So, the trouble all started when a friend asked to park her Bechstein upright in our house, 21 years ago. Pregnant with my first child and lit up with enthusiasm, I applied my hands, but the brain failed: it had been too long since the Grade 5 exam in 1974. So the lid went down. This was London, where nobody confessed to an enthusiasm they couldn’t back up with expertise. Why spend hours toiling away at an activity you were clearly not talented at, when there were so many other distractions or annoyances to attend to? Also, the really cool people who could turn their hands to the keyboard played improvised blues or at least popular songs that everybody could sing to after a glass or three of wine. What on earth was the point in making painful, grinding progress with a piece of Schubert that anybody who was interested could listen to at the flick of a switch, played by Paul Lewis or Mitsuko Uchida or any other of the great contemporary pianists of the day?
Then when I hit forty, the desire to learn kicked in. We now know that music lights up circuitry in the brain that cuts across most of the areas understood by magnetic imaging. Listening to music does that: learning even more so.
With a gradient that started at Distinction in Grade 1 (aged 9), plateaued at Pass in Grade 5 (aged 12), things weren’t looking promising for my efforts, at the age of 40, to rise to the challenge of Grade 6. That Grade, incidentally, carries with it the humiliating requirement that you have to have passed Grade 5 Theory. This meant that I had to take time off to sit the exam, along with 6,000 13 year olds, in some LSE exam warehouse behind Bush House where I worked, to the puzzlement of my boss (“Didn’t you do that when you were at school?”). Anyway, I passed, and the rest is history. After Grade 6 was the “gentle” Grade 7, which real pianists don’t bother to do because it’s such a small gradient. I thought I might get some leeway from the examiner when I staggered into the room on crutches with a knee injury – perching the damned things on the piano in order to wind down the seat after the 6 year old who’d preceded me – but ABRSM assessors are, quite rightly, armour-plated against individual appeals to mercy. I was despatched with barely 10 points over the pass mark. By Grade 8, I was slaveringly grateful to have passed by 1 singular point.
So why do I do it? Alan Rusbridger puts it so well, and his book led me to this site. The activity is a forbidden fruit, in a way. Not just the classical repertoire, but the attendant costs of the space needed for such a demanding piece of furniture. Of course it attracts accusations of elitism. But Rusbridger puts it so well when he describes his working day as somehow incomplete without the slight adaptation of brain chemistry that results from just twenty minutes at the keyboard. We don’t understand it yet, but I suspect when we do, the unglamorous process of struggling to learn a piece of music, or even playing a scale or an arpeggio, will have the same status as the celebrated endorphin release that we get from a long run or session at the gym.
And of course it’s so much more than that – the business of learning a piece of music gives you a view of its underside, its working parts. Even if you never reach the level of competence that enables you to play the damned thing to yourself, let alone anybody else, it opens up an entirely new dimension when you listen to the expert rendition. So that’s how that scale works! Ah – the bass chords there are a pianissimo rumble, not a statement. Oh, a dotted rhythm, not a triplet? Interesting interpretation!
Thank you, Frances, for this site. Let’s hope that Alan’s book – which celebrates, amongst many other things, the online amateur pianist – will be the source of many exchanges. Piano playing is one of the most privileged and interesting pursuits, but quite solitary in its way. For those of us not able to sightread our way through dazzling trios, or to pop in and out of duets, this online community is a source of encouragement for a hobby that seems to the rest of the world as eccentric in the extreme.
Rosalind is a former academic who now edits the Human Rights and Public Law Update online Journal and undertakes comparative and public law research for members of chambers. She also records and edits audiostreamed seminars for the resources section of the Chambers website. She edits and contributes to the National Health Legal Service’s Authority’s Human Rights NewsLetter.
Rosalind lives in Norfolk and takes lessons with pianist Christopher Green Armytage.
In another incarnation, Rosalind runs the annual Burnham Market Literary Festival in North Norfolk.