My parents bought a piano for my sister to start having lessons, at around the age of six. I would’ve been around three years old at that time – too young to have lessons, but old enough to be intrigued by the musical piece of furniture in the corner of the room.
I began to take an interest when I realised it might be possible to replicate my favourite songs from nursery, and tunes from children’s television programmes, and I spent time trying to pick out the correct notes. I think I probably spent equally as much time to break various parts of the piano as well and recall a few of the black notes having to be superglued back on – glue which has remained steadfast to this day!
I had my first piano lessons aged five, which was a touch on the young side, but I think my parents could see that I was always trying to play it anyway, so organised for me to start having lessons from a lady called Margaret Ward who, like my mum, was a member of the Bridgnorth Ladies Circle. Margaret played generally by ear, though could also read music fairly well. She had played the piano for years at local pubs and events, and looking back you could tell that in her style of playing – laid back with little regard for technical perfection. She was at ease at the piano and her natural instinct was to play popular tunes, rather than the classical pieces required to pass exams. Because of this though, and her warm personality, she made the lessons fun. I remember that at some point in most of the early lessons, we would play duets which I enjoyed, as, even though I would have the simpler part, the overall sound was impressive to my young ears and I enjoyed being a part of making it and wished I could create that whole sound all on my own. Gradually it became clear that I was improving and, more importantly, had a growing interest in the piano, so I began to prepare for my Grade 1 exam, aged seven.
In the same way that you don’t really remember getting better at speaking your mother tongue, you just absorb it without really noticing, I don’t remember getting better on the piano in those early years, it was just happening. Without realising it I was improving through a combination of me mucking about and experimenting with different tunes I’d heard, and structured lessons and exercises helping me learn the theoretical side of music, tempo, key signatures, the practical aspects of scales, chords and sight-reading. All the while I was developing the dexterity, strength, speed and co-ordination of my fingers. I think this is why learning an instrument later in life (or learning anything later in life) is much harder as it takes longer to get that combination of skills. The irritating thing is you know much more when you’re older, you understand the theory and know exactly which position your hands and fingers should be in to make the sound you desire, it’s just the dam things can’t move quickly enough, and you get frustrated, you can’t seem to find the time to practice, and it’s a source of frustration that you can’t just do it. As a seven-year-old it’s a challenge and a game.
I think I was slightly different in the way my playing improved in that I was getting better at playing by ear more quickly than I was at playing from sheet music, and of course when playing by ear I was playing exactly what I wanted to play rather than the generally dull and repetitive sheet music and scales which you are presented with when you start undertaking the Royal College of Music’s examinations.
As I got older during my primary school years I was playing as much by ear, and putting as much effort in to learning songs by listening alone, as I was reading music and practicing for my exams. Had I spent more time practicing for my exams, I would have got them through them much more quickly, but the enjoyment I really got was from learning and playing the tunes that I wanted play. At the time I moaned about the ‘boring’ scales and unimaginative classical pieces I was required to learn, but all the time, they were further developing my familiarity, speed, and navigation of the piano keyboard. Now I look back, scales are absolutely fundamental – if you can’t fluently play scales and arpeggios, you won’t be able to really play the piano properly or confidently.
By the age of ten I had passed my Grade 5 exam. If you want to progress to Grade 6, you need to pass Grade 5 music theory. If I found learning scales and set-pieces a dull ache, I found Grade 5 theory painful. A local violinist and music theory tutor took me on to prepare me for my theory exams. I understand why a theoretical base is helpful and important, but throughout I found almost every aspect uninteresting, pointless, and difficult to grasp. Though being only ten years old, I should cut myself some slack. I remember the Sunday mornings at the dining room table drawing out scales on the stave, counting intervals, memorizing key signatures, and learning obscure latin musical phrases that appear at the top of sheet music – there seemed to be hundreds of them, far more than was necessary!
I remember going to the Shrewsbury ‘Gateway Centre’ to take my first exam. It was the first time I had ever sat in a designated exam hall, and it was quite nerve-wracking. I’m pretty sure I finished early, and before the allotted time was over, I emerged from the exam hall fairly confident. A few weeks later I received my results and I had failed. This was upsetting! I was upset that I had failed (I hadn’t been told that so bluntly that I’d failed anything before), frustrated that I couldn’t now get on with my Grade 6 exams, and had that feeling of dread that the music theory tutoring and Sunday morning homework would have to continue. Looking back, the experience of failing, getting over that disappointment and having to roll up my sleeves and work harder, was formative and probably did me the world of good.
A few months later, I was back in the exam hall and this time, mercifully, I passed. Possibly subconsciously, I have since used some of aspect of music theory I learnt, but to me it remains to this day, a bit like the study of English language, baffling and unnecessary (with apologies to all the musical purists who love this stuff!).
Next time I shall recall my secondary school and teenage years, where I learnt the art of performing, accompanying singers, playing with other people, and how you could make a bit of cash whilst tickling the old ivories!
On this blog I mainly write about running. Generally personal running challenges or the things that I get up to with the Green Heart Runners, with the occasional poem or song thrown in. This may give an impression that my most important hobby and the activity that defines me most, or that I would most want to be known for, is running and group exercise. This, though, would be a false impression. Running has come to me only in the last few years and sprang from a necessity to reverse an ever-expanding waistline and a growing interest in looking after my own, and if possible, others’, physical and mental health. And I love it. However if you were to ask my family, and school and university friends, the hobby I am generally best known for enjoying and having worked hardest at throughout my life, is playing the piano.
I love playing the piano. It was my favourite toy as kid, and still is. It was the skill I mastered quicker than any other. It became a thing that others wanted to hear me play, rather than just being forced to. It was how I came to be involved in amateur dramatics and school musical productions. It became a source of income to me in my late teens, and my main social activity at University. It was a vehicle to bridging the language and cultural divide and making friends when I lived in Japan. It was a source of income again in my twenties at social functions and at local pubs and restaurants. It became an accompaniment to my poetry and song-writing efforts. It was the first skill I have attempted to teach to others, and most recently it has been the medium through which I have been trying to entertain my friends and colleagues during lockdown over social media.
I have decided to focus some time on recalling my piano journey from a child to the present day and publish it in readable chunks on this blog over the next few weeks and months. As ever, this is primarily for my own pleasure and posterity, but I hope it may be of interest to anyone who has charted a similar journey with any instrument or skill they may have first taken up as a child and which has become a part of who they are as they have grown older. Maybe it will inspire someone to stick at something, if their motivation or confidence is beginning to wane.
This first introductory post is a simply an attempt to gather my thoughts on this subject and laying out the contents (roughly) in advance to give myself, as well as you, some sort of an idea as to what future posts on this theme will cover. Publishing this blog post alone will be the act of commitment I need to actually see this project through; a favourite self-trick of mine, tell enough people you’ll do something and to save face, you actually have to do it.
More thoughts will no doubt come to me the minute I publish this post, but for now, some initial flashbacks that I will enlarge upon are:
My very first dabbles and dalliances with the piano and the on-going battle I had between playing what I wanted to play and what the Associated Board of the The Royal Schools of Music required me to play in order pass my piano exams (and the dreaded Grade 5 theory exam).
My initially tentative, then more confident, steps in to performing publicly in my early teens. Musical productions, care homes, and the social-do at the annual Prison Dog Show Trials in Leicestershire spring to mind!
Being in my sixth form years and learning for the first time that you can make money from playing the piano and beginning to understand the distinction between playing for pleasure and playing for cash.
The wonderful days of forming and playing with my band at University. This was just one of the best experiences of my life with friends who remain dear and close to me this day.
Mr Leo’s Bluesgrass Band, ‘Robbie and Friends’, and other far eastern experiences – Obama, Fukui. Japan (2002-2004).
Failures, incompatible musical tastes, unequal levels of ambition with other musical collaborators, and the difficulty of juggling a career with the commitment required to regularly perform solo, or in a band.
Being reunited with my childhood piano and my resurgent interest in playing, performing and teaching since 2015
Speculation as to what the next stops will be in the journey of the piano and I as I enter the next decade of my life!
So this is the plan. Before I sit down to play any tune, I do a few scales and arpeggios to get my hands and arms warmed up. I feel I have now done the literary equivalent here and am ready to get going. Simply writing this list has whetted my appetite to get started and confirmed in my own mind, just how influential, important and central the piano has been in my life.
I’ll try to record my musical memories in chronological order but mishaps may occur. They will of course be interrupted by other musings along the way, but hopefully by the end of the year I will have charted the journey that the piano and I have been on from 1981 to 2021.
He’s done. He’s fallen into the abyss He can’t remember ever feeling quite as low as this Everything seems pointless, happiness departed Can’t be bothered to complete any task that he has started
Getting no enjoyment from any thing that he may do Going nowhere very fast is all he sees that’s true Do it well, do it poorly, don’t it at all Seemingly makes little difference at the final call
Enthusiasm drained, he’s getting nothing in return On the road to nowhere, doesn’t know which way to turn His efforts are vain and he just wants to withdraw His feelings of worthlessness are too strong to ignore
Maybe he’ll snap out of this, or is that an illusion? That value can exist at all seems such a mean delusion Moments come and moments go, he’s sure he’ll find a way Until that time he’ll focus on just getting through today
This is lovely personal account of the early days of getting in to running, written by my colleague and friend, Andy. It made me chortle! I hope it does the same for you, but also I hope it might just inspire anyone who doesn’t think running is for them to give it a go and perhaps enjoy the same benefits as Andy.This piece, plus many more entertaining posts on a variety of subjects, can also be found on Andy’s blog.
I’m new to running. I’ve obviously run at times in my life – to catch a departing train, for instance, or escape a persistent wasp. Also, my tardiness has occasionally forced me into a frantic dash across campus to attend a meeting, where I’ve strived to achieve a fashionably late arrival, albeit as a sweaty, breathless, dishevelled, shambles of a man. But actual running, for fitness, on a regular basis, never.
I’ve been thinking about running for a couple of years now, but the idea has never advanced from the concept stage to pounding the local streets in hi-visibility running gear. I’ll be honest: the main reason is that I’m exceptionally lazy and my middle-aged knees are seriously bad. (When I walk up and down stairs it sounds like I’m being followed around by a Foley artist grinding up aggregate with a mortar and pestle.) But with nine months of lockdown and Christmas excess under my belt (or rather comfortably contained within elasticated trousers), I had to do something to arrest the decline.
So with some newly acquired running gear, the highly recommended Couch to 5k app downloaded onto my iPhone, and the gentle, encouraging, Geordie voice of Sarah Millican funnelled into my ears, I decided to dive straight in. With my sportswear, wireless headphones, greying beard, and jaw-length hair tied back into a man bun, I looked more like an ageing marquee signing of a League Two side rather than a runner. But I was serious. And I was ready.
The one thing I hadn’t realised with running is that it allows you time to think – and just be alone. Whenever I’ve run any distance in the past – usually because I’ve been late for something – the only thing I’ve been able to focus on is the intense burning in my lungs and my teeth literally itching in my gums. But this mellow introduction to running using the app has enabled me to just zone out, listen to some music, occasionally leap into deep, rain-filled ditches at the side of the road to avoid being mown down by reckless delivery van drivers, and simply think. (Mainly about what I would do if I found a body in the thick undergrowth I’m running past, but lots of other things too.)
After a dusting of snow overnight followed by temperatures that didn’t get much above freezing, today was my first big challenge. Shall I just get out there and run, or sit by the radiator and drink coffee? Thankfully my new Adidas light running jacket was delivered, which was just tight enough to accentuate my paunch and shame me into heading out into the cold. I was glad I did. Even with the sleet lashing against my face and my penis shrivelling into my body to seek warmth, I felt, dare I say it, positive that I was at least making the effort. And aside from the risk of suffering a fatal heart attack mid-run, what’s the worst that could happen? I can only get fitter and slimmer, right?
I’m three runs in now and it’s going fairly well. For a start, I’ve neither collapsed into a hedgerow, incoherent and delirious, nor vomited into one. That may change as the process shifts to running for longer and walking less, but I’ll stick with it for now. Probably.
On Sunday 29th November I achieved something I would have considered two years ago – difficult, four years ago – unachievable, and six years ago – impossible and quite frankly daft to even think it. On this day I achieved my aim of running 1,000 miles in a calendar year. As it happens, I completed my goal one month early but this matters to me less than the fact that I did what I set out to do at the beginning of the year.
Of course I set this challenge for myself before I had any idea just what 2020 would be like for us all. Coronavirus was in the news a bit in late December and early January but, at that point no-one knew what was around the corner. I think on the whole the periods of lockdown helped my running cause, but it’s a difficult judgement to make. I lead one running club and am a member of another and in normal times run seven miles with my fellow club runners over a Monday and Tuesday evening without really thinking about it. For a challenge where you need to run around 25 miles a week, a ‘fun seven’ definitely helps. This was snatched away from mid-March onwards and with 200 miles already under my belt, I did the vast majority of the remaining 800 on my own. This was not the plan. I was expecting to do at least 500 miles of my challenge with company, including the Edinburgh marathon which, along with countless other events, got cancelled. But when Edinburgh got removed from the calendar, I was left with a solitary running challenge to complete.
Running has pretty well defined my year. My runs have been the commas, semi-colon, and full-stops of every week and month of 2020. It has been the topic on which I have written more about this year on my blog than any other. It got me a short article in the iPaper in March, a slot on the radio with BBC WM in November, and two opportunities to co-host the @UKRunchat run hour on Twitter. In addition to my personal challenge, the Green Heart Runners undertook two running challenges this year (April and November) and between us we raised over £7,500 for B30 Foodbank.
Throughout the year my weekly running mileage has varied quiet a lot. The graph below shows how it fluctuated. Occasionally I would have a really good week of running when weather was good, the opportunity was there, and I was in the right mood. I learnt to capitalise on these moments and this is a reason why I ran a few ‘accidental’ half-marathons. My view was if I was enjoying it and felt comfortable and injury-free, that I should keep going and capitalise on the good feeling and fortune. This then bought me some credit for other weeks when getting the mileage in was that bit more difficult.
The vast majority of my runs this year have been in Sutton Coldfield where I live. During height of the pandemic and the first lockdown, I took to exploring new running routes and also completely lost interest in my running pace. I think this may have been partly due to the Edinburgh marathon being cancelled as well.
This year I have found several new running routes, including areas of woodland I never knew had footpaths, and most importantly for me I have discovered so many trails in the magnificent Sutton Park, which is just three miles from my house. I treat Sutton Park a bit like my extended back garden now. I have got to know it very well now, and never tire of it.
Opportunities to run further from my home patch have been few and far between. However, running in Birmingham with my friends Lucy and Hannah with Run of a Kind in June on the hottest day of the year, through Cardiff City centre, Swansea Bay and the Gower in August, and taking in the key London sights one chilly Sunday morning in September, are lovely running memories from this year.
In the three weeks since completing my 1,000 miles I have taken the opportunity to do other forms of exercise, mainly in the gym on the free weights and on some of the other cardio machines, just to vary things and give other muscle groups a bit of a workout. The gyms re-opening has been a big boost not only for the exercise, but also it has been somewhere to go and be around people, and frankly the only activity outside the house that I enjoy that we’re still allowed to do!
So to 2021. I have already declared my running goal for next year, which is to run a marathon in under four hours. I hope this will be the Edinburgh marathon in May, but time will tell. If all races are cancelled for another year though, I shall just have to run my own marathon! Completing a sub-four hour marathon will require me to knock off around twenty minutes from my previous marathon time. I’ve no idea whether this is a realistic goal, but anyway, it is my goal and I’ll go for it! On top of all the training runs I will need to do, I also need to learn more about marathon fuel, as poor planning in this department was a key factor (I think) behind my legs seizing up with five miles to go during my one and only marathon run so far.
I throughly recommend anyone setting themselves an exercise goal. Based on my experience my advice would be to set something that feels almost out of reach, break it down into sizeable chunks so you have a plan for achieving it, and keep yourself accountable and motivated by letting other people know.
2020 has been a great year of running for me. It has kept me sane, and disciplined and provided some focus in turbulent times. Thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way, I shall need more of it for my 2021 challenge!
Hello. Hi there. I’m sorry to disturb you, but.. You’ve not seemed yourself for a while I’m probably just nosey, getting in your way, it’s just.. I can’t remember when I last saw you smile
Maybe you’ll tell me, and maybe you won’t Does it matter that I went out of my way? Months ago I noticed, weeks ago I worried And I don’t know why I happened to choose today
Your brave face and busy days can provide a mask But the signs may be breaking through It took a little time, to recognise the fact That lately I’m not really seeing you
Could it be a big thing that’s run out of control Or is it just a small thing standing tall? Is it something more sincere and something much more deep That makes you want to run away from it all?
The sun may be shining, but are there storm clouds in your mind? The rain may clear the haze but leave a scar Tell me. Is there no escaping it, or is there some reprieve? Is it something that’s just gone a bit too far?
I don’t the answer, I’ll wait for you to speak Just know there is a friend to lend a hand I’ll listen, I’ll support, I’ll protect and I’ll remember And do my best to try to understand.