I understand you took up the piano during lockdown. What prompted you to do this and did you have any experience of playing the piano before then?

Yes, I started learning the piano shortly after the first lockdown hit, when I went to stay with my girlfriend (for the lockdown period). She has played the piano since she was a child. We dug her keyboard out of the loft with the intention of her brushing up on her technique, but after an hour of us playing around and her showing me a couple of easy things to play, I was hooked.

I have not had any experience with, or exposure to any instruments before, so I had to start with the basics. Not knowing anything at all about reading music, chords, key signatures etc., but with a brain that has a thirst for knowledge, I set out on my journey.

What attracted you to the piano?

It was more about circumstances than attraction. I had always wanted to learn an instrument and when I was presented with lots of time on my hands and the keyboard in front of me, I jumped at the chance.

What have been the pleasures and challenges of learning to play the piano?

There have been many challenges, but I think the main one for me was finding the right things to practise/learn and in what order. Whilst teaching myself in a lockdown, I read many books and watched loads of YouTube videos. I found that information was often just repeating things I had already learned. The other challenges included getting my hands to do different things at the same time and then, when I bought myself a pedal, adding that third thing ….. a challenge which I still struggle with.

When I am sitting at my keyboard and no matter what I am doing, whether it’s playing a piece, doing scales of chord progression, or learning a new piece, the pleasures for me are that nothing else matters in the world at that point, I am completely present in the moment. That is what hooked me at the beginning and still does now.

How much practising do you do on a daily basis?

I can normally manage an hour’s practise each day; more if I am lucky enough. I normally start with some scales, chords and arpeggios working my way through the keys. A different key each week. Then I learn more and practise the piece I’m working on at that time. Following that, I like to just ‘free play’, learning what sounds good (and what doesn’t!!) and not be tied to the music on the sheet. I usually finish by playing some pieces that I have already learnt and enjoy playing.

What kind of music do you enjoy playing?

My favourite genre is Jazz and Blues. I love the sounds of jazz chords as they resolve into each other and with blues, I love the swinging rhythm and that soulful feel it has. I get lost in it. I do also enjoy playing classical music, although I am sticking to playing some slower pieces for now.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 2nd movement at the moment. I have
learnt the 1st movement and love playing it. I am also trying to teach myself to improvise Blues.

You belong to a piano meetup group. What are the benefits of belonging to such a group? How do you feel it supports your progress as a pianist?

I highly recommend joining a meetup group. I have been fortunate enough to meet some encouraging and supportive people there. I was very nervous at first and not sure what to expect; my hands were shaking and half way through my first piece I froze. Everyone was so supportive that I managed to carry on and finish!

I am a perfectionist and very tough on myself and seeing that even the best players can hit a ‘bum note’ or even lose their place at times, helped me loads. Also just seeing pianists perform in real life was inspiring.

Would you consider attending a piano course, and if so why?

Definitely. I have been looking into getting lessons now and things are going back to normal (post lockdown). I am struggling to find someone that has space that fits around work. I feel that I need some direction now. I have tried some online subscription lessons but they’re not for me. Although they did help, I would like someone to whom I can ask questions and who can watch me and tell me what I am doing wrong (and hopefully right!)..

What about piano exams… do you have any plans to take grade exams?

Yes, I will definitely be taking some graded exams at some point. Actually when I started to learn I used the grade books as a starting point for learning and would love to go through them with a teacher and sit the exams.

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

Do it!!!! Sometimes it feels like a mountain to climb. Reading music, theory, scales etc but keep it simple. For me, the more I did scales and read music, then looked into the theory, timing and key signatures, the more it made sense. Learn an easy piece or song that you enjoy playing so when the practise gets boring you can play it and lose yourself in it. The most important thing is to have fun.

If you could play one piece what would it be?

I long to be able to ‘jam’ and confidently improvise on the piano.


Biography
I grew up in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. After leaving school I trained as a plasterer, which I still do today. I suffer from drug addiction and I spent twenty years in active addiction; not really living but just existing and the last eight years of those I was homeless. After making the decision that I needed to change, I moved to nearby Luton and started attending Cocaine Anonymous (CA) meetings. After a six month detox program and support from CA, I now work a 12 step program and have reintegrated myself back into society. I will be three years clean from all drugs and alcohol on the 13th October 2021. I met my girlfriend, Abbie, whilst working in the school where she works, and now live in Surrey with her.


If you are an adult amateur pianist and you would like to take part in the Piano Notes series to share your personal piano journey, please get in touch

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…..


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.

In a large early nineteenth-century former church – its previous life still evident from the grand organ situated above an elegant balcony – a group of people are ranged across plastic seating on tiers more usually occupied by orchestras in rehearsal. Some lounge in their seats in a pretence of relaxation, others crane forward eagerly for a better view of the keyboard, many clutch music scores. Below us are two beautiful gleaming Steinway concert grands, nose to nose like sleek racehorses. Players are called forward alphabetically and each person introduces their repertoire before sitting down to play. There’s an added frisson to today’s gathering because of the choice of pianos, a rare treat for these ‘piano nuts’ more used to playing at home on uprights or digital instruments (few have the luxury of space or money for a grand).

The performances are varied, some highly polished, a couple near-professional in their finesse and virtuosity, others are more tentative, a little hesitant as nerves get the better of the player and turn fingers trembly and the mind blank. But each performance is greeted with enthusiastic applause and there’s a palpable sense of community and collective experience.

I can’t remember exactly what I played at that particular gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG), a club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded back in 2013 when I was keen to meet others like me (being a pianist can be lonely!), but I do recall what Howard Smith played because it was by Satie, something of a rarity at LPMG events – and indeed in the concert hall. I’d not met Howard before, and I remember being struck by the sensitivity with which he played. Later, in the pub, we got talking and he admitted that he had felt very nervous playing in front of others, and had also found the advanced players quite intimidating. I assured him that he was not alone in feeling like this and that many of us were nervous (but had learnt to hide it!). We talked about the exigencies of practicing, the pleasures and the frustrations, and I discovered that Howard, like me, was a “returner” to the piano, and was working towards his Grade 6 exam. As we chatted, I sensed a quiet determination in him, to improve his playing, overcome his performance anxiety and connect with other pianists like us. Later, in an email, he told me he was writing a book about his experiences as an adult amateur pianist.

The world of the amateur pianist is a curious one – obsessive, often nerdy, richly varied, as our LPMG membership attests. We’re a motley bunch – several doctors, an actuary, a video games designer, a retired OU lecturer, a handful of piano teachers – of mixed ability players, from almost beginners to those who’ve had a formal musical training in conservatoire but who decided to take a different career path. Some have played the piano all their life, others have taken it up in retirement, or, like me and Howard, returned after an absence. But there’s one thing that unites us….

These are all people who confirm and reinforce the true meaning of the word “amateur” – not maladroit, dilettante “Sunday pianists”, but people who absolutely love the piano. Eavesdrop on any conversation between members of LPMG and this love is more than evident as we discuss the myriad aspects of our obsession: practising, repertoire, exams, concerts, instruments, performance anxiety, favourite professional performers, recordings and more. Released from their living rooms, basements and garden studios, where practising is often undertaken in pleasurable solitary confinement, regular meetups allow these people to indulge their passion and share it with likeminded others.

“You’re all weird!” says my cycling-obsessed husband. But when I point out to him that I have encountered a similar passion amongst his cycling fraternity, he concedes that we are all “nuts” of one kind or another!

Amateurs may never touch the professionals, but they might just conceivably touch the audience with their fidelity and commitment to the piano and its literature. Sometimes the most hesitant performance can move because the audience knows the sheer amount of hard work, and anxiety, grit and determination, that has gone into preparing for that performance.

And it is this hard work – the practising, the striving and a desire to improve, the sheer bloody-mindness to stick to the task  – which colours Howard Smith’s book ‘Note for Note’.

In part a memoir, ‘Note for Note’ is a Pilgrim’s Progress for the amateur pianist, and in it Howard charts the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”, as well as the sloughs of despond when one can feel stuck in a rut due to lack of progress or having reached a plateau in one’s musical development with no clear way of moving forward. These are aspects which all pianists, indeed all musicians, whether professional, amateur or student, will recognise, and Howard describes the setbacks and the triumphs, small and large, in an engaging, candid and witty narrative. There’s an immediacy to his writing too, which reflects his excitement in the discoveries or progress he makes: those wonderful breakthroughs when one thinks “Oh yes, now I understand!”.

Having had some lessons as a child, Howard decides to revisit the piano in his retirement, throwing himself into his practising and musical study with all the dedication and passion that befits the word “amateur”. That Howard loves the piano is clear from the outset: beguiled by the instrument, its literature, those who play it, the practice of practising, and the will to improve, he sets out on the rocky road to mastery, with the support of teachers, friends and other pianists (amateur and professional). The result is a remarkably honest book that will resonate with others on the same path and will provide inspiration and practical information for those who are just starting out on the journey.

But there’s more to this book than a straightforward ‘What Howard Did Next…..’. His intellectual curiosity and a voracious appetite for information lead him to explore music theory, harmony, improvisation and song-writing, and all his discoveries are documented within the pages of the book, as Howard shares his growing musical understanding with his readers. Such information is explained clearly, in some instances with diagrams, to assist the reader, and because it is presented from the point of view of someone who has only recently grasped the concepts, it is easy to understand and absorb. Thus, this book is also a primer for those interested in exploring harmony, and particularly jazz harmony, lead sheets and the building blocks of jazz improvisation, in more detail. Meanwhile, the ‘Postlude’/appendix includes a helpful checklist for the piano student and advice on managing performance anxiety, a perennial issue for many musicians.

I sense a courageousness in Howard too. It’s not easy to set oneself on a musical path such as this: playing for a teacher or in front of others at piano club or on a course, or taking practical music exams are perhaps the hardest things for the amateur pianist, yet Howard’s willingness, tempered with a healthy dose of humility, to “just do it” (to quote a famous advertising slogan) is admirable and inspiring.

This personal testimony, written by someone who understands both the daily practicalities and exigencies of learning a musical instrument and who also has a deep appreciation of the art and craft of music, regardless of genre, is a celebration of the wonderfully enriching experience, both physical and emotional, that music brings to so many people – as players and practitioners, teachers and listeners.

Above all, this book is a love story – for the piano and those who play it, and music and musicians in general.

‘Note For Note’ is available to order via Amazon


 

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The adult ‘returner’ pianist

I’m a returner pianist – and maybe, if you’re reading this article, you are too and therefore what follows will chime with you. Or perhaps you are thinking of taking up the piano again after a long absence (as I did), in which case you should definitely read on…..

I played at a piano club recently and during the coffee break someone asked me if I was “a professional pianist”. This gave me a momentary glow of pride – evidently I had “made an impression” – and I know that many amateurs dream of reaching the dizzy heights of ‘professional standard’ in their playing. It’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to practice; alone with that box of wood and wires we dream of playing to a full house to the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.

So I replied that no, I was an amateur pianist, an adult ‘returner’ and that I had given up the piano at the age of nineteen, returning to it just shy of my fortieth birthday with an all-consuming passion for the instrument, those who play it and its vast and varied literature. (You can read more about my return to the piano at the end of this article.)

The world of the adult amateur pianist is a curious one – at once rich, vibrant and varied, but also obsessive, anxious and eccentric. But above all, it is inspiring, and in my encounters with other adult pianists, through my piano group and on piano courses, I come across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and failures, the frustrations and pleasures of practicing, and the fear and thrill of performing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

When you tell people you’ve taken up the piano again they always ask, “Are you any good?” And I never know quite what to say. Some days when my spirit and fingers are in sympathy with each other, I think I make a reasonable sound. On other days, spirit and fingers aren’t on speaking terms and the result is fumbling, dismal, depressing.

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and amateur pianist

When I put out a call for contributions to this article via Twitter, I was deluged with responses, as varied, fascinating and moving as the literature of the instrument we play. What follows are just a few of the responses, but what they demonstrate is that, while there are some obvious common threads, our reasons for returning to and playing the piano are often deeply personal and hugely meaningful to us as individuals, and that our passion for the piano is all-consuming. Never forget that the word “amateur” derives from the Old French word meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator: all the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it. Our love drives our commitment to the instrument – amateur pianists are possibly the most dedicated practicers – and many of us are absorbed by a compelling need to get better, to progress, to master. It’s a lonely road to travel, which is why piano clubs and courses are so popular for the opportunity to meet others who are similarly driven and obsessed. Those of us who commit to the journey do so willingly; it’s an ongoing process, one which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.

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That is not to say that professional pianists don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed and know personally have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Now, back to those inspiring adult returners…..

My primary reason for returning was that both my parents had lived the last ten or twelve years of their lives with advancing dementia, as well as some second degree relatives. I thought the best way to really work my brain was to go back to playing music. The secondary reason was to help relieve stress which was something my piano teacher had told me I would need at some point in my life……For me, having started to suffer the lacunar strokes in my family history which have a type of dementia related to them, I keep hold on the fact that the part of the brain the works with music is usually the last to fail. I still feel that playing the piano is probably one of the best avenues to take to keep working the brain. Apart from that I simply love playing again. – Eleanor

It was the death of an uncle which prompted me to return to the piano. He was very musical, and after he died my other uncle asked me whether I would like his piano, a rather fine Steinway grand which had been in the family for ages. However, grand pianos are somewhat incompatible with the three bedroom semi in which I live, but it did remind me how much I’d enjoyed the piano. I was lucky enough to be left some money in his will, and with that I bought a Yamaha upright with silent system fitted. I wanted a proper acoustic, but I have young children so a silent system means I can practice at night after they are in bed. I have lessons once a fortnight and they are completely indispensable for my enjoyment

– Sarah

I studied music at university and did two years of a performance major but struggled with various chronic injuries and dropped out as a result (I had two operations and had seen many medical specialists in attempt to resolve these problems). I then “sold my soul” to capitalism and started a business, following which I continued along a corporate career. I had always dreamed of getting back into playing but my schedule was punishing and not at all conducive to playing. I started to play again and unfortunately ended up with RSI (tennis elbow) which swiftly ended my return to playing. Then a few years later I managed to extricate myself from the corporate world and…..I managed to start playing again and although I had some niggles from the RSI, was able to play around 0.5 – 1 hrs a few days a week. I also started going for lessons with [a teacher who] focussed very much on reducing tension…..and I realised how much of my injuries came down to poor technique and tension. I wish a greater emphasis had been placed on this when I was a music student because while [my teacher] helped me find a much more natural, comfortable way to play, it was already too late and my RSI flared up again to the point where a few minutes of playing would leave me in agony for days. It was devastating after so long of trying to be in a position to have the time to play that I wasn’t able to. A few years later (whilst consistently seeing medical specialists and trying various approaches) I managed to have a breakthrough in which I was able to slowly start playing again, a few minutes every second day and was able to gradually build up. This was a useful exercise in that I had to be more focussed on practising effectively given the limited time available. Despite being told by numerous doctors that I wouldn’t play again, I’m now able to play for up to an hour on some days. This has been sufficient to learn some new repertoire and to perform in some amateur meet-up groups which has really been a wonderful experience. In fact, once I was able to let go of the inner critic (as a former music student, the inner critic remains highly developed even though one’s technical ability wanes without practice!), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed playing. It would have never have occurred to me all those years ago when I dropped out of university that I’d be able to derive so much enjoyment out of playing as an amateur.

– Ryan

I originally started piano lessons aged 13, of my own volition; I’d had one of those 80s electronic keyboards that were all the rage back then, and wanted to progress to something more substantial. My progress was very slow, however, and ultimately not very fulfilling. I managed to pass my Grade 1 but found the exam experience stressful. I think a lot of it had to do with the prescriptive way children are typically taught: everything was just scales, sight reading and set pieces that weren’t especially fun or engaging to play. Nearly twenty years later, I was in a piano bar on holiday, and the pianist was playing modern music set to piano. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of regret that I had abandoned such a beautiful instrument. On returning home, I did a spot of research and found that digital pianos had come on a long way in the intervening years and were now touch-sensitive with weighted keys and even a sustain pedal. I took the plunge, ordered a decent model (the Yamaha P115) and signed up for lessons with a local teacher. It’s been a wonderful decision, and I have fallen in love with playing. It’s still small steps, but I practice regularly and have actively witnessed improvement in my own playing.

– Colin

I discovered classical music as a teen (Bach) and started taking lessons. I wanted to be a composer, and eventually became a composition major at a local university. Having started late, and not having received family support and good advice from those who did support me, I let my insecurities defeat me, and I ended up getting a degree in English. Decades later, we inherited a spinet from a relative, and I found my passion once again. I finally have a good teacher, and am making progress toward being the pianist I wanted to be.

– Bob

And what of me, the author and creator of this blog who through my activities tries to support and advocate for amateur pianists? Discouraged from applying to music college with the suggestion that I wasn’t “good enough”, I threw myself into other studies (Medieval English), followed a non-musical career path for 10 years, while setting up home, getting married and starting a family. But in my late thirties, when my son was about eight, my mother bought me a digital piano and urged me to start playing again. So I dug out the music I had loved as a teenager – music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy – and also some I had hated: Chopin’s Nocturnes. I fell in love with Chopin’s music; coming at it as an adult with a greater degree of life experience, I found it vivid, beautiful, passionate, poignant – and incredibly satisfying to play. I also returned to Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, music I’d first started playing (badly!) at the age of about 12 when my mother bought me an Edition Peters score of this music, having heard Alfred Brendel play the Impromptus in concert. Within a couple of years, I was teaching piano to the children of friends and acquaintainces I’d met via my son’s primary school, and in 2007, my husband bought me a proper acoustic piano. The instrument arrived, and I spent hours and hours playing it and learnt the first movement of Schubert’s final sonata – in a day. Within eighteen months I was having lessons again with a sympathetic teacher who improved my technique beyond recognition and built my confidence. When she suggested I start looking at Chopin’s Etudes and Ballades, I knew I had reached a significant point in my piano journey – I felt I was now a “real” pianist – and she supported my decision to take a professional performance diploma (in fact, I took two and passed both with Distinction, under her guidance). Meanwhile, I had started writing this blog, initially to record my thoughts about the experience of playing the piano again, music I was enjoying at home and at concerts. (I had no notion of how successful and popular this blog would become in the subsequent 10 years.) Today I work in music: I’m not a professional pianist, but I am a ‘music professional’ (a writer, blogger, teacher and, more recently, a publicist working with musicians, and concerts manager), and everything I do now goes back to that decision to return to the piano at the age of 39. I’ve forged firm friendships through piano courses and clubs, and made significant connections with professional pianists, teachers, bloggers and others, and I know I would not given up this life for anything now.

My piano journey has been relatively straightforward compared to some of the accounts of other adult returner pianists, but we are all on our own personal path, some of us supported by teachers, others choosing to “go it alone”, but all driven by a common, consuming passion for the piano.


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Guest post by Howard Smith, Adult Amateur Pianist

My first Chetham’s. The International Summer School & Festival for Pianists, that is. Manchester, UK. Two hundred and thirty participants. Forty tutors and staff. Phew!

What is Chetham’s? A holiday? An experience? A dream? Deep learning? A festival? Camaraderie? Joy? All these and more. Mental exhaustion? Yes. Tutorials throughout the day. Recitals each evening. And practice rooms open 6am til 11pm. Seven days (fourteen if you can do it) of end-to-end piano madness. Non-stop. Punctuated by meals and coffee breaks. And for those with stronger metabolisms than I, late nights in the bar or around town. I needed sleep. Lots. Be prepared to pace yourself.

So what is Chetham’s? A privilege. Yes. A shock, also. So much talent. I feel … inadequate. My journey just beginning, despite the last years of obsessive practice. I am … nowhere. Visceral. I feel it keenly as I watch the young people and experienced ‘adult amateurs’. It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, despite the modest progress I have made. So little for the effort expended. Like a heavy weight bearing down on me, I hardly dare to imagine what will happen if, in the end, I find the journey too onerous.

Day 0: Registration. Check in. Unpack. Explore. And in the evening (from 5pm) three recitals! Three!! Nearly four hours of music, including Peter Donohoe CBE (Haydn programme).

Day 1: Tai chi (optional) Breakfast. 1-to-1 and group workshops. Coffee break. Workshops or practice. Lunch. Workshops. I play on stage, on a grand, for six minutes, to over seventy people. I am first to volunteer. Not bravery. Far from it. Desperation. Unless I do this my performance anxiety will kill whatever progress I have made. Dinner. Then three more recitals. Top international talent. 10pm. Bar. Wine (large glass). Sleep.

Repeat for six days. And *everyone* gets a piano.

Day 2: 9am. I am sitting in (observer) on a composition class. A young man, clearly ambitious (and knowledgeable) is explaining to a faculty tutor that he wishes to write a toccata. His  tutor opens a copy of Spectrum, book IV (ABRSM) and invites the young man to accompany him at the keyboard in selected ‘miniatures’. They discuss style and compositional ideas. Exploring. There is a poster on the wall of the tutor’s office: Peter Maxwell Davies. My mind returns to 1975.

What is Chetham’s? Memory jogger and nostalgia generator.

Time for my second 1-to-1. Schubert. I learn how to play big chords, softly. And how Schubert requires far less pedal than I was using. Somehow Tippett enters the conversation. My tutor has a close relative now occupying the house where Tippett lived and composed. He tells me about the garden path he trod while writing Child Of Our Time. And as the lesson ends, my tutor tells me – based on what he heard and the way I took instruction – that I should be playing more advanced music: Grade 8 music. Music to my ears …  but he does not know just how much work I do at Grade 6. LOL.

Still day 2. Lunch. I sit down by myself. A lady a couple of chairs away seems eager to introduce herself. We exchange stories. As a student, she studied Jazz, at Leeds, and now teaches. I start listing some of my musical heroes, starting with Corinne Bailey Rae. Her face lights up. “I was at college with Jason and Steve!” Oh my. My new Chetham’s friend (Leeds accent, there’s the clue) shows me photos of herself and the gang.

Is this musical world smaller than we imagine? Is that because being ‘musical’ is rare? Or weird? Does it require a particularly high IQ, or is it just a niche innate ‘talent’? More evidence emerges … I am in the school shop (Forsyths, who also ship-in additional grand pianos for the summer school) and ask a question about the Spectrum series of ‘contemporary music’ I heard about in the composition class. A man standing nearby asks, “Ah. Do you like contemporary music?”

“Britten and Tippett,” I reply.

“Oh, not contemporary then,” he says. “Britten would be 106 this year.” He smiles.

(He has a point. I have some catch-up to do.)

And then explains he has “worked with Britten”, and “lived for a while at The Red House”. Wow.

“And did I mention that I also worked with Tippett. Nice man.”

And the young woman behind the book counter joins in. “Yes, Tippett came to conduct our school orchestra. I agree, really nice. Fun. Britten was a but stuffy.”

Racing ahead with more connections the man (a Faculty tutor I now see from his badge) adds, “I taught Ed Sheeran you know. Lovely family. Must catch up with him some day.”

So there we are. What is Chetham’s? The centre of things.

How can this still be Day 2? But it is. A (much anticipated) evening recital in the gorgeous Stoller Hall (perfect acoustics). Angela Hewitt. Bach. The monumental Goldberg (30) Variations. Four (four) standing ovations! A once-in-a-lifetime performance. Superhuman. Truly. Everyone agrees.

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Stoller Hall

Day 3. The afternoon class introduces a wonderful idea. We are each asked to i) walk to the piano (applause), ii) improvise “anything” (no more than thirty seconds), iii) take a bow and iv) walk offstage. It works like a dream. Those who were reticent to play before are, by the end of the course, playing to the group.

Day 3. Evening. The bar. Chatting. We have just been treated to not one but TWO concertos. Brahms No. 1 and No. 2, with full orchestra (the first performed by Murray McLachlan, founder of the summer school, the second by the french-American pianist Eugen Indjic). A quiet lady joins us. I ask her what she has played to her group. In an accent I don’t recognise she explains she is too nervous. She has travelled to Manchester from Brazil. And not played! (other than to her tutor) Well, that has to end. Gathering up a colleague, and despite it being late (11pm), I suggest that we grab a room with a couple of grand pianos and play to each other for an hour or so. And we do. And my little plan works. She plays a complex piece by Villa Lobos. Slow and hesitant but lovely. And half an hour later she is showing off another piece, rich in Brazillian rhythms. Mission accomplished.

(Later in the week I repeat this trick for an IT Project Manager who had previously only played to his teacher at home … not even to his family and friends. But he played for me, at Chetham’s, and later found the confidence to play in his final group workshop.)

So what is Chetham’s? Mutual support network. Agony aunt for performance anxiety limited international piano tourists.

Day 4. I sit in on an ‘Improvisation” lesson. The pupil is a lady I met on the bus from the station. She has spotted my music bag and introduced herself. Her first Chetham’s, just like me. To the surprise of her tutor, she breaks down, tearful, before the lesson gets underway. The explanation: the first two days had shown her a new world: what it *really* means to be a musician. She explained that her musical education at school, and with various ‘teachers’ thereafter, was little but rote learning. No creativity. No authenticity. I understand her. My childhood experience was limiting. Decades pass and along comes Chetham’s to show us what the journey is really about. Two minutes later she has recovered her composure as she listened to the kind, empathetic, words of reassurance from her sensitive faculty teacher.

Day 4. Just before lunch. A friend from a London-based piano circle I attend (LPMG) emerges from class. We decide to help each other and find an empty practice room. He helps me with my sight reading. We exchange notes on Bach minuet style. We play Satie to each other, wondering how to achieve evenness.

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Adult student receiving tuition at Chethams Summer School for Pianists

Day 4. Afternoon tutorial. More input. Listen. Apply. This is good. I am learning. I hope it sticks. I’ll try.

Quote of the week:

Pupil: “I always get these bars wrong.”

Tutor: “I see. Have you tried playing them right?”

Evening concert. Sarah Nicolls’ ‘Outside-In-Piano’. Difficult to describe. Sarah builds vertical pianos, exposing the strings. The keyboard is sawn off and put back at a ninety degree angle. (No reaching over to get to the strings and the audience sees everything) Sarah uses this ‘instrument’ and a pile of electronics to compose new music. Tonal music washed in pads of sound coaxed from the unusual piano using her box of toys. What is this music? Part theatre, I could call it acoustic-electro-Dada’esque art. The hour with Sarah bewitches the audience. I meet up with her after the show, and she gives me an old piano-key from one of her construction projects. Apparently it contains a secret download-key to her digital album.

Sarah turns out to be an ex-student here at the school. So what is Chetham’s? Creativity incubator. And talent attractor.

Sarah is building a new InsideOutPiano (grand) using high-tech light weight components. The unique #StandingGrand will be built by FuturePianoLtd. The design will occupy no more space than a traditional upright and be able to be carried by two people. This will allow Sarah to perform more wildly and perhaps open the market for more musicians to own such a beautiful and unique instrument. Please consider supporting this project here on Kickstarter.

Day 5. Late (after an evening of recitals). Cabaret!! Not the musical; rather an end of summer school tradition. We assemble in the hall for the end of week celebration. A few have been roped in to provide the ‘entertainment’. A talented student plays the ubiquitous Bach Prelude in C major from the WTC Book 1. He is sitting on the ground, facing away from the keyboard, hands over his head and swapped left-right. This and a host of other entertainment closes the night. And before you ask … yes, I volunteered. It went down OK (for a first timer). Enough said of that the better.

Day 6. The following morning. Bit-of-a-head after late night wine. But I had signed up to play in the ‘leaving day’ recitals at 10AM. Without music! Memorization. Satie. Gnossiennes No. 1 and No. 2. Six minutes. That should be enough of me for this audience.

So what is Chetham’s? Unique. Essential. If you want to find out what lies ahead, just around the corner, waiting to pop up and poke fun at you. I’m back at school, where I need to be. The stepping stone.

What was the oddest thing I learnt? Clementi lives in Croydon. His name is Chris and he is a bellringer. Yes, Clementi’s great great (etc) grandson lives not too far. I knew there was a reason I found those exercises a little too close for comfort….