Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

“A hugely valuable day”

“Inspirational”

“Fantastic to listen to such great playing and I picked up a lot of tips from Graham”

The London Piano Meetup Group presents its fifth Diploma Day on Sunday 28th November 2021 at Morley College, London SE1 with acclaimed teacher Graham Fitch. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are preparing for or are considering taking a post-Grade 8 performance qualification (ARSM, DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL etc). 

Diploma Day now open for booking for observers, and applications for performers.

If you’re thinking of taking a performance diploma, then Diploma Day is for you! It’s an excellent opportunity to perform part of your programme in front of a supportive and friendly audience, and to work on it with Graham Fitch. Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) will be on hand to give advice on choosing a Diploma, planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety. It’s also a chance to meet and chat to other pianists and to share experiences.

This very popular event has been praised for its friendly and open atmosphere in previous years, as well as how useful the day is for those preparing for a diploma, and it promises to be stimulating, informative and fun.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

Performer places are £90 and the closing date for applications is 31st October. Please download and complete the form on the booking page.

Observer tickets – £20

BOOK TICKETS

If you have already taken a performance diploma, we would love to hear from you as personal experiences are very valuable for those embarking on the path. Please feel free to contact Frances to share your experience.


Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”


Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world. His Online Academy, an invaluable resource for pianists of all levels, celebrates its fifth birthday in October.

Frances Wilson is a writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and an advanced amateur pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013. She completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after an absence of 25 years, studying first with Penelope Roskell and latterly with Graham Fitch. She has also attended masterclasses and courses with Murray McLachlan, Charlotte Tomlinson, Stephen Savage and Sarah Beth Briggs.  Frances has acted as a syllabus consultant for Trinity College London and London College of Music, and wrote teaching notes for the current ABRSM and TCL piano exam syllabuses. 

In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..


Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will the author learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert….?

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

***

To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.

How long have you been playing the piano?

As an adult, I spent 2 years with a jazz teacher and a few additional months working with a singer-songwriter. During this period I had no classical piano training, preferring instead to focus on jazz harmony and song-writing. However, I did play a lot of scales and arpeggios, some quite creative (modes, chord-scale theory etc.) At the end of this period of rather ad-hoc and chaotic learning, I felt I could play the piano (just) but now realised that I did need to find a ‘real’ piano teacher. Technique. And I did. She diagnosed me as ‘perhaps G5’ and suggested we work together to push to G6 and G7 with all due haste. I did, but it was a lot of work. Too much, I feel. Piano coordination does not come naturally to me. Before I say more, let me explain that, as a child, I did play a little. Maybe got to G3, but my ‘gap’ and return to the piano is the ever-present chasm of forty-five years! I am, therefore, the proverbial ‘very late returning’ adult pianist. I left a lucrative career to pursue the bewitching instrument and I am only too well aware of what I call my narrowing ‘window of opportunity’. The clock is ticking. I certainly need to make more progress over the next year or two. The last eighteen months has not been easy, what with the pandemic. I chose not to do ‘zoom’ lessons. That was probably a mistake. And, to make matters worse, I suffered a cycling accident pre-pandemic, just as things were coming together for me. I was unable to play for a year. This lost time led to a loss of skills which then had to be hard-won all over again. My surgeon called it ‘retraining’. At this point I nearly lost the will to continue.

What attracted you to the piano?

Harmony. Overtones. Resonance. And dissonance. I simply love the sound. Always have; always will. The instrument is wide open to composition and improvisation. As a child, our modest upright was more an object of curiosity, an engineering marvel, than it was a musical instrument. I remember the occasions when I removed the front panel and watched, fascinated, as the hammers and levers, pecking and bobbing like birds at the taut strings, moved in synchronisation with my fingers. I was not playing the piano, I was performing a physics experiment. It was a laboratory demonstration accompanied by a cacophony of dissonance, shifting and dancing in time with the intricate mechanism. Had our piano been a musical box or fairground automaton, I suspect I would have been equally satisfied just studying its movements for hours on end in an attempt to discern its inner workings. But out of these naïve experiments came my first embryonic compositions. Some of these teenage pretensions were so complex I could hardly play them. My young mind was racing ahead, my fingers less so. And school (and my natural ability with ‘making’ and fascination with electronics) was steering me in a different direction. A career in computing during the 80s and 90s took over, and real life (children, family) intervened. Here I am, forty-five years later, regretting I had not stuck at the awkward childhood piano lessons my parents had funded. For me, the sounds and the music itself has always been the draw.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?

I want to play the impressionists, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel. Also Delius. But let me be clear, it’s the harmony that attracts me. It is probably not a coincidence that these composers were influencing and influenced by the emergence of jazz. My return to the piano, if we can call it that, was not a planned or deliberate act. I was out shopping. It hit me like a brick. I simply had to play. I walked into a music shop and asked for a teacher. He happened to be a jazz musician. He fitted like a glove. And for anyone who thinks less of jazz than ‘classical’, think again. One of my heroes is Dave Grusin. I’ve love to be able to play his rich brew of harmonic shifts. And as I explore the ‘serious’ composers, I hear echoes of the jazz giants all the time. Even within today’s ‘cutting edge’ jazz scene. Ever heard of Sam Crowe of Native Dancer? To improvise like Sam would be a joy …. but I’d need to study a Phd in jazz harmony as pre-requisite, as indeed he has. So, for the time being my performances are rather more modest … but the harmony has to be there. I love Satie and intend to make a decent recording; if only for the family archive. And I keep tripping over cute pieces that contain echoes of the chords and colours I love so much. You know, dominant 13ths, flat 5ths, sharp 9ths, chords in 4ths, the tritone. An example: during G6 I played Petite Litancies De Jesus by Gabriel Grovlez. It’s simply lovely. And more recently I have found Giya Kanceheli. He wrote for film and stage. His collection entitled ‘Simple Music for Piano’ is gorgeous, and within my reach. Again, I intend to record.

Much of the ‘grade syllabus’ does not contain music I particularly like. But I have completed G7 including some Mozart and Schubert. I am on a journey. Bach will be there eventually, beyond the pair of 2-part inventions I managed along side my grade work.

How do you make the time to practice? Do you enjoy practising?

I am retired. I stood down from my career to focus on music. I have all the time in the world. Any limitation is energy – mental and focus. Had my accident not occurred, and had the pandemic not led governments to close our society and activities, I think I’d be further along. Now I have to find the renewal to restart and reenergise. I fear it won’t be easy.

Certain types of practice I enjoy. I am content to repeat exercises, scales, arpeggios and the many variations required of jazz. I am at my most uncomfortable during the early stages of tackling a new work. Sight reading is poor and I don’t know how to improve it. Coordination is also lacking, especially the left hand and arm. For me, practice is a conundrum. There is always this underlying feeling that one is doing the wrong things, or taking a sub-optimal approach. The clock ticks. Time is running out. At my age, the window of opportunity will eventually close, as certain as night follows day.

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?

Time. Thirty minutes is too short. One hour is OK but I often need more. And even with the time I have available to practice, I don’t feel a weekly lesson is viable or appropriate. I would not have made sufficient progress before ‘next lesson’. So its typically every two weeks (interrupted by the pandemic of course.) As a ‘late returner’ and as I tackle the challenge of transitioning from early advanced to advanced, I value a teacher willing to enter into a discussion of my challenges beyond guidance on phrasing and articulation; to look ahead and be my guide. I feel that a lot of what limits me now is either psychological or in the cortex – biology, the brain slowing down. If I could just ‘hang out’ with a talented pianist for a few hours I feel I could learn a lot. But I am probably being naïve. Mostly its just graft that is required.

Have you taken any piano exams? What is your experience of taking music exams as an adult and what, in your opinion, are the benefits/challenges of doing so?

Yes. I took ABRSM G4 and G5 theory. Sitting in a room with 150 children was certainly an experience! And I have sat both G6 practical and G7 performance. Hated those video things. But I do intend to go further, hopefully quite a bit further. I find paying for others in any context intimidating and have written before about performance anxiety. Why do I subject myself to this? Partly discipline. Partly to measure progress. And partly just to be able to face the daemons. This is also why I joined a piano circle. [The lessons Howard learnt from his piano circle are documented here  and appears as an appendix to his book charting his adventures in music: Note For Note ]

Have you attended any piano courses? What have you gained from the experience?

I have. It was like going back to school. Wonderful. And to be around other pianists of all ages and abilities; inspiring; but also sobering. Summer school is, for me, a good substitute for my ultimate aim: to return to college to study music in some capacity: theory, composition or practical. But as I’ve found, the road is steep to get there and my current progress (and deficit of energy or focus sapped by the pandemic to be frank) is not a good indicator of success. Let’s just call it my ‘unrealistic aspiration’ and leave it there for the time being.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

At the piano circle, yes. It’s a test. I want to play at a level that people enjoy listening. Despite my piano buddies kind words at each of my attempts, I know in my heart that I have achieved beauty on only a few occasions. I have no desire to inflict on anyone (friends or family let alone the ‘public’) an ‘amateurish’ performance (or worse). In many ways I am quite happy playing for myself. But I’d like to think that one day I will be able to genuinely move another human being with a performance of music I treasure … or have composed? Isn’t that the mark of a musician?

I did once write a love song for my wife, and two companion pieces. They were performed at a ‘living room concert’ for a large group of our friends. I played. My song-writing tutor sang. Musically it was a modest achievement; emotionally a roller-coaster. But I loved every minute of it and I believe the audience did also. I hope so.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up or returning to the piano?

Who am I to give advice, but here goes. Only embark on such a costly expedition if you are clear that it is what you need, and must do. For adult first-timers it is going to take significant dedicated time input over a sustained period. Little of this journey will be easy. Nor will it always be ‘fun’. Look to your teachers to show you the way but recognise that even they, with decades of experience, will not have all the answers you need. Explore. I found it necessary to wallow in a good deal of self-reflection during my time on what I call ‘the escalator’ (you cannot get off). The road ahead will be more than a little rocky. Find your own shock absorbers and escape pods. And whatever you do, try to avoid self-inflicted accidents and pandemics.

If you could play one piece, what would it be?

The second movement (Adagio assai) of the Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel. With orchestra or with second piano acting as orchestra. I then believe I will have learned to play the piano.


N4NfrontcoverHoward Smith is the author of Note for Note, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” for the amateur pianist, charting his own piano journey – the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”. More information here

Howard  Smith (1957-) was born in England and grew up in Kent. An internationally recognised chief technologist and management consultant, he wrote his first computer programs at the age of fourteen before entering university to study physics. His landmark book (2003) Business Process Management: The Third Wave, generated over three hundred articles in the IT industry media, was an Amazon #1 best seller in five categories, reaching the top 200 of all books (including fiction) and was featured in the Harvard Business Review. In 2017, Howard decided to leave the computer industry he loved to pursue a new life in music. His latest book, Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, tells the inspirational story of how he navigated his transition from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance.

Howard lives in Surrey, England, with his wife.


If you are an adult amateur pianist and would like to take part in the Piano Notes series, please download the PIANO NOTES adult pianist interview.

Amateur pianists – how has lockdown been for you?

What have you been playing?

Have you practised more or less during lockdown?

How has your motivation been?

Have you been able to continue with piano lessons? (If you have regular lessons.) How have you found Zoom lessons?

What has lockdown “taught” you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section or contact me if you’d prefer to talk in confidence