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The Piano in the Corner – theoretical misgivings

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!

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