Affinity for music paves way for pianist who has played worldwide venues

Simon Holt still enjoys applause of audience but is most gratified with students' learning

February 03, 2011|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI |
  • Simon Holt accompanies the Saint James Choir during class. Last September, Holt joined the Saint James faculty as head of music and director of fine arts, while his wife teaches stringed instruments at Saint James.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

Simon Holt never planned or expected to cross the pond from England to the United States along with his wife and two young boys to live and work.

Nonetheless, he did.

"It hadn't even crossed my mind," said Holt, 45, who lives and works at Saint James School, a boarding school southwest of Hagerstown.

It was his lifelong affinity for music that paved his path.

Holt said he grew up in the midlands of Malvern, Worcestershire. Both of his parents were organists, and Holt began playing the piano at age 6.

At 7, Holt said he went away to a preparatory school that offered academic and music education. It was there at Malvern College — alma mater of famed author C.S. Lewis — that he began "itching to play" the organ, Holt said.

Growing up, he was enthralled by the sound of the organ, he said.

"I think it was not the organ as a solo, but as an accompanying instrument to the choir. It was the way the organ and the choir would mix, hearing the men and boys singing with the organ, and the power that it had."

Despite Holt's early requests to learn to play the organ, teacher Nigel Hancock told him that he had to wait until high school. At 13, he began to study under Hancock, to whom he credits much of his success.

"(Hancock) was a very good teacher. I've gone back to him later in life for the odd organ lesson," Holt said.

Holt continued his studies at the Royal College of Music, which is across from the renowned arts venue, the Royal Albert Hall, in London, Holt said.

"It opened new doors in getting me on the circuit in England," he said.

When he was 19, Holt played the organ at Royal Albert Hall on British national television. He went on to perform at Westminster Abbey and St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, and across Europe, including at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

While working as a teacher in 1997, Holt traveled with a high school orchestra to New England. Among the stops was Salt Lyme, Conn. Holt said he hit it off with a woman he met there, and the two would call each other from time to time "to see how things were."

The following year, when a rector at Calvary Church in Stonington, Conn., was looking for an organist, the woman mentioned Holt's name.

"I got a bizarre phone call one Sunday saying, 'Your name came up and I'd like to meet you.' That's how it all happened," Holt said.

His boys, Oliver and Joe, were 7 and 5 at the time. Holt and his wife, Alison, a violinist, moved to Connecticut in May 1999.

By 2000, they had founded Calvary Music School and the nonprofit Salt Marsh Opera Company, both of which Holt said are still "alive and well."

Holt's eldest son, Oliver, boarded at Saint James and graduated two years ago. He studies voice at New York University. His younger son, Joe, is a senior at Saint James and plans to study songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Last September, Holt joined Saint James faculty as head of music and director of fine arts, while his wife teaches stringed instruments at Saint James.

Meanwhile, he continues to run the Salt Marsh Opera Company.

Holt said he's "done a full circle" in terms of his career.

"I was a teacher for 18 years in England, then I came here and sort of tried my hand at running a nonprofit and raising money. Then I came back to ground in a school teaching and running a fine arts program. I'm doing both things now at the same time."

Holt said he appreciates the Saint James mission to "educate the whole person."

"There really is an opportunity for every aspect of life to be advanced, in academics, sporting, the arts, socially," he said. "It has the fantastic ethos of a small school."

Though Holt still enjoys the applause of an audience, he said what often is most gratifying to him is seeing a student "get it."

"It's like playing an opera before a full house where you sense that every member of the audience is fully engaged," Holt said. "When you see a kid who has been struggling for a long time very honestly and suddenly understand something, when that light goes on, and they go, 'Oh, yes. Of course, I understand,' and you really believe that they do. That is fantastic."

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