When I was a child, my parents acquired a beautiful old piano and arranged for a musical friend of my mum’s to teach me how to play it. I was never much good. Constantly moving house and changing teachers didn’t help but basically my excuses are of the usual type. I didn’t practise enough.
These days I can just about get by picking out a tune. I can play some bits and pieces and my scales by relying on spookily effective muscle memory and, if I worked at it, I could probably work myself up a little portfolio of polished pieces. If I practised.
But even though my own musical career has hardly been sparkling, I fervently believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn how to play something. There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as making music in the company of others but you need at least some of the basics in order to make that happen.
A while ago I was hunting around for a new piano teacher for child number 2 and so I did what you usually do in these circumstances – I asked in the playground.
“We’ve got a great teacher,’ said one mum. “He comes to the house. He’s really enthusiastic and the kids love him.” That ticked all my boxes. I probably should have been more interested in qualifications and whatnot but stumbling across a child friendly teacher was such a boon that I fixed up a lesson and hoped for the best.
We have never looked back. Each week he turns up and my children torture him with bad jokes, their own compositions and occasional gentle violence. All kinds of sounds emanate from the room during the course of the hour. Scales of course and set pieces to varying degrees of proficiency but also unusual rhythms and unfamiliar chords. Recently he taught one of them how to play a discordant version of that old taunt ner ner ne ner ner with which they have constantly goaded each other ever since. And there’s laughter…. lots of laughter.
When I took lessons, as one used to say, I sat at the piano, played dreadful arrangements of classical pieces with the constant beat of a metronome ticking away in the background like a bomb. I spent most of the lesson frightened or bored or both and the result it what you see. An incompetent pianist. My children’s teacher is showing them how to use what they learn to make music. He instills in them the confidence to experiment, to leave behind the printed notes and discover how to make the rules work for them.
I don’t know whether they will carry what they learn forward into their adult lives but the mere fact that they don’t see playing as a chore gives me confidence that perhaps they will. One of my favourite things is to hear a child, any child, sitting at the piano and tinkering, picking out a familiar tune or experimenting with pitch or key signatures. Even making the instrument reflect a mood when there is no discernible tune at all is music to my ears.
It’s as I always say – a good teacher is good but a great teacher is so much more than the some of their parts and what they teach you stays with you for life. I only really had one of those teachers in my life but he too, coincidentally, taught music. And now my children also have a fantastic woodwind tutor who brings a similar excitement and sense of adventure to his lessons. I hope that they don’t look back on their musical tuition with a sense of missed opportunity like I do but with fondness at the fun that they had on a Tuesday afternoon. And hopefully they may make a little music too.