How I chose my instrument

A post on Gretchens Pianos inspired this one!

My grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. I suppose I was always aware of it and probably messed about on his piano, an Edwardian upright, which was on the left as you went into the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) when we went to visit. The piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church….. My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, while my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the ‘gramophone’ (as it was called).

I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5. It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to concert pitch by the tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument. It saw me through to Grade 8, but when I left home, I stopped playing seriously for some years, and when my parents divorced, my father sold the piano because I did not have room for it in my flat.

My first teacher, Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, seemed ancient. She had a grand piano in the front room of her house and during the lesson, her husband would silently bring her a cup of tea, served in a bone china cup and saucer. She always wore mauve or pink, and smelt faintly of lavender. I took my exams at the Birmingham School of Music, one exam a year, a veritable treadmill. When we moved to Hertfordshire, I took lessons with Suzette Murdoch, who taught me to love the intricacies of Bach and the passion and humour of Beethoven. She had an Old English Sheepdog and a spaniel, who would lie across my feet as I sat at her Steinway. My music teacher at school was also very influential. He was endlessly enthusiastic and inspirational, and I often find myself repeating things he said when I am teaching (“pretend you’re a trumpet!”). Twenty-five years since leaving school, I started having lessons again, an experience which I find endlessly absorbing, interesting and fulfilling. The most satisfying part is seeing how quickly I have progressed from post-Grade 8 repertoire to “proper” advanced repertoire – Chopin Etudes, a Ballade, Schubert’s last sonata…. Three years ago, I didn’t think I would be playing Liszt, but now I no longer look at music and think “there’s no way I can play that!”.

My current piano is a Yamaha, purchased four years ago, and chosen for quality and price. Of course, I dream of owning a grand, when space and budget permit, but in the meantime, I play my teacher’s antique Bluthner regularly, and a friend’s Steinway B, which I find as quirky as driving my old Porsche. Last summer, while on holiday in southern Ireland, I had the good fortune to play a rather special Bluthner which lives at Russborough, a beautiful 18th century stately home in County Wicklow. The piano belonged to Sir Alfred Beit, who, with his wife, was a great society host, and a fine amateur pianist. It was wonderful to see Sir Alf’s music in the rack next to the piano: the same Peters edition of Schubert’s Impromptus I had when I was in my teens, and a book of Czerny studies. Next to the Bluthner is an older Steinway, which was played by Paderewski when he visited Russborough.

Russborough, County Wicklow

I am fascinated by the connection pianists, in particular, seem to have to their instruments, and also the stories which illustrious instruments can tell us, in their own way. In a novel (as yet unpublished!) I wrote some years ago, about a young man poised on the cusp of a fantastic career as a concert pianist, before the Great War cruelly intervenes, the various pianos he plays have great significance for him – his teacher’s Broadwood, his mother’s Pleyel, his patron’s grandiose Steinway, a rickety upright in the officers’ mess – and the music he plays on each has very special and symbolic resonances (Beethoven, Scriabin, Debussy, Schubert, Rachmaninov). We grow very attached to our instruments, and we are often very protective of them. Although I teach, and am happy to do so, I do get upset when children treat my piano badly. Luckily, this does not happen that often – and when it does, I am quick to point out that such treatment will not do the instrument any good!

The loneliness of the pianist also interests me. While other musicians, be they soloists, ensembles or orchestras, sit largely facing the audience, the pianist does not, and this immediately changes the dynamic between performer and audience. Some people have suggested that I chose the piano because I am an only child and that I like being on my own. It’s true that I am content in my own company, and am happy to spend hours alone with my piano, but I don’t buy into the only child theory. Discussing this with fellow students on the piano course in April, we all agreed that one of the chief attractions of being a pianist, aside from the vast and wonderful repertoire, is the solitariness of the role.

I used to play the clarinet as well, an instrument which I love to listen to, which allowed me to join an orchestra and wind ensemble. However, I did not choose to learn it (I wanted to play the flute), and I always felt overshadowed by my father, who was a talented amateur clarinettist. Fortunately, I could accompany him on the piano, as I grew more proficient, and one of our favourite pieces was the Brahms E flat Clarinet Sonata. My father is now learning the piano, though he refuses to take any advice whatsoever from me!

When I was at school, I played the harpsichord, often being called upon to play continuo with the chamber orchestra. It was, by turns, a fascinating and frustrating experience, as it is not an easy instrument to master, and the school harpsichord (a modern instrument made from a kit) was beset with problems and regularly disappeared for maintenance.

My piano tuner keeps urging me to visit the Chappell showroom in central London to “try the Bosendorfers”, but, as I said to him, I know if I try one I will want one! And I’d love to play a Fazioli. And when I had a backstage tour of the Wigmore Hall some years ago, it was hard to resist sitting down at the Steinway on the hallowed stage there, and rattling through a drop of Schubert…..

How did you choose your instrument? What’s your story? Please feel free to reply!

3 thoughts on “How I chose my instrument”

  1. I have uploaded pictures of all my instruments onto my Facebook page (Josephine Jones). Feel free to have a look.

  2. Both sets of my grandparents had upright pianos in their respective Parlours and both my parents had learned the piano as children. When I showed aptitude I was loaned an upright by a friend of my father’s until my parents had saved up enough to purchase a brand new Challen 998 satin mahogany upright (the instrument of choice for BBC studios in the 1960s because of their reliability) for my 11th Birthday.
    When I was a teenager, my mother purchased a Beulhoff 5′ grand piano (with a magnificent Rosewood case & a beautifully rich bass) for me to practise on at her parents’ where I spent the vast majority of my holidays and weekends.
    When I married I was fortunate enough to have the space for both instruments until about 20 years ago, when I started loaning out my Challen to worthy students. Only last month I sold it to the Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust so they have a reliable instrument for Charity Concerts in Yeovil.
    Last summer, having sold my 5′ Grand because it only went up to top A & I need top C for my Debussy repertoire etc., we did a lot of research, playing different instruments to determine which would be the best in terms of timbre, sonority (and price). I am fortunate in that, at work, I teach on Steinways or Yamahas (which I find a bit bright), so I took my husband and son & their French Horns with me. (I have been my husband’s principal accompanist for 29 of my husband’s 50 years in the profession.)
    We came to the conclusion that, to provide the kind of instrumental support needed, we preferred the kinds of rich bass and sweetly singing trebles produced by German manufacturers. As a Bösendorfer was completely out of our price range, we started looking for a Bechstein.
    Quite by chance, my husband spotted a Bechstein Model B (6’8” Grand Piano of 1910 in Rosewood) on eBay near Launceston, Cornwall, a couple of hours’ drive from our home. We arranged to go and play it for an hour or so, with solo and accompaniment material, one Saturday afternoon in August and fell in love with it. We purchased it and have loved it ever since.
    One thing we noticed was that it had a beautifully warm tone – until I got the local tuner in. He proceeded to use an electronic tuner and the instrument immediately lost its warmth. In April I got a tuner / technician from Bristol who used a tuning fork for the A & worked entirely by ear from there. What a difference! The Bechstein now sings again. Sadly, modern piano tuners are being trained with electronic tuners, so the art of tuning by ear is gradually being lost. If you find a tuner of the old school – treasure them!

    1. Thank you, Jo, for a lovely post! If I receive any more responses, I will collate them into another blog post. Meanwhile, your Bechstein sounds absolutely wonderful!

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