In which we pursue our dream of mastering the piano without the aid of the Brownies and without a piano
Family legend has it that one of my great uncles – inevitably on my father’s side, for it was my paternal grandmother who boasted the mad inventor father and 13 siblings – was so talented a pianist that despite him being entirely self-taught (there’s a fiercely independant streak that runs through our family) he was accomplished enough to be asked to play for the entertainment of a certain Sultan back in the days of colonial Britain.
Having sadly relinquished the five minute weekly use of a battered old piano in the first part of this story, whilst at the same time bidding a gleeful goodbye to the fairy troop of the local Brownie pack, I consoled myself with the notion that I would one day surely be able to emulate my famous great-uncle and teach myself the mysteries of piano-playing. At the age of seven I had a number of other thrilling career options to pursue; astronaut, archeologist, timetraveller, private detective and international figure-skating champion being amongst the alternatives. The lack of a physical piano did not deter me one iota, determination and dedication must certainly count for something I reckoned.
An actual piano finally turned up when I was 16 and we moved to a larger house with a sitting room big enough to accommodate my father’s retirement project, a baby grand piano. Having learnt to play in his youth as so many youngsters of his generation did, my father was determined to brush up his skills sufficiently that he might spend his evenings in retirement serenading my mother either vocally with his renditions of Nessum Dorma or tinkling the ivories with a dash of Chopin. It always astounded me that after nearly forty years without a piano he was able to sit down the day the baby grand arrived and belt out a perfectly recognisable version of Musetta’s Waltz from La Bohème. Für Elise, inevitably followed and even a bar or three from the Warsaw Concerto. I think my father was quite surprised himself, but all that early learning and repetition had somehow hidden themselves in the recesses of his memory to be recalled intuitively when he was ready.
My own attempts at learning were sporadic and interrupted by the demands of studies, exams, sporting activities and boys. It was not until I moved into my own first home, a tiny Victorian terraced house with barely enough room for a guitar let alone a traditional piano that I finally decided to enrol in a course of proper piano lessons. I purchased a rather splendid digital instrument which could be taken apart and carried up the miniscule staircase to its’ space on the landing between the 2 foot square bathroom and the airing cupboard. In true family tradition I was determined and ambitious. I already knew the pieces I wanted to play and in a fairly short time I had arrived at a certain level of playing which allowed me to enjoy the interpretation of some favourite pieces. What I lacked in technical precision I made up for in feeling and a passion for playing. And then came Chopin. I had always dreamed of playing the Nocturnes and Opus 9 No.1 was a particular goal. Because the piano was digital but with a real keyboard I could plug in my headphones in the wee small hours of the morning and practise away to my heart’s content and the neighbours’ happy ignorance. For days on end I played the descending and ascending trills and runs, slowly at first but gradually faster and then faster still, until one magical night, probably at around 2 o’clock in the morning ( I’m an insomniac as well as very, very determined) , when I watched my fingers racing up and down the keyboard with no notion of how they were doing what they were doing but remembering my father and Musetta’s waltz and loving the music and the thrilling sensation of it all…………………..