One of my most precious possessions is my piano. There are a few reasons for this. It has come to me from my mother who in turn took possession of it from her grandmother. My mother learnt to play on it, as did I and both my brothers, and now my three children are also learning to play it. It is not the best piano in the world, it has a very heavy touch, is hard to play softly (in fact we all just play the loud bits extra loud to compensate) and it squats in my dining room in all its early 20th century ugliness as the very worst dust collector in my house.
But it has been my constant companion for nearly all my life. My mother played nursery rhymes to me on it, as I did for my kids. We sing carols round it at Christmas. I play duets on it with my children. I accompany them on their string instruments. I feel privileged to own it.
I am not a naturally talented pianist. I had to work extremely hard to reach the dizzy heights of a scraped Grade 6 before leaving home. I cannot pick out a tune by ear. I find modern, contemporary music almost impossible to play. My hands cannot span an octave comfortably. But still I gain immense pleasure from being able to sit down at it and thump out a reasonable rendition of something by Beethoven.
As a child I worked hard at it, mainly because I was that sort of child, but as I got older it then opened doors for me that I could never have forseen. I was asked to play double bass because I was a pianist with no other instrument. That led to orchestral playing both at school and in the County system. I was asked to play in bands for school productions and got to be a percussionist (one of my fondest memories from middle school was learning to play timpani).
And importantly it taught me to read music. And that has been one of the most useful and enduring skills I learnt as a child (and there are many others I did not gain in a class room, sewing, baking, basic DIY to name a few). It now means I can help my kids with their music making. I can sight read music in the choir I now attend regularly. I could, if I wanted, pick up another instrument quite easily.
But more than that my music making taught me self discipline, team working, that nothing comes without hours and hours of work. It allowed me to experience the terror of exams, the highs of performance, it helped me to learn to overcome my nerves. It gave me a confidence that, as a shy child, I lacked in other areas. I was never going to be picked for sports teams, star in the school show or be top of the class this, then, was my ‘thing’.
And so I am a passionate believer in music in the school curriculum. In every school having a thriving choir. For every child who wants to to have access to instrument lessons as cheaply as possible. I am nervous of politicians who label music as an ‘extra’ which should only be offered ‘after the basics are secure’. I believe that is fundamentally wrong.
Some of the high points of my childhood remain my participation in music making, in providing enjoyment to an audience, however partisan, in playing amazing classical music in fabulous acoustics. In my current life singing with my choir provides the same high. As does banging out a Chopin Nocturne on my ailing piano.
This post has become even more poignant for me as I found out yesterday that my piano teacher of 7 years from age eleven to eighteen died last week. He was a lovely man who was unfailingly supportive and even got me (the shyest child in the world) singing and playing in public in his fledgling youth theatre enterprise.