I admit I was prepared to hate this series on Channel 4 (and, full disclosure, I was interviewed for the programme by someone from the production company last summer). It was made by the same production company which brought us The Great British Bake Off, another series which I have come to loathe, and was billed as “Bake Off for amateur pianists”. Oh dear.
The basic premise of the series was to showcase the pianistic talents of ordinary people through their performances on street pianos at railway stations in London, Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham. Unbeknownst to these amateur pianists, their performances were being watched by “the world’s greatest pianist” Lang Lang and one-hit wonder singer-songwriter Mika. The series is presented by Claudia Winkelman.
The programme makers wanted us to believe that these performances were completely spontaneous, but in fact the participants had to go through an audition process and were then selected for the programmes. Also, the instrument on which they played was not the usual rather beat up, out of tune street piano of the type which this article rather rudely describes, but a rather nice Boston upright from Steinway’s ‘diffusion range’.
However, none of this matters in the least because it quickly became evident that the real joy and power of this programme lay in the people, their back stories, and of course their music. Just as in Bake Off, the participants were a mixed bunch, from the young to the very old. There were some really heart-warming moments, such as a 92 year old man who played the piano to communicate with his wife who had dementia, or the young man who had found comfort in music, following the suicide of his father.
During each episode, a young professional pianist friend of mine would message me to rail at the lack of “proper classical music”, and while I too had hoped for more Chopin or a drop of Mozart, it was evident that this series was about people and their connection with the music they played, and why the piano was so meaningful or special for them.
A number of the participants had taken up the piano during the covid lockdowns as a way to fill the excruciating sameness of those long, dull days. Others had been playing all their life. Some were self-taught. But all found joy, fulfilment and personal achievement in playing, regardless of the genre of music or their ability.
In episode two we met Lucy, a blind girl with severe learning disabilities but with a remarkable natural aptitude for the piano. Her performance of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne was beautifully fluent, subtly phrased and elegantly shaped. Actually, it was simply astonishing. It held the audience at Leeds station utterly spellbound, and it was quite evident that Lang Lang was genuinely moved by her performance, along with the many others who watched her playing. She was supported by her teacher Daniel, who works with a charity called The Amber Trust, which provides musical opportunities for blind and partially-sighted children, and children with more complex needs.
Playing Debussy’s Arabesque, Lucy captivated the audience at the Royal Festival Hall. There’s some serious talent on display tonight, well done Lucy! #ThePiano @mikasounds @lang_lang @ClaudiaWinkle pic.twitter.com/Y3EWsStuZD
— Channel 4 (@Channel4) March 15, 2023
The final episode of the series was a special concert in which the “winners” (although this wasn’t really a competition – and certainly nothing like any talent show presented by the likes of Simon Cowell) performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Once again, Lucy’s extraordinary talent shone through, this time in a mesmerising performance of one of Debussy’s Arabesques. But all the performers played with commitment and emotion, which really transmitted to the audience. At the end of the concert, Lucy was awarded star player (in a lovely, low-key way) and then Lang Lang and Mika made a special announcement: each player was to be gifted an acoustic piano.
Reactions on social media are a testament to the appeal and power of music, as people were genuinely moved, amazed and intrigued by all the performers in this series. The more relaxed, spontaneous way of presenting music, on a street piano, will, I’m sure, remind people that music is for everyone and one need not enter a formal concert venue to experience the wonder. And if this series inspires people to take up or return to the piano, or for young (and old) piano students to find renewed enthusiasm in their practising, then it has served an important purpose. Finally, this show must surely raise the profile of the piano, and music in general, at a time when classical music in particular is under attack – and that has to be A Good Thing.
As the various performers demonstrated, through an incredibly eclectic range of music and ability, it’s not about winning; it’s about doing something that you love and finding fulfilment, comfort, self-improvement, and above all pleasure in what you do.
The Piano on Channel 4 is inspiring, joyous, uplifting, poignant, moving and life-affirming. Do seek it out on All4.