786 At the keyboard, part 1

… but not the computer keyboard at which I am currently fumbling; mostly, in fact, the piano.

The piano never has been and never will be my best instrument, but it is the most versatile. Like most of my generation, I got my first experience of music-making at primary school. We sang, of course, and a fearsome music teacher called Miss Varley taught us hymns, by rote, which we reproduced in Assembly, with very little understanding of what we were singing. (It took me several years to work out who the “quiet water spy” might be).

In the last year of primary school we learnt the recorder (more of that elsewhere), and, most important, we learned to read music. This was liberating knowledge; from then on I could look at music scores and decide for myself what I wanted to learn, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

The next stage happened at my grandparents’ house. They had an upright piano in their front room. Neither the room nor the piano got used very much; but on visits there I gradually got the hang of picking out a tune, from a score, on the keyboard. I found to my surprise that I was able to play tunes from the score that I had never heard “live”, which was quite a discovery. There were difficulties of course; having only played a monodic instrument I had no idea of harmony, of playing more than one note at a time, or even of reading a bass clef, which I took a long time to learn.

But my interest was noticed, and eventually I received the piano as a gift. My father paid for transport, and an uncle of mine, who had been a French-polisher, agreed to revarnish the piano provided my father and I did the laborious and smelly job of chemically stripping it.

I declined the offer of lessons; I’m not sure exactly why, but I’ve never been good at entrusting myself to strangers, whether barbers, dentists, taxi drivers or music teachers. Instead I set about learning by trial and error, which was very time-consuming and not at all the best way of learning. Over the years I built up a collection of sheet music (still growing) and now and then I play through all of it, just in case I’ve neglected some favourite in the course of more spur-of-the-minute playing.

Other instruments have followed (see 786.2, 786.7), and the piano, though I still have it, is now semi-retired. It needs a little work and money put into it, but could easily be brought back to playing condition. I rather wonder if my grandfather realised what a magnificent gift he was giving me; some ten years ago, in Old Brompton Road, I saw a very similar piano, same maker, on sale for £5000. Not that anything short of bankruptcy would make me sell it. I shall get it going again and resume, however badly, playing it, along with the other keyboards.


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