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

The internet is full of articles promising to help you learn to play the piano

  • Learn to play in just 4 weeks!
  • Play piano in 10 easy steps
  • 5 ways to become a great pianist

And so on….

The British pianist James Rhodes entered this busy, lucrative market a few years ago with his book ‘How to Play The Piano’, in which he promises to get the complete novice playing a Bach Prelude in just six weeks. It’s an admirable attempt which may provide inspiration and support to some aspiring pianists, but I am sure Mr Rhodes would agree that to master the piano, whether a professional or amateur player, takes many hours of commitment and graft. As one of my teachers, the wonderful Graham Fitch, observed, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”.

Those of us who choose to embark seriously on this crazy, fulfilling, life-enhancing, frustrating and fascinating path do so with the understanding that the acquisition of skill, improvement and development are hard won (and for the professional, there is the added burden of the cut-throat competitiveness of the profession).

It doesn’t matter at what level you play – you can be a serious beginner or an advanced player; what matters is the commitment, made in the knowledge that this is ongoing process. For many of us (and I find this attitude is common amongst amateur pianists), it is the journey not the destination that makes learning and playing the piano so satisfying and absorbing.

If you don’t enjoy practicing – the process – forget it. You’ll never achieve mastery of your Grade 2 pieces or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Practicing is the bedrock of the musician’s “work”. For the professional, this usually has an end point – or rather a string of end points – concerts; but alongside that, there is the need to learn new repertoire, keep existing repertoire alive and fresh, to revive previously-learnt pieces, and to continually reflect on and review one’s skills, technical, musical and artistic.

But there’s more. Because practicing isn’t just about sitting at the piano, turning the dots and squiggles on the score into sounds. Practicing – productive, thoughtful, deep practicing – involves the head and the heart as well as the body. Each phrase, each chord, each scalic run or passage of arpeggios must be considered and reviewed. Listen as you play (and you’d be amazed how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves!). Reflect, review, play again. And again, and again….and make each of those repetitions meaningful.

Come to each practice session with an open mind and a willingness to fully engage with the music all the time. I’ve read accounts of great pianists practicing technique while reading a book propped on the music desk. This kind of mechanical practice is not helpful – and can even be harmful. Even when practicing the dullest exercises, or scales and arpeggios, find the music within, and bring expression and artistry to every note you play.

Approach your music with a clear internal vision of how you want it to sound. For less experienced players, this can be confusing, the fear of entering unknown territory. How do I know how it should sound? you might ask. But this marks your first forays into interpretation, into taking ownership of the music and making it yours. Our interpretative decisions about our music are shaped by our own experience – playing or listening to repertoire by the same composer, or from the same period, reading around the music, going to concerts, conversations with teachers and other musicians, and harnessing the power of our imagination to bring the music to life.

Don’t feel constrained by the notion that there is a “right way”, but rather forge you own way, and be committed to it. We take ownership of the music by recognising and committing to the value of what we have to say.

Mastery comes not from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretative or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner.

Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

When we practice we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological, as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth.

In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.Such dedicated craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

Learn the piano in 6 weeks? Bah! It’s a lifetime’s work.


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