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.
Howard 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.