Obituary: Atarah Ben-Tovim

Sparkly music educator who brought light, laughter and inspiration to children of all backgrounds


I’m sitting in the Royal Festival Hall, circa 1982; my eight- year-old self is engulfed in a big black squishy leather seat and I’m being transported to the world of classical music by an eccentric blonde-haired lady in a kaftan. She is waving her arms around, flute in hand, sparkly Doc Martens on her feet, magically conducting the crowd of children and their equally transfixed parents.

This was my first experience of Atarah’s Band — and my first proper introduction to classical music. Atarah instilled in me the sheer transformational joy that music brings. It was a far cry from the dull and dreary music lessons I endured at school and made me realise just how entertaining music education can be if you have the right person to inspire you and bring it to life.

Atarah Ben-Tovim was born in 1940 in Abergavenny, Wales, the daughter of teacher Gladys Rachel (née Carengold) and Harry Ben-Tovim, an Israeli doctor. They moved to Ealing, London in 1948 where she attended Notting Hill and Ealing High School. Her love of the flute was sparked during a woodwork class, as Ben-Tovim explained to Clarissa Payne in Music Teacher Magazine, May 2021.

“It was a very bizarre thing. I was 11, at secondary school… in woodwork we made a recorder. Then we all had to play them. The music teacher said, ‘My God you’re good at the recorder, why don’t you try a flute?’ Why not, I thought — so she came the next day with a Rudall Carte wooden flute, and I picked it up and I could play. Six weeks later I was playing a Telemann suite — it was as if I was born to play it.”

Atarah rapidly ascended the classical music ladder, joining local youth orchestras, performing live on television aged 15 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and becoming principal flautist at the National Youth Orchestra.

She studied at the Royal College of Music, played with the Royal Opera House Orchestra and in 1963 she achieved her long-held goal to become the first woman in Britain to hold a principal flute chair at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, beating a young James Galway to the post.

During her time there Atarah witnessed some distinctly uninspiring school concerts the orchestra was contracted to present. The conductor droned on and on, musicians were bored and the children chatted and threw paper aeroplanes. At one concert for disabled children she decided to tear up the script and instead engaged them in “Look, listen, laugh and learn”. That moment was pivotal: “I knew I had to change my life and do something for children, to get a light in their eyes.

Despite her great success as a classical musician, Ben Tovim had found an even stronger calling; to teach. She left the RLPO in 1975 to form Atarah’s Band alongside her future husband, TV producer Douglas Boyd, opening the creaky door to classical music and creating a unique opportunity for children of all backgrounds to experience what had been previously accessible to few.

Her passion was underlined by her faith in the power of music to inform every element of being human: “I believe music is the only thing that educates body, mind and soul. It’s the most important thing there’s ever been in my life.”

For 14 years Atarah and her band played over 2,000 concerts worldwide, reaching three million people with their inspiring blend of quiet listening and noisy audience participation. Her innovative approach was decidedly fun, encouraging children to use cutlery and plates as percussion instruments, and featuring Wombles, a trombone-playing scarecrow and a huge teddy bear on the trumpet.

Ben-Tovim gained a reputation as the nation’s favourite children’s music educator, becoming a regular presence on British TV and radio, appearing on programmes such as Blue Peter, Omnibus and Start the Week. Atarah’s Music Box became a weekly Radio 3 fixture between 1976 and 1979, her musical stories featured on children’s TV series Rub-a-Dub-Tub and her own series Atarah’s Music aired on ITV in 1984. In 1980, Atarah was presented with an MBE in recognition of her services to children’s music.

In the mid to late 70s, Atarah alongside Douglas, whom she married in 1976, developed two children’s music centres, the first in Rossendale Valley, Lancashire, and later in South West France where they eventually settled permanently. Both had been dilapidated buildings, converted by the couple and transformed into places where any child was welcome to play any instrument they wished.

Having watched how these young students interacted with the instruments, Ben-Tovim and Boyd published two books, The Right Instrument for Your Child (1985) and You Too Can Make Music! (1986), designed to help children discover the best path for them to make music.

Ben-Tovim remained in France, teaching children and adults, running residential courses and continuing to pursue her passion, even educating via Zoom during the pandemic. In May, 2021 she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Music & Drama Education Awards.

Her dynamic energy, innovative approach to education and electric charisma brought increased recognition for the flute, inspired countless musicians and transformed the way we bring music into children’s lives.

“Playing is a pleasure, but teaching enriches the human. I believe that in every fibre of my being,” she said.

Atarah is survived by Douglas and her daughter Daliah, from a previous marriage.

Atarah Ben-Tovim: born October 1, 1940. Died October 20, 2022

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