I’m sure I had full length trousers I could’ve worn – I know for certain I had a pair of dungarees at some point during the height of my Oor Wullie phase – but for some reason in my memories of cycling to my childhood piano lessons I’m always wearing shorts. Wheeling my big black Raleigh Enterprise out of the garage as the first snow of winter falls, I sling my music bag over my shoulder and head round to see Mr. Pullen (he wasn’t ‘Robert’ until much later on).
To properly paint this picture, let me give you some more detail. This was at a time when everyone, EVERYONE had a BMX. My bike was not a BMX, it was known then as a ‘classic tourer’ but today (if you stripped it back from 3 gears to none) it would pass for a fixed-gear bike, you know, the type all the hipsters use to slowly pedal up hills. It was not a cool bike.
And that music bag? It wasn’t a rucksack, or a sports holdall, but a music case. A satchel style leather briefcase that you could only, would only, buy in music stores.
And I took piano lessons.
I never was a cool kid.
These were my Saturday mornings for many years. I started my piano lessons when I was about 8 or 9, and the routine never really changed. Get (woken) up, have breakfast, then shove whatever piece of music I’d been learning into my bag, not forgetting the book of scales, and cycle round for the most dreaded 30 minutes of my week lesson.
On arriving at my piano teachers house, I’d leave my bike round the side of the house, ring the door-bell and, on hearing the bellowing ‘come in’ from upstairs, I’d walk in, and head up said stairs to wait in the spare room for the previous lesson to finish. It was only ever for a few minutes, but I realise now that it was my first real experience of nerves; sitting there wondering if I’d practised enough, or whether he’d get annoyed at me.
Once it was my turn, I’d warm up my fingers with scales and arpeggios. My piano teacher would correct mistakes and make me repeat things, making sure I got my finger positions correct, and that my stance and hand position. Then it was onto whichever exam pieces I was learning. Play it through. Faster… louder there… no that’s not quite right… and once that was done, on to the dreaded sight reading. I never got the hang of it, never found a way to make it easy but it was part of the exam so needs must.
After a few years, as I progressed, the exams got harder, the pieces more complex and challenging, and my relationship with my piano teacher, Mr. Pullen, changed. He would start to ask me what music I was listening to, start to give me pieces that weren’t classical… Joplin, Gershwin entered the fray.
At the time I had a love/hate relationship with the piano. It was something I felt I was ‘made’ to do and whilst my friends could skip out of school and go play, I had to go home and do my practice first. But looking back I realise that I really did enjoy the playing (not so much the endless practising), especially latterly when I realised I could transfer what I had learned to more contemporary songs, rock classics, Elton John et al.
Learning to play the piano, learning to play any instrument, includes learning the theory behind the music. At least it should’ve been a big part, but when it came to sit the mandatory Grade 5 Theory exam (all the grades before that only required a practical exam to be passed) I was a bit taken aback to find out I had to know ‘theory’ whatever the hell was. My piano teacher was confused, why was I surprised, hadn’t I done theory exams for all the other grades?
No, not I hadn’t yet, for some reason, he presumed we’d been covering that stuff all along, not sitting chatting about the latest bands of the day… oops.
What followed was the precursor to all of those wonderful school and college exams, a frantic few weeks cramming to learn what I could – the joy of mnemonics to learn the keys, Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, understanding how compose a tune based on a few opening bars – before heading up to the big city to sit an actual exam. I was 13/14 at the time, had never sat a written exam in my life and my memory of entering the exam room in Glasgow University is formatted movie style, with that long pullback zoom effect as I looked down row after row of single desks, stretching off into the distance. To this day I’ve no idea how, but I passed!
As I got older, the practice became a chore and eventually, in the lead up to my Grade 7 exams, I stopped. I was 15 and girls, and the desire to be ‘cool’ for them, took over my desires. For a while afterwards I would occasionally, if everyone was out of the house, pull some sheet music from the piano stool and belt out a few tunes, Billy Joel, Abba, The Beatles, but as other interests came to the fore, so my piano playing dwindled and eventually stopped completely.
Over the past few years, as I’ve started to focus more on how I spend my free time, I’ve been looking back with my rose tinted glasses on. It’s easy to forget how hard I worked, how much practise I had to do (and was cajoled/told to do!) to get to the level I was at. Mr. Pullen was a great teacher, he was strict and a bit shouty when he needed to be, but as we both grew older, my attitude improved and he mellowed. Now I look back with kind fondness on the man who helped embed the deep love and appreciation of music that I hold to this day.
My Mum played the piano which is why we had one in the house and thankfully when they moved they took it with them. It’s a gorgeous little upright that for years sat behind a dark black patina until my parents had the wood stripped and now it’s a glowing, dark golden colour, all wood grain and autumnal tones. It’s nothing special in terms of name, or sound, but having spent so many hours playing it, in my mind it’s definitely MY piano (a discussion I will have, forcibly, with my sister if needs be!). A couple of years ago when my parents sold the family home there was a serious conversation about whether they’d get rid of it and I protested loudly enough that it currently sits in the living room of their new flat.
That was probably the discussion which refreshed thoughts of piano playing somewhere in the dustier corners of my brain, stirring up memories to spiral into shafts of murky sunlight. Snippets of pieces I used to play became ear worms, Minuet in G topping a new playlist of piano tracks.
My musical tastes have grown in the intervening years and looking at the sheet music available now reveals a swathe of artists that I love; would I be able to play some Radiohead songs? How about some Weezer? Who knows, but it remains a thought that bounces around in my head now and then, could I re-learn enough to play a few tunes? Do I have the dedication to practice regularly? Where the hell would I put a Yamaha P115 keyboard anyway?
I guess there’s only one way to find out…