Michael Maxwell Steer

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Michael Maxwell Steer is a composer. He was Head of 20th Century Studies at the Junior Royal College of Music until 1991. He has also been Head of Music for the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC Radio 3 producer.

He developed a system he called "colour muse" to help dyslexic children read music.

He currently runs the Cherubim Music Trust, a charitable organisation that helps young musicians by loaning them a good quality instrument that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

He is married to costume designer Deirdre Clancy.


His musical life began as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. At 15 he ran away to Paris hoping to study with Olivier Messiæn. On returning he built up a large church choir in Kingston Surrey over four years, and studied privately under the guidance of harpsichordist Jane Clark and her husband, composer Stephen Dodgson, which included conducting studies with Nicholas Conran (Surrey U) and Sergiu Celibidache Stockholm. His organ teachers were Allan Wicks (Canterbury Cathedral) and Alan Harverson (RCM).

As a harpsichordist Steer was to broadcast on BBCr3 and record with leading baroque music performers such as Roy Goodman, Nancy Hadden, Jeremy Barlow, and tour Europe and the US with various baroque ensembles. In 1974 he recorded Falla's Harpsichord Concerto for Capital Radio on a specially-restored 1920s Pleyel harpsichord and 20 years later played harpsichord in the UK premiere of Stockhausen's Die Jahreslauf with Music Projects /London.

In his twenties Michæl Maxwell’s main interest was writing music for drama. He began as a silent film pianist for the National Film Theatre, London, going to compose and arrange music for more than 120 drama programmes on tv and radio. He was musical director for the opening of two theatres: the Sheffield Crucible and the prototype Bankside Globe Playhouse. He met his stage designer wife Deirdre Clancy on the BBC production Trinity Tales in Birmingham in 1975. The high point of life as a theatre musician was conducting the world premiere of Nicholas Nickleby in 1981, while London Director of Music of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Steer composed extensively for broadcast, including Julius Cæsar in the BBCtv Complete Shakespeare series, and several series for Thames. After a time as a BBCr3 producer began to concentrate increasingly on original writing, and scripted 25 Drama /Feature programmes for BBC2 and BBCr3/r4, featuring many distinguished artists including David Suchet, Sam Wanamaker, John Wells, Sir Robert Stephens and Elizabeth Spriggs. The Royal National Theatre commissioned A Tormented God, a one-man show for Bob Stephens based on Berlioz’s Mémoires; and his stage play The Watcher in the Rain, about James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter and Jung, was produced in 1991 at the Rose Theatre, London and reviewed in The Guardian as ‘fascinating and unpredictable ... with a wealth of theatrical invention.’

In 1986 Steer and Ian Dearden received an Arts Council commission for an interactive electro-acoustic music drama for children. And as Head of 20thC Studies at the Junior Royal College of Music 1987-1991 he created the RCM’s first MIDI studio, and pioneered electro-music tuition for young people with a Yamaha-sponsored summer school at UEA. This phase of his life culminated in 1990 with the commission for Notes from Janàček's Diary, an experimental BBCr3 programme for which he was, uniquely, given a studio at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The result was ‘a kaleidoscope of subtle and bewitching effects.’ (The Times)

After 25 years of intense media work, Steer wanted to explore an increasing interest in alternative ideas. He left professional music altogether for 3 years, creating and editinga national green-holistic magazine, CataList. Later, as a result of guest-editing an issue of Contemporary Music Review on Music & Mysticism. Michæl Maxwell organised two large Music & the Psyche conferences at London City U in 1993/4, from which an on-going network of musicians and therapists emerged, and led to a BBCr4 series Music As Sacred Experience. This in turn led to a documentary commission from BBC Religion to visit Sai Baba in India which resulted in two programmes: In Search of Sai Baba and another about the philosophy withinIndian music, which aired on BBC World Service.

In the decade to 2003 Steer published extensively on the broader philosophical questions surrounding music, technology and consciousness in a number of journals including AudioMedia, Classical Music, NoiseGate, Diffusion, Analecta Husserliana, Music & Psyche and Quaker journals. ‘The Creative Voice’, about the psychology of inspiration, was published in three separate journals and became a chapter in Raising Our Voices (Handsell 2001). received a ‘Mind’ Award for an audio documentary about Salisbury Hearing Voices Group. For 8 years, until its demise in 2009, Maxwell was Coordinator of the ESP (Ethics/Spirituality/Philosophy) field at the Big Green Gathering on the Mendips, which became a focal point for the exchange of progressive ideas.

After the Steer family moved to the Wiltshire village of Tisbury, Michael piano teaching become an integral part of his life. He has pioneered many innovations, notably teaching beginners with ColourMuse, his coloured note method which now sells all over the world. He also uses video’d concerts in place of exams, with more than 500 pupil performances – which greatly stimulates pupil motivation.

In 1998 Steer edited and published the complete music of Tisbury’s most notorious resident, the 18thC author and art collector William Beckford who built the gothick follies of Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, Bath. Many performances of the works have subsequently been given.

After 2001 the focus of Michæl Maxwell’s life returned to composition, when Meniscus (for two harps) was commissioned to accompany an art exhibition by his friend Chris Jennings at Kingston U’s Picker Gallery. It was performed by Hugh Webb and Serafina Steer, a harp student at Trinity-Laban who has gone on to achieve her own success as a harpist-singer-songwriter.

Steer has written many large-scale acappella choral works, mostly to his own words, several of which have been recorded. Other significant pieces include Sonnets to Orpheus, a cycle of twelve poems by Rilke, recorded by Frances M Lynch – with whom he also recorded his Valentine Songs and NightSongs, settings of GM Hopkins. In 2003 Steer’s opera A Private Passion, about Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, was recorded at the London Opera Centre. His most recent one-act opera Unexpectedly Vacant was recorded in 2013.

In 2011 Michæl performed his piano duo The Fortress of Illusion at the Chethams International Piano Festival & Summer School with Richard Black.

Since 2009 MM Steer has been directing the Cherubim Music Trust, a charity that loans professional-quality orchestral instruments to advanced music students, aged 15–25, who cannot afford one that matches their ability. In 2013 he formed the Cherubim Young Musicians into an orchestra to perform the music of William Beckford; and in the following two years he directed Cherubim Mozart Weekends in Tisbury featuring Cherubim Young Musicians as soloists.

He also runs a monthly concert series at the Savile Club, London.