When I was 17 my parents bought me a cello. I had a year’s lessons, left school and went to university before becoming a physics teacher. I carried on the cello, but made up my technique and didn’t have more lessons.
Nearly 40 years later, in 2006, I saw Sara Lovell performing as a cello soloist. I spoke to her in the corridor during the interval and said “that was brilliant – I’ve never seen anyone play with such energy and enjoyment”. She smiled and said “thank you”.
In 2013, over 50 years since getting my first cello, I had my first lesson with Sara. This led to three-and-a-half years of being taught by her – often hard work, but always fun because she was a captivating cellist and inspirational teacher. People thought I would never practice. They were wrong, when I am home, I play every day – a legacy to Sara’s influence. I gained so much from her teaching. She made the cello live and I will always be grateful for this. Besides being a brilliant teacher, she always retained a childlike enthusiasm for life.
In May 2013, Sara played in my village choir concert. She asked what I would like her to play and I said Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch – my favourite cello piece. Her performance was moving and the day after, Sara came with me to Sussex to help me choose a new cello – one by the same maker as hers.
Then things started to go wrong. A couple of weeks later, just after I returned from holiday, Sara rang. “Would you like the good or bad news?” she asked. I asked for the good news. “I have many good friends”, she answered. I asked for the bad. “I have been diagnosed with breast cancer”. I was greatly shocked.
She continued with my lessons in between chemotherapy, operations and radiotherapy. Sara still carried on playing in concerts when she could, also joining her friends to make up the trio in the Pump Room Restaurant in Bath.
I found it hard to ask how she was. I’d arrive at her house, she would open the door with “hello Keith, how are you?” After several visits, I had to say “Sara, listen. How are you?” She explained that I was her student and, in that relationship, the teacher was always well, and it was the student’s health that had to be considered. Sara then said, I’d now passed from student to good friend and I was allowed to ask.
I did what I could to help. I took her to chemo and radiotherapy – for some of these she needed to leave home before 7am – when her great friend and housemate, Viv, broke her arm and couldn’t drive. This was when I heard the name Penny Brohn UK. She described it as a beautiful, peaceful setting, where she could come to terms with her diagnosis. I learnt much more when I visited. Sara was a private person when it came to her illness and suffering, but I know she found friendship, solace and peace there. Her relationship with other visitors and staff helped not only her, but also every one she came in contact with. She was always positive, telling me how much Penny Brohn meant to her.
The cancer seemed cured and she gave a superb performance with all proceeds donated to Penny Brohn. I also heard her perform in memory of Sir Nicholas Winton in London. All seemed well. Sara even came to two of my fun physics talks.