Like many kids with musical parents, I was about seven when I went to my first piano lesson. All my family went to the same teacher – Mrs Holland, who lived round the corner from us. She was lovely, and I went to her every week for 11 years. I loved music, and I genuinely liked playing the piano. I was pretty good at it too, and I loved it when I could finally play something perfectly. So why did I roll my eyes whenever I had a piano lesson?
The problem was that I just didn’t like, you know, the hard work part. All the practicing. All the scales. All the nervous preparation for piano exams. Having to play music for those exams that I didn’t necessarily like. Every week I arrived at Mrs Holland’s house and witnessed her disappointment when it turned out that yet again I hadn’t bothered to properly practice the few lines of music we’d begun the previous week.
Every so often my mum would get fed up with me whining about having to go to my lessons and say ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go anymore!’ But in a weird sort of dog in the manger way, I didn’t want to totally give up. So I’d roll my eyes and drag myself to every lesson and then slave away before every exam and generally do pretty well, and then go back to my normal laziness.
But then I turned 18 and started college. And finally, after doing, well, terribly in my Grade Seven piano exam (I barely scraped a pass), I accepted that spending most of my time hanging around the Trinity Arts Block and Buttery wasn’t conducive to doing any piano practice at all. So I stopped going to piano classes. I still played a bit at home – like I said, I genuinely liked playing the piano. But I never really bothered learning new stuff, and a few years later, in 1998, I moved out of home, to a piano-less life.
And then, after a few years, I started to really miss it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I missed having to practice or playing scales, but I decided that if I ever owned a house of my own, or at least was permanently settled in one residence, I’d get a piano. So when my husband and I bought our house last year, I knew it was time. The thing is, decent pianos aren’t cheap, and faced with the choice between(a) a crappy real piano (b) a decent electric piano and (c) no piano at all, we chose (b).
And so a nice big Yamaha electric piano, that sounds and feels just like a real one, came to live in our dining room. And I love it. It turns out that when I don’t actually have to practice pieces I don’t particularly like for piano exams, I’ll happily play the piano for ages. The only thing was, I was mostly playing stuff on the new piano that I learned twenty years ago. I was so rusty it was almost like starting something new, but not quite. I needed something new to learn – but what?
And then Beck, whose music I’ve liked since, well, around the time I last had a piano lesson, released his new album, Song Reader. It’s an album with a difference – there is no recording. Instead, Beck decided to release all twenty songs in the form of sheet music, beautifully illustrated and collected in a gorgeous hardback case. It means that there’s no original version to copy – you just read the music, and whatever you make of it is.
When I got hold of it, I picked a song at random and, using my long-ago sight-reading skills, managed to work out the melody. And then my husband and I worked out the accompaniment together. And then, for the first time in years, I was playing a brand new song. Not only that, I was singing it too. And it felt brilliant.
Here’s that first song we worked out, as played by a bunch of staffers at the New Yorker magazine.Their version isn’t exactly the same as ours, not least because there’s, like, ten of them and there were just two of us, but that’s the whole point – there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
After that we worked out another song. And then another. Hopefully, we’ll work our way through the entire album, because the songs are pretty great so far. And I’d never have been able to do it if I hadn’t kept going to those piano lessons for all those years. If it weren’t for all that reluctant practicing, I wouldn’t have been able to read music and master the chords and melodies of Beck’s creations. So, thanks, Mrs Holland! (And sorry I screwed up that Grade Seven exam.)
So what about you – were you forced to go to music lessons as a kid? Speech and Drama? Ballet or Tap? Language lessons or a sport you hated?
With the benefit of hindsight are you glad you went, or was it a waste of time?