Atarah Ben-Tovim obituary

Orchestral flautist who inspired generations of children with her innovative approach to music education

The flautist and teacher Atarah Ben-Tovim, who has died aged 82 of cancer, was for 13 years the principal flute of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, before opening up the world of music to young people as the presenter of hundreds of children’s concerts with her group Atarah’s Band in the 1970s and 80s. She also made radio and TV programmes and wrote books on music education.

Bounding with energy, Atarah radiated enthusiasm for people, flute playing and music teaching, and could capture a crowded auditorium by merely appearing on the stage and holding out her arms. Children loved her, and many of today’s professional players attest that they were first hooked on classical music by attending one of her concerts.

Atarah’s first experience with performances for children were the RLPO’s many contracted schools’ concerts, in which she played as principal flautist from 1962. “The conductor-presenters droned on meaninglessly,” she recalled. The musicians were bored and the children talked, fought and flew paper aeroplanes from the gallery. She was convinced it did not have to be like this.

A turning point came at a small concert set up at a special school for disabled children. Seeing the faces of 200 children, many using wheelchairs, she departed from the planned programme of short solos and simple nursery-rhymes and gave the children 45 minutes of engaging, communicative “look, listen, laugh and learn”. When it was over, “I just started shaking and sweating, and I knew I had to change my life and do something for children, to get a light in their eyes.”

Atarah left the RLPO in 1975, and, working with her soon-to-be husband, Douglas Boyd, a BBC TV producer, she formed Atarah’s Band, a small group of talented freelance players, some of whom were also composer-arrangers.

Their performances included short pieces of baroque, classical, jazz and rock, skilfully arranged, with the concerts alternating between quiet listening and noisy audience participation. “As a result, as many as 3,000 children with their instruments were quiet as mice when necessary, and let off steam rhythmically when we wanted them to.”

Atarah’s Band featured in major music festivals in Britain, and in children’s proms with the RLPO, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the CBSO and the Hallé. Over these years they reached an audience of some three million through live concerts.

In 1976, Atarah’s Music Box, scripted by Boyd, became a weekly series for children on Radio 3, running for three years, and her work was profiled on television programmes including Blue Peter and Omnibus. In 1980 Atarah was appointed MBE in recognition of her services to children’s music.

In the mid-70s, Atarah bought half a street of derelict houses in Haslingden, in the Lancashire valley of Rossendale, just opposite the big concert hall. She and Douglas converted them, doing the work themselves, into a 44-room music centre, with a recording studio. Any child could come and try out all the families of instruments, discarding the ones that did not “feel good”.

Observing this process closely, Atarah went on to publish the books The Right Instrument for Your Child (1985, with four subsequent editions) and You Too Can Make Music! (1986). She strongly believed that there is a musician in everyone, and had a restless desire to discover the exact path to find it.

Atarah was born in Abergavenny, South Wales, to Zvi Ben-Tovim, known as Harry, a Jerusalem-born GP who piped classical music into his waiting-room, and Gladys (nee Carengold), a teacher. In 1948 the family moved to London, and Atarah went to Notting Hill and Ealing high school. “I failed at metalwork and pottery, but by divine chance I made the best recorder in the woodwork class. So impressed was the flute teacher... that she gave me an ancient wooden flute.” Within weeks Atarah was playing a Telemann suite, and teaching the instrument to a couple of her school friends. “It was as if I was born to play it.”

At 15 she played the Quantz Concerto in G, live on television, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She also performed the Chaminade Concertino with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and became first flute in the National Youth Orchestra.

In 1958 she went to the Royal Academy of Music, where she was taught by Gareth Morris and made an obsessive study of sight-reading, working through an immense range of music, sometimes turning the pages upside-down so that the sequences would not be so recognisable. None of the major orchestras at the time had a female player as a section principal, but that’s what she wanted to be. “If I had been a man, life with the flute would have been very different,” she said.

She turned down the offer of second flute at Sadler’s Wells, but later – when James Galway left – joined as the first player. In 1962, she auditioned for principal flautist at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – sight-reading Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis faultlessly – and was appointed by Sir Charles Groves. She played with the orchestra for 13 years, before leaving in 1975 to focus on the children’s concert tours with Atarah’s Band.

In 1978, Atarah and her husband bought a dilapidated farmhouse in south-west France. Over subsequent years they renovated the sprawling, interconnected buildings to make another music centre, where they later based themselves permanently. There, she taught both children and adults, and hosted residential courses, where meals in local restaurants were as important as the music. From 1996 she was the south-west France rep for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, introducing the music exam system into the region.

A long-standing supporter of the British Flute Society, she served as its chair from 2005 to 2010. Her energy, enthusiasm and love of music and the people she taught never flagged.

“You have to be flexible. You have to keep on fighting,” she said. “I believe music is the only thing that educates body, mind and soul. There is nothing else that educates all these three sides.”

Atarah is survived by Douglas, whom she married in 1976, her daughter, Daliah, from her first marriage, in 1962, to Uriel Priwes, which ended in divorce in 1974, her granddaughters, Lily and Eve, her great-granddaughter Tobi Atara, her stepchildren Richard, Sue and Danielle, stepgrandchildren Chloe, Hannah, Ed and Eleanor, and her three brothers Gideon, Arnon and David.

• Atarah Ben-Tovim, flautist, concert presenter and music educator, born 1 October 1940; died 20 October 2022


June Emerson

The GuardianTramp

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