David Tall : Life

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This page is an overview of my life, focusing on three major themes:

  • my family, as child, husband, father and grandfather,
  • my work as student and lecturer in mathematics, then into education and the use of computers in learning,
  • my leisure pursuits, in particular, music.and also the theatre, sport (rugby, cricket), the Rotary Club, and malt whisky.

CHILDHOOD (1941-1952)
Born May 15 1941 in Finedon Nursing Home, near Wellingborough, Northants. Attending Victoria Infants and Junior School, with summers spent at Overstone Solarium in our own wooden chalet bungalow, playing in the woods, swimming, playing kiddie cricket, and whiling away the warm evenings playing card games with the family. We also had several family holidays at Butlin’s holiday camps.

Passed ‘11-plus’ exam and did well academically at school. Began learning the violin at aged 11 and the viola at aged 13. Not talented at sport but worked hard at Rugby.
Very active as member of the School Puppet Club, School Toc H group, several choirs, orchestras, string quartets, school plays and, in the sixth form, the First XV Rugby Team for four years, including selection for the Northamptonshire Schools XV.
Awarded several school prizes including the Senior Mathematics Prize, Senior Music Prize, Senior Science Prize. Seen here receiving the Science Prize from Lord Birkett, Justice of Appeal.
As a schoolboy of 17, I met Susan Ford, a pupil at Wellingborough High School who was destined to become my wife.

Open Scholarship in Mathematics at Wadham College Oxford, playing the viola in orchestras and chamber groups and playing rugby for Wadham College. I played for the first time under a truly inspiring conductor: Lazlo Heltay, a pupil of the Hungarian composer, Kodaly. I achieved a First class degree in Mathematics and the Junior Mathematics Prize. Sue and I were married in the summer of 1963 and the prize-money contributed towards a honeymoon in Ibiza.

Sue and I settle in a flat in St Bernards Rd Oxford where she supported me by working at the Radcliffe Infirmary as a Secretary. I studied for a Doctorate in Philosophy with Professor Michael Atiyah who won the Field’s Medal (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize without the cash—recently he got the Abel Prize, with the cash) during my time with him. I began to conduct orchestras and choirs in 1964, forming my own Meryfield Choral Society and the Wadham College Orchestra and going on to conduct the Oxford City Operatic Society in Die Fledermaus.

Rebecca Jane was born (1966) in the Radcliffe the week before we moved to Sussex.

SUSSEX (1966-1969)
A beautiful idyll by the sea in Woodingdean, with Sue and Rebecca, where I finished my Doctorate, taught Mathematics at the University of Sussex, wrote my first book (Functions of a Complex Variable) and formed new musical organisations: The A Cappella Singers, The A Cappella Players, The Sussex University Brass Ensemble. I also sang in the Brighton Festival Chorus trained by Lazlo Heltay, under the baton of Colin Davis and William Walton.

In 1969 I was made an offer I could not refuse from Warwick University, and we moved to live in Kenilworth, where we remain to this day. Christopher (1970) and Nicholas (1973) were born in the Warneford Hospital, Leamington. My life became complicated with increasing musical activities, which I reduced (a little!) in 1976 to spend time with the kids, supporting Chris and Nic in Cub Football, Cross-Country Running and Cricket.

As Lecturer in Mathematics (with special interests in Education) at Warwick, I had time to write textbooks with Ian Stewart (Foundations, Complex Analysis, Algebraic Number theory). In 1976, the Coventry College of Education became part of the University of Warwick and I began empirical research into students learning mathematics.

Back in 1969, within a few weeks of arriving in Kenilworth, I replied to an advert for the post of Musical Director of the Leamington Spa Opera Group, and was appointed, staying until 1976, returning for two years in 1987-1989. This was always a challenge, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately rewarding. During the first period, I conducted The Bartered Bride, The Mikado, Fiddler on the Roof, Die Fledermaus, The Gondoliers, La Belle Helene and in my second period Oklahoma, The Mikado and Kiss Me Kate.

I soon had several musical appointments. At the University I joined with a small madrigal group and expanded it into the Choro dei Cantori, giving concerts for two years. I was then invited to act as Musical Director of the Blue Triangle Operatic Society for Mame at the Coventry Belgrade Theatre in 1972. At the same time I was Musical Director for the Talisman Theatre Palace of Varieties.

My work with the Talisman Theatre continued with more productions at the Talisman Theatre (By George), the Loft Theatre (Vintage Porter and Over the Rainbow) and the Priory Theatre (Oh What a Lovely War!).

My musical colleagues, Brian Brown and Peter Chadwick formed a semi-professional group in 1971 to play for local choral and operatic societies and to give its own concerts under guest conductors. In 1972 I was invited to become Principal Conductor, a post in which I conducted over 50 concerts.

I discovered the music of Frederick Delius when I was 14 through a radio performance of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. By that time I had taught myself to play the piano (badly) using the music my brother and sister studied for their piano lessons. I never had a lesson on the piano, but I was able to read music at sight, including making some kind of sense of pieces such as the Delius Mass of Life and his opera, Village Romeo and Juliet. From here, it was natural to link to the music of his friend Percy Grainger. I also developed a deep love of the music of George Gershwin. Despite many, many other composers I have studied deeply, such as Janacek, Mahler, Bartok, Johann and Josef Strauss, these three have remained my own particular specialities.

As my family grew in the seventies and my academic work became more important, I decided to turn from the regular commitment of rehearsals to forming the Percy Grainger Society as chairman (1977-1984), editing the Grainger Journal, and becoming an internationally know expert in his music, preparing a catalogue of his works, writing articles and making arrangements of his music. I was a Visiting Fellow in Music for the Grainger Centenary Celebrations at the University of Western Australia in 1982. In 1990 I was awarded the Bronze Medal from the International Percy Grainger Society for services to his music and scholarship.

In 1975 I had organised eight concerts for the Celebrations of the visit of Queen Elizabeth I to Kenilworth in 1575. I asked for no financial support, designed and printed the programmes and tickets for all the concerts, organised the performers, and handed over the profit to the Organising Committee. This helped them reduce the deficit on other activities. As a result of this, two members of the Committee (Hector Newall and Spud Taylor) proposed me for membership of the Rotary Club of Kenilworth. It has been an important part of my life ever since.

WARWICK MATHEMATICS EDUCATION in the Science Education Department (1979-1992)
When the Coventry College of Education became the Education Faculty of the University of Warwick, I transferred to work in the Mathematics Education Research Centre. At the same time, my commitment shifted from music to research in mathematics education. I became a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education in 1980, then Reader in 1989. I was fortunate that empirical research into how undergraduate students think that I had done in the late seventies gave me insights that put me well ahead of the field when computers arrived in the early eighties. This led to the programming of a visual approach to the calculus, which resulted in many invitations to speak around the world.

PROFESSOR (1992-present)
I was promoted to Professor in Mathematics Education in 1992. Sadly, at the same time I contracted sarcoidosis—an auto-immune problem which affected my breathing, vision and general health. For fourteen months in 1993-4, I was off work, during which time I utilised my enforced leisure by beginning deep and fruitful research into malt whisky, especially Islay malt. I took study leave 1994-5 in an attempt to find more time to get well, but my health did not improve. I retired on health grounds in 1995 aged 54 and retained a one-third position as Professor in the Warwick Institute of Education. Paradoxically, the reduced load increased my ability to do research (working with graduate students) and to think and write about theoretical aspects of mathematical thinking.

From the late 1970s I began to travel abroad to give seminars and talks at conferences. My position as a part-time Professor afforded greater flexibility. I am not only able to travel to talk in other countries, but my infirmity means that I am asked only to talk and teach a little, rest a lot, and have a good time with my friends. Sue often travels with me ... Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech State, Turkey, Israel, USA, Canada, Brazil, Columbia, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, ... some many times. Life is good. Very good.

GRANDPA (1996-present)
The birth of Rebecca and Phil’s sons Lawrence (1996) and Zachary (2000) cause me to reassess the balance of family, work and leisure. Nic and Janet added Emily in 2004, then Simon in 2006. Chris and Ruth gave birth to James in November 2007. Somehow there isn't much time for leisure.

RETIREMENT (2006-present)
I finally retired in the summer of 2006 while remaining linked to the University of Warwick as a Professor Emeritus in Mathematical Thinking. For a year or so, I continued to travel the globe, Prague, Cyprus, Germany, Japan, Finland, USA (San Diego), Abu Dhabi, Taiwan, USA (Indiana, Kentucky), Thailand, Israel, Germany. It was exciting, but exhausting, so I decided a time at home will be good.

TALL STORIES (every time)
For years I have told stories, always absolutely true, yet somehow thay are considered by my friends and others to be somewhat exaggerated. So be it. There are various Tall Stories in the pages above but here a selection is collected for my vanity and your entertainment.

To read my story in sequence, start here ...

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