Throughout my life I must have had thousands of music lessons. The money….I suppose at first it was my father’s money, but later on it was my own. Viola lessons, violin lessons, flute lessons, singing lessons, but the greatest number of lessons by far were piano lessons.
My mother was a rather good pianist. She had succeeded in an exam called the LRCM, I suppose relating to the London Royal College of Music, but well and truly obsolete by the time I was having lessons. My father said she was a very ‘dutiful’ pianist. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it didn’t apply to me. They were always ringing up to say I hadn’t been practising, or not in the right way, and there was no way I was going to pass the next exam if I didn’t work harder. And that was the problem. It was all about exams. I remember when I used to play on the piano, making up little stories, crashing up and down the piano from top to bottom, but as soon as I started lessons it was exercises and scales, lifting the fingers in little hooks, and going for terrifying exams.
That is why, at the age of forty-five, after twenty years of hateful lessons, I can’t believe I am doing it again. I am having ‘advanced’ lessons with Miss Rosemary Hodge, a former concert pianist. She is fond of starting the lesson with a discussion of what she would give the Queen to eat if she came for afternoon tea.
But first…it takes some time to get into the house. I slam the car door as loudly as possible and go down the thick overgrown path to the front door. There is no door-bell so I knock on the window frame. I have to knock loudly enough so that Bessie will start barking. I might stand there for five or ten minutes sometimes. Then she comes, singing in a wobbly soprano, to the door. Bessie has to jump up and turn round and round with excitement before we squeeze into the music room. There are three pianos, and piles of music everywhere. I slide into the bench seat, a tight fit with another piano pressing up against my back. One day she sat at this piano, while I was stumbling through Bach’s Prelude in F# Major, and began to play along with me, pushing me on. She played from memory and her old bent fingers played the notes like limpid water, a beautiful legato, and she sang in her high voice as she played.
She sits on her chair with Bessie on her knee and the black cat curled up on a pile of music beside her. She has long grey elf-locks held back with a child’s hairpin, and wears thick track pants, pink bed-socks and moccasins.
Before I begin to play, she gives me advice. She is brutally honest.
‘You’ve got to work and work at your technique. You are very musical, but you have to work at your technique. Don’t worry about all these special books of scales and exercises. You don’t have to worry about interpretation, you have to get the notes right and the technique in control. Every note, you should be able to hear every note. None of this fudging and glossing over notes. You won’t fool me. Play your Bach. Play your Bach every day. Listen to yourself; you should be able to hear every note in your mind before you play, and play slowly and honestly. That’s what we want, honest playing, that respects timing and notation. Then you can add the icing on the cake later. Now let’s hear how this Bach is going.’
It’s still the best advice I ever had, and I give it to you for nothing.
This year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
Listen to the link below of Claudio Arrau playing Beethoven’s piano sonata number 32 to get some idea of what I fell in love with.
I still can’t play it.