I had a man round to tune my piano before Christmas. That’s not a euphemism.
Put aside the fact that he sucked air through his teeth and took two and a half hours to haul it back from the precipice, we had a nice chat, during which time he suggested that age six is a good time for a child to learn to play the piano.
Now there was a time when I would have thought that was an excellent idea. Surely, as with languages, children pick things up easier younger. Now however I realise that what comes with learning something new at six is limited success and quite a bit of frustration and screaming. My lovely aunt started teaching Tilly before Christmas and I’ve carried on a couple of times since – there is hope but we do have to abort after about 15 minutes for fear of putting her and me off for life.
Since being home alone so to speak (and since the piano sounds more like a piano and less like a strangled cat) I’ve returned to playing most days. I alternate between murdering Beatles songs (mostly ones in C major) and trying to master a piece of music that according to the annotations I could play pretty well in 1989…when I was 14. I might rub out the date on it as it’s depressing me.
All this has made me think a little about my music lessons in the 1980s and 1990s. I began in junior school with a school teacher that I loved, but who sometimes diverted herself from teaching me to attend her little boy and eat baked beans from the tin.
My second and last teacher I realise now was not only important in teaching me how to play to a reasonable standard (I passed grade seven then bailed when I learnt of the amount of hours practice required for grade eight). She was also a pretty important person in my adolescent years.
I guess she was (and still is) the sort of person you’d expect to be a music teacher. That picture in your head is about right. She drove a two seater soft top sports car so she never had to anyone else a lift as she drove about with her husband. She had a beautiful old house and several cats and played the kind of music I always found very impressive but impenetrable (Bartok I seem to remember). She put on music concerts in which all her students had to play one piece at least. I distinctly remember having to play a duet with her with my right hand when I broke my left wrist as she wouldn’t let me off. We used to sit on the stairs watching each pupil and waiting for our turn to torture the parents.
She encouraged me to enter a piano competition which I managed to win. It’s still one of the things I am most proud of (I was about 12) largely due to it being a complete and utter surprise. She coached me through at least 5 music exams (including theory) but she also managed to coach me through adolescence a little bit. I remember regaling her with my worry for my exams, especially Chemistry. I remember her saying “well if you don’t like it don’t bother studying for it It won’t make any difference if you fail one”. She was a clever woman. Not only was she right of course (I can’t even remember my results some days), I suspect she also knew there was no way in the world I could not revise for an exam and fail it on purpose. I enjoyed talking to her so much sometimes we talked more than I played during the 45 minute lesson. I can’t remember what about but I do remember it being a very comfortable feeling. I see now that having another adult to talk to in teenage life is pretty important.
It wasn’t all chat though. When I look at the markings she made in my music I can remember her scribbling hard and underlining things that were probably driving her a bit mad. “#!” for example or “CLOSE UP!” I don’t think she ever had high hopes for me as a concert pianist.
We are still in touch and she sends me a Christmas letter every year in which she shows me she is still the same as ever and puts a smile on my face.
So maybe I’ll teach the girls to play a bit. But if and when I find a teacher for them I’ll be looking for a bit more than just musical ability.