Nicola Lisle meets one of Oxford’s most popular musicians as he marks an anniversary

If you go into the Blackwell’s Sheet Music department, you will almost certainly come across the genial figure of Peter McMullin, a man who has become such a popular fixture in the department it’s hard to imagine the place without him.

It was 30 years ago that Peter, newly graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, saw the job advertised and thought he’d “do it for a bit and see what happens”.

What happened was that he found his niche – a job where he could immerse himself in music while also meeting people and building a rapport with his many regular customers.

“I’m very much a people person – I like the personal contact,” he says. “I have world famous pianists and conductors as customers, but little Jimmy’s Green Clarinet Book that he needs for a lesson on Friday is just as important, because little Jimmy could be the next Jonathan Bliss or Mark Simpson.”

I have heard rumours that Peter can identify the music someone needs just by having them humming a phrase at him over the phone. Is this true?

He chuckles. “I’m often called on the phone, yes, and people say ‘If I sing you this, can you tell me what it is?’ That’s rather fun, I think, and it provides a bit more of a service that just selling someone a book.

“I was an avid Radio 3 listener when I was growing up – the heyday of Radio 3 in the mid-70s – and it was very informative then, far more so than it is now, and because I was interested it just stuck.

“I’m quite old-fashioned – I use the Internet all the time, but I find it’s quicker and easier just to know stuff. People look at me a bit strangely, but it’s just interesting.”

Peter grew up in a musical household, and can remember having Chopin preludes played to him when he wouldn’t go to sleep. He took up the piano at the age of six and, as he puts it, “sort of tootled along quietly”. Then he discovered jazz, and his world changed.

“I had terrible asthma as a child, and the doctor advised me to take up a wind instrument because it would be a really good way to strengthen everything.

“So I took up the saxophone, and played in the Devon Youth Jazz Orchestra. So all my ensemble playing as a child was jazz, which is great because it teaches you to count, you have to sight read, and there’s a blend of discipline and freedom, which sets you up ideally for other music.”

It wasn’t until Peter came up to Oxford in 1982 to read Music that he started getting more into classical music, particularly contemporary music.

“There’s something about composers from Stravinsky onwards that really spoke to me and moved me a lot. I never had any experience of performing that until I came to university.”

It was while at LMH that Peter met his wife, a former singer. “She needed somebody to accompany her Grade 8 singing exam.

“The friend she had lined up to do it took one look at the Thea Musgrave piece and said ‘Not on your Nelly, mate!’ “Then somebody said to her, there’s this bloke in the first year who’s supposed to be pretty good. So I played for her singing exam, and it went on from there!”

For the last 20 years or so, Peter has become increasingly involved in practical music making.

“I joined the New London Chamber Choir, which specialised in doing quite freakish, avant garde stuff. I did that for about ten years and loved it.

“It was mostly festivals abroad, so it meant lots of little hops over to Europe for long weekends. I loved that, it was great.

“Then I found a niche for myself as a pianist – not necessarily as a solo pianist but as an accompanist, because I’m blessed with the ability to sight read extremely well.

“I think I’ve also got a gift for communication with people, so I can play the piano, particularly for young kids. I love working with young kids and also really brilliant teenagers – I can be of help to them as an accompanying musician, and I’ve been doing a lot of that in the last ten years.”

One of the players Peter has accompanied a lot is his daughter Gilly, a talented cellist who played regularly at the Oxford Music Festival and other concerts around the area for many years before heading off to Cambridge University.

“One of the greatest pleasures was playing for my daughter, who in my opinion is a better musician than I am,” Peter says generously.

“I learnt an awful lot from playing for her. It was great.” More recently, Peter has discovered that he also has a bit of a knack for conducting, after being invited to conduct for the East Oxford Orchestra.

“That was my first proper orchestral conducting,” he says. “They seemed to like me, and I was invited back! I’ve conducted about four or five concerts now, and there have been some real highlights.

“My favourite was doing the Vaughan Williams Concerto Grosso, which is very cleverly written as a piece for all standards. So there’s a central core of professional standard string players, then there’s a satellite top and bottom of easier parts, then outside that there are parts that can be played on open strings.

“We involved everyone from age 70 down to about six, and it just sounded immense because we had so many players there.”

But Blackwell’s continues to be central to his life. What is the most satisfying part of the job?

“When you sell somebody Clarinet Book 1 and two months later you see them coming back for Clarinet Book 2.

“I find that deeply satisfying for them, knowing that person’s life is going to be improved by playing music.

“I feel very strongly that everybody needs to be exposed to music. Most people have some innate musicality and it needs to be encouraged. It has such huge knock-on beneficial effects, both educationally and personally.

“Oxford is amazing because it gives you such scope for music making. There’s so much going on, and there’s something for everyone.”