemingly effortlessly.

WAM was a performer, an educator, a wonderfully empathetic person.

Retirement brought new opportunities and Derek’s contribution to musical life in this area was rewarded with his MBE.

I feel very privileged that I was a part in Derek’s life.

Lesley Harris, former Teacher of Music at Beacon

As a newly qualified teacher in 1990, Derek was my first ‘proper’ boss!

He had to endure my (possibly) overzealous contributions to his music department at Beacon but was always open, understanding and fun! I’ve attached a photo of Derek dressed as a T-Bird (leather jacket and shades!) for a lower school production of ‘Grease’ in the early ’90s.

As well as being a phenomenal musician, Derek was a great communicator with a big personality that drew everyone to him.

Much of what Derek modelled/taught me about being a teacher and working with students and staff, I only realised with hindsight.

He was always the same person - warm and accommodating - no matter who he was dealing with.

We have kept in touch over the years, exchanging letters and birthday cards (both Capricorns) and it was great to meet up and reminisce with Derek, Jo and Jane from Beacon Music Dept. earlier this year. So very glad we did.

We’ll never forget him xx

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