What do I do?

At a party I attended recently, several guests, who I had not met before, asked me “What do you do?”, displaying that peculiarly English middle class need always to define one by one’s job.

Some years ago, before I reinvented myself as a piano teacher, when I was just beginning to emerge from the fog of being a first-time (and only time) parent, I was a freelance secretary, but my work was so peripatetic that it hardly constituted a “proper” job, so when asked the dread question, I would cast around for something that sounded convincing, eventually copping out by replying “Oh, I am a full-time mother” and then apologise for this, embarrassed, as if I was a skulking member of the grey economy. I am pleased to say I never subscribed to the tag “stay at home mother”, or, worse “schoolgate mum”, that particularly offensive term coined by Tony Blair and his cohorts which suggests women like myself spend all day hanging around the schoolgate with nothing better to do than chat inanely about panty pads and drink Starbucks takeaway coffee. Ugh!

Lately, when asked, I say I am a piano teacher. To say I am “a pianist” sounds a tad pretentious, though I can claim that role too: I am a pianist. As Charles Rosen says in his excellent book ‘Piano Notes’, anyone who plays the piano is a pianist (that’s what I tell my students!). Sometimes, when I’m feeling cheeky, I say I am “a gentleman’s companion” which usually elicits some raised eyebrows. It’s just a fancy of way of saying I am an assistant to an elderly gentleman writer, indeed no more than a glorified secretary, who has the good fortune to work in a smart house in Notting Hill half a day a week.

At the party, it was both gratifying and flattering to be introduced by the hostess, a friend and student of mine, as “Fran, my piano teacher” or “This is Fran. She’s a piano teacher”. What was even more enjoyable and ego-massaging was that several people had actually heard of me, either through the hostess, or via the grapevine that exists at the local primary school gate. The majority of my students attend this school, and my son is a recent graduate from it. It has been a wonderful source of pupils – and continues to be – and just goes to prove that “schoolgate mums” can be gainfully employed AND look after the kids at home! When they learned what I did, several guests expressed a keen interest, or said, slightly wistfully, “Oh I had piano lessons as a child. I wish I’d kept it up!”. Others told me they had wanted their children to come to me, but had been told – again, through the local grapevine – that I had a long waiting list (not true – it’s a small waiting list, but a waiting list nonetheless). They had heard about my termly concerts, my eccentric pets, and, indeed, my own slightly unorthodox teaching habits. One woman, whose children were learning with another local teacher, told me she reached Grade 7 in her teens and then gave up. She had tried to play the piano recently and “couldn’t remember anything!” and maybe I could help her? She asked me how I’d got back into playing seriously, and I explained that after a 15-year absence from the keyboard (apart from occasional visits to a friend with a grand piano), I had set myself the task of getting myself back up to post-Grade 8 standard by just putting the hours in. There had been a few hiccups on the way: a run-in with a very suspect teacher, who I later discovered was probably a pervert, put me off finding a teacher for a year; and a chronic injury to my right hand, which set me back three months. Otherwise, there’s no magic formula: just hard work, every day, if I can, for several hours, fitting in the piano practice and studying with the “reality tasks” of family life.

So, what do I do? Each day, when I sit down at the keyboard, or before I get there, I plot the day’s practising, going back over the previous day’s work and highlighting elements which need attention. Because I have limited time, I am very strict with myself to ensure that each of the pieces I am working on currently gets the right amount of attention. I do not keep a written practice diary – though I probably should. Like the information about my students, much of the detail about the music I am working on is retained in my head. I make notes on the score to remind me – my students seem fascinated by my annotations, my secret code, my arrows, stars, circles and exclamation marks. Some are even discovering their own: Saskia delighted me last week when she arrived with her own marked-up score of ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’.

When I am not physically practising, I try to read around the music I am working on. This helps my understanding of the structure and nature of the music – an A-level in music has given me basic proficiency in musical analysis, but there’s always more to be gained from reading around the subject. I am less interested in other people’s emotional and subjective responses: like the highly hypothetic discussions as to whether Schubert and Chopin were gay or not, I do not find such analyses helpful. A familiarity with the music, which comes from simply spending hours and hours with it – playing it and listening to it – offers far greater insights, in my view. I try not to listen to the pieces I am studying too often as one can be easily swayed by a particular interpretation and while one may admire Claudio Arrau’s Beethoven piano sonatas, or Mitsuko Uchida’s readings of Mozart, one does not wish to emulate or imitate these pianists. Recordings are a useful guide:  for example, I have been struggling with the pulse of Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ and a listen to Stephen Osborne’s ethereal rendering of this piece is helpful from time to time…

What else do I do? When not doing my own work, I teach other people’s children, and a handful of adults, how to play the piano. Again, many people have a misguided and simplistic view of the role of the piano teacher. A lesson may last half an hour (in reality, about 20 mins of actual work after pleasantries etc) but I spend a great deal of time when not physically teaching thinking about and planning lessons. While most of my students are at a similar stage in their learning, they are all individuals, and one of my specialities as a teacher, is to try and tailor my lessons to each student’s particular needs. I do not keep written records and rely on students to remember their practise notebooks each week to remind me of what everyone is doing, but I know each of my students pretty well now and have a notion of what needs to be done each week, in advance of their lessons. Towards the end of term, when the serious work is done, things get a little chaotic and sometimes we spend a lesson learning how to conduct, singing, or setting teacher scale marathons. Anything, as far as I’m concerned, to keep their interest!

There are times, of course, when it just doesn’t go the way I want it to. I can sit at the keyboard for an hour or more and my playing feels forced, wooden, my fingers stiff and unresponsive. I can practice the same phrase 20 times and still it is not right. Sometimes it can be so frustrating I bang my forehead on the music rack or hammer the keyboard with my fists. At times like these, the best antidote is to walk away from the piano and go and do something else, something completely different. I find running very therapeutic – it offers me precious head-clearing time. Ditto cooking. Writing about my activity/activities also helps – hence this blog. It can be lonely and cold in my conservatory/piano room, with just the cats for company, the same page of music confronting me day after day. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that, as a pianist, one can feel trapped in a gilded cage with music an omnipresent landscape. Yet, without my practising regime, my days can feel directionless, without focus. Most days, though, I enjoy it. It’s escapism, of a sort, it takes one out of oneself; it’s mentally and physically challenging; and, more often than not these days, rewarding. Yesterday, when I was working on the Prelude from Debussy’s Pour le Piano, a marvellous thing happened and all the elements I had been struggling with for weeks and weeks – the jagged, urgent opening bars, the Bachian motif in bars 1-42, the triumphant, climactic C major chordal section from bar 43 with its whole-tone scales – all came together, almost perfectly. It was deeply, deeply satisfying, and reminded me, if I need such a reminder, of what I have to do, and what I like to do…..