I was browsing the sheet music in Blandford Forum’s Oxfam bookshop at the weekend. Tucked behind a vocal score was a slim volume of early piano music which brought a rush of involuntary memory (the so-called “Proustian Rush”), and which took me right back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. Mrs Scott was my first piano teacher, an elegant, and, to me, very elderly, white-haired lady, whose husband would silently bring her cups of tea in a bone china teacup and saucer while she was teaching. When I was a little girl, I would be dropped off at her house by car, or would walk there with my mother, but when I was older (around 10 or 11), I would cycle to her house, my music flung in the basket on the front of my bike. Sometimes my cat would follow me and as I pedalled along the road, he would dart across gardens. Fearing he would get so far and then be lost, I often had to take the cat home, lock him in the house and then pedal at high speed to get to my lesson on time. Mrs Scott was never terribly impressed if my lateness was caused by my pet!

The music which released this rush of memory was Felix Swinstead’s The Way Ahead. The volume was identical to the one I had, with the typeface suggesting a road, the long, lonely road of study, perhaps. The book contained pieces with trite titles such as ‘A Tender Flower’, ‘The Water Mill’ or ‘March Wind’. He also compiled and edited a number of other volumes which I probably had as a child – for example, Step by Step to the Classics and Work and Play.

Swinstead (1880-1959) was a pupil of renowned teacher Tobias Matthay, and is primarily remembered (just!) as a composer of educational music, though he did compose other music. His entire working life was spent at the Royal Academy of Music, from scholarship entry to full professorship and eventually retirement. He was also an examiner for the Associated Board, and his pieces still appear regularly in ABRSM exam repertoire lists as well as study books and albums of music for young players. ‘A Tender Flower’ is in the current ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus, though my Grade 1 students have tended to select Pauline Hall’s rather more racy ‘Tarantella’ as their list B piece!

Radio Three’s Breakfast programme is also cashing in on the ‘Proustian Rush’ by inviting listeners to contribute music which has a particular resonance for them: “…..a piece that evokes strong memories of childhood, or reminds you of long lost friends, or perhaps a piece you associate with a particular time in your life”. We all have pieces like this, tucked away in the recesses of our memory, which, on hearing, can take us to back to a certain place or point in our lives. Here is just a handful of my choices (links open in Spotify), though I am not sharing the actual memories!

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, K581. Larghetto

Finzi – 5 Bagatelles, Opus 23. Prelude

Beethoven – ‘Archduke’ Trio, Opus 97, Allegro moderato

Schubert – Impromptu in A Flat, D899/4

Debussy – La fille aux cheveux de lin, Preludes, Books 1

Handel – Concerto for Harp in B Flat

As a postscript to this, I also came across the score of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale & Fugue in the same Oxfam bookshop. I opened it, read some of it and decided it was too advanced for me, and returned the score to the shelf. The next afternoon, I heard the piece performed in its entirety at an ‘at home’ recital given by the student of a friend of mine.  A rather neat coincidence. (Incidentally, the student, who is working towards his Masters at the University of Cape Town, played the piece with huge conviction and impressive bravado.) Here is Richter playing the Chorale.

For further information on Radio Three’s Your Call feature click here.

Opening the new Grade 2 piano study book yesterday to check out the repertoire for the 2010-11 season, the name Felix Swinstead leapt off the page at me, and took me straight back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. I remember learning quite a few pieces by Swinstead as a young piano student, and Felix Gerald Swinstead is one of those composers, like Dunhill and Markham Lee, that those of us who learned the piano as children associate with our early studies. Many of his pieces were studies, or genre pieces,  easy enough for children from about Grade 1 onwards, with winsome titles like ‘Cornfields’, ‘In a Playful Mood’, ‘Day Dream’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘A Tender Flower’ and ‘Malvern Hills’, and evoke a pre-war golden time. ‘In a Playful Mood’ rings a bell with me: I probably played it when I was six or seven, and I probably didn’t enjoy it that much as my then teacher had a tendency to make me play the same piece week after week, until I was bored witless with it.

Recently, returning to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I opened my old ABRSM edition and saw another teacher’s annotations, including her diagrams explaining the construction of the fugue form (Sue Murdoch, Rickmansworth, circa 1980-1985). It brought a great rush of memories and nostalgia: of cycling to her house for my lessons, of playing her grand piano with a dog across my feet and a cat staring at me from the lid, of exams taken in the studio of a local professional pianist (a room devoid of all furniture except for the vast black Minotaur of a Steinway), and of being told off by her husband (a prof at the RAM, who was scarily tall with a huge booming voice) for saying I was about to play “only some Beethoven” (it was the Sonata Op 10/i).

I like to think my students will enjoy similar reminiscences of their lessons with me when they are grown up. What will they remember, I wonder….?