The music I’ve been listening to most closely recently has been made by my fingers, both as I play and after the event, but that’s a less narcissistic procedure than it sounds. It’s a sort of one-man tribunal, and the verdict is usually severe. My Clavinova keyboard has a recording function, so I can listen back to the ‘performance’ given by the dolt who takes my place the moment the Record button is pressed. He can’t play the simplest run without putting in distracting accents, and you might as well ask for a singing touch from a Dalek.
If the Monington & Weston upright bought by my parents in about 1960, as much for its pretty lacquer finish as its virtues as an instrument, had come with a similar device built in, I would never have persevered. That piano had a rather heavy touch, and so inevitably did I. I remember my father asking if my music was all marked ‘very loud’ or ‘rather loud’. I replied, ‘No, Dad, some of it is mp, which is fairly quiet, and this bit is ppp, which means very quiet indeed’ – not getting his drift, or not wanting to.
My mother played a little, and it was one of my great pleasures as a child to hear her play one piece in particular, a little rippling minor-key study by C P E Bach known as Solfeggietto. ‘Hearing’ involved seeing, since I would stand on tiptoe by the side of the piano, its lid opened for the occasion, and look down into the mechanism, where the flow of rapid notes became a visual poem, an effect like the wind passing across a field of grain. The felted heads of the hammers were off-white, the wooden parts pale and grainy, and there was an elusive flash of red, as they flew forward and fell back, where the components joined. I wanted everything in my life to have the quality of those semiquavers, made magically visible, tactile even, in an uprush of intricate sound.
I took lessons but couldn’t compete. Unable or unwilling to perfect a single piece by practice, I fell victim to that variant of don-Juanism known as compulsive sight-reading. Only this month I bought a draper’s cabinet, with eighteen sliding drawers behind glass doors designed to display shirts, as a way of imposing order on (some of) the sheet music I have amassed since then.
It’s hard for me to describe my piano-playing sensibly, since I play at a high level but to a low standard. I’m always attracted to difficult music, like a surfer who would rather attempt a huge wave and wipe out than ride a smaller one to shore. In the ranks of amateur pianists I’m something of a kamikaze, and I’ve developed a sort of mental manifesto to give my semi-competence a little philosophical weight. Everyone knows what a Chopin waltz ‘should’ sound like. If you learn one, you’re really just reproducing something you already ‘know’. This is bad faith. This is existentially a poor show. What I like is to strip those quotation marks away by playing something I’ve never heard, something which may never have been recorded, guided only by the marks on the paper.
I hate playing in public, but I’m trying to grow up a little in this respect. Last year I played a little piece at the Blackheath Music Festival and didn’t actually die, so now I’m being a bit more ambitious.
At music festivals there are two boxes that hardly ever get ticked, music by living composers and music by British composers, and I’ll be going for the double. For Blackheath I’ll be playing two Scottish Ballads by Ronald Stevenson (born 1928). By ‘Blackheath’ I mean not the borough at large but a small hall, equipped with a Yamaha grand, in the Sixth Form College of Christ the King, with perhaps thirty people listening.
Obscure repertoire is a sensible hiding-place for mediocre technique. I admit that. With modern music, only those who have the music in front of them (in this case, me and the adjudicator) can be sure which if any of the struck notes were intended. Also true. But my choice of the Stevenson pieces is canny. They set a folk tune over and over again, creating great contrasts of tone and texture verse by verse, but they aren’t hard to grasp musically. The strength and beauty of these compositions is that they peel away the encrusted tartan-and-shortbread cosiness of traditional Scottish ballads, setting them more or less as Bartók or Kodály would have if they had happened to live in Kilmarnock. There is nothing cosy about these songs. They deal with extremes of emotion, whether desolation (The Dowie Dens of Yarrow) or savagery (Lord Randal). They also avoid the technical elements which most expose my inadequacies – running passages and wide leaps. Show me some crunchy chords and I’ll give you my best.
I did contact a hypnotherapist with a view to treating my fear of playing in public, until I heard her fee scale. Seventy quid for an initial consultation! I’m not that nervous. I’m only about ten-quid’s-worth nervous. Clearly I’m getting better.
And I will have a secret weapon. Music festivals are inherently genteel – there’s always someone playing Chopin who could have bought her entire outfit from a shop called Church Lady. The only practical way for me to reach the venue is on my motorbike, and I’m going to play the outlaw biker image for all it’s worth, with middle age making its own disturbing contribution. I’ll be wearing my oldest, greasiest leathers and my clumpiest boots, hoping to look as if I’ve come to the wrong place and was expecting poker or exotic dancing. There will be a whiff of B.O. I’ll have to take my helmet off, but I’ll replace it with a baseball cap. If it’s as cold as last year I’ll have to keep my gauntlets on till the moment I play just to restore the circulation, but I’ll try to maintain the pose even if it’s baking. I’ll throw the sheet music at the adjudicator with a scowl, stomp malignantly towards the intimidated Yamaha and sit down on the bench with one last arpeggio of creaks from my leathers. Then I’ll be alone with Mr. Stevenson’s marks.
Photograph by Eunbyul Sabrina Lee