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Val Protheroe taught children music for 35 years

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Teacher Judith Mills Welch with her former music teacher Val Protheroe (Photograph supplied)
Val Protheroe enjoying a sunny day outside her Southampton home (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Val Protheroe practising the piano (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

For more than three decades Val Protheroe taught music to hundreds of primary school students in Bermuda.

Now retired, Mrs Protheroe still remembers most of them.

“Last week, I bumped into eight different former students,” the 76-year-old said. “Three of them were from when I taught at Victor Scott in the 1970s. It is amazing how they remember me, and I remember them.”

She saw former student Judith Mills Welch while walking her dog at Astwood Park in Warwick.

“She came up to me in the park and said ‘you look familiar’,” Mrs Protheroe said.

Ms Welch is a special-education teacher at Whitney Institute. Mrs Protheroe taught her to play the melodica at Victor Scott Primary, among other things. At the park, they took a selfie together. Later, Ms Welch sent her a copy of the photo and a note thanking her for her inspirational teaching. The note meant a lot to Mrs Protheroe.

“I love hearing about what my former students are doing today,” she said.

Mrs Protheroe was born in Glasgow, Scotland, just after the Second World War.

“Things were quite tough then,” she said. “We had ration books, and you could not get things like butter. You could not gets sweets or chocolate and only a limited amount of meat.”

Her father, John Cooke, was a minister in the Church of Scotland, so they moved around often. As a minister’s daughter – the middle of child of three, she often felt a pressure to behave.

“We felt that we should behave all the time, but it did not always happen,” she laughed. “People did look at you and you were on display all the time. You had to try and be as well as you could.”

Growing up in Scotland she loved listening to the bagpipes.

“They used to have pipe bands marching through the streets,” she said. “The Boys Brigade had pipe bands. When I was very small I used to dance after them.”

When she got older she thought about learning to play the bagpipes, but decided her neighbours probably would not appreciate it. Instead, she started taking piano lessons at age nine.

“I started that and I enjoyed it, but I had to practise every day,” she said.

Then at 14, she started learning to play the organ, which seemed a good skill to have as a minister’s daughter.

Today, her favourite instrument to play is the organ, but she still loves listening to the bagpipes. Sometimes she plays pipe tunes such as The Dark Island, a traditional Scottish song, on her keyboard at home.

She briefly considered becoming a concert pianist, but was a little shy for a career in the limelight. Instead, she qualified as a teacher at Moray House College in Edinburgh. Early in her career, she taught music at a boarding school for emotionally disturbed children, located just outside of London.

Her students were 5 to 17, and had experienced trauma.

“I lived in,” Mrs Protheroe said. “I was a house mistress and I had to look after the students after school hours and sometimes during special holidays or weekends.”

The work could be very challenging. While she was there, one 14-year-old tried to set the school on fire.

But her experience at the boarding school only cemented her love for teaching.

“There were a lot of rewarding things about it,” she said. “The school was a big old English manor house. I had a wonderful choir there.”

It was at the boarding school that she met her future husband, David Protheroe, another teacher there.

“Previously, he had been teaching in the Bahamas,” Mrs Protheroe said. “He wanted to go back to somewhere warm and sunny.”

He suggested they apply for jobs in Bermuda. They did, and were accepted.

They were married in Scotland 50 years ago, on August 17, 1971 and came to Bermuda shortly afterward.

Mrs Protheroe loved the island from the moment she arrived.

“The roads were much quieter then,” Mrs Protheroe said. “It was a different world. Everyone was so friendly. People used to always call out good morning. That would not have been typical of a Scottish town. It was not done, at least not at that time. And of course, there were the beautiful beaches and the heat of September.”

Her first assignment was teaching music at Victor Scott Primary.

“Victor Scott was a very big school at that time,” she said. “I think there were 500 students.”

Her classes were made up of 35 to 40 students, which was typical of the time period.

“With that many students you had to be very strict as a teacher,” she said. “Children can not learn in chaos.”

She led a choir consisting of 75 to 80 children.

“They were really very talented,” she said. “The school was very well organised. I had a band of quite a large number of children. I helped them learn to read music. They enjoyed it. We would practice during lunch hours.”

When their three-year stint in Bermudas was up, Mrs Protheroe did not want to return to Scotland, so the couple renewed their contracts.

In the late 1980s, she was transferred to the west end of the island, splitting her time between Port Royal Primary in Southampton and Somerset Primary in Sandys.

Kalmar Richards, principal at Somerset Primary in Sandys at the time, asked her to start a handbell choir. First Mrs Protheroe had to learn to play the handbells herself. She took lessons from organist Lloyd Matthew, while the school raised funds for the handbells.

“It is really easy to learn to play the handbells if you can read music,” she said.

The handbell choir at the school was successful, and children would come in to practice at 8am.

Mrs Protheroe now plays in a handbell choir at Christ Church in Warwick.

“Because of Covid-19 the handbell choir had to stop over the last two years, but usually we would have ten to 12 ringers,” she said. “We just started up again three weeks ago. We played last Sunday. It was great to be doing it again. We have a really nice group of ringers. We had a couple of young girls, teenagers. They are very talented. The rest are grown-ups.”

She also plays the organ at Christ Church in Warwick.

“The organ at Christ Church was donated in the 1960s by William Purvis, a senior elder in the church,” she said. “Although the mechanical action of the organ can make it challenging to play, it can produce a remarkable variety of sounds. It is a beautiful and powerful instrument.”

But the organ is also unforgiving.

“You can get a lot of volume from the organ,” she said. “You have to be careful not to make mistakes, because if you do, everyone hears them.”

Mrs Protheroe was also into sports in her younger days, and helped to found the Bermuda Hockey Association, which later became the Bermuda Hockey Federation, soon after arriving on the island.

“I was a goalkeeper for ten years,” she said. “Then because I liked to run, I changed position and played a forward.”

You have to be fast in field hockey, and she was plenty speedy.

Later, she and her husband discovered squash at Devonshire Courts, next to the former National Sports Club.

“You have to be speedy for that, too,” she said. “I loved it. I played virtually every day.”

She stopped playing squash only six years ago.

Now, for exercise, she loves walking her border collie, Dae, and growing vegetables in a small plot outside her house.

Val Protheroe decided to become a teacher at 16 years old.

Now 76 and retired she would make the same decision all over again if she had the choice.

“I can’t imagine ever being anything else,” the Southampton resident said. “I think it is what I was meant to be.”

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Published April 19, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated April 21, 2022 at 4:25 pm)

Val Protheroe taught children music for 35 years

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