As working practices are turned upside down, as our whole pattern of live is disrupted in ways that are unlikely to feel pleasant, I am sure turning to music will be the solace of many. I hear – as confirmation of this – that sales of pianos and sheet music, and downloading of music teaching apps etc, have all risen in recent weeks.
Music may be of use to soothe a toddler’s tantrums or your own (particularly if you are also in bed with a temperature); it may provide some light relief in the current darkness or revive memories of happier times. Maybe, if you are on furlough but not dealing with full-on caring responsibilities, you might consider returning to the instrument you played in your youth but which has been neglected in recent years. I can imagine the idea of finally mastering that Grade 5 piece that used to defeat you, being seen as an attractive challenge all these years later, at least fleetingly. Had I a piano in the house, I’m sure I would like to think I would turn to it for some company and cheerfulness, albeit Grade 5 was probably an optimistic view of where my lessons got me to all those years ago.
However, sadly, I don’t have such a piano. The one I learned on has gone to a much better home, somewhere I’m really happy it’s gone to. It’s the home where the fifth generation of women in my family can get to play it, albeit not in any particularly constructive way yet – my elder granddaughter is only 3 after all. But the piano’s history cheers me.
The piano in question was given to my grandmother as a wedding present by her husband-to-be when they got married in 1917. He was a captain in the army, over in France for much of the war. I wish I had talked more to him about his experiences there than I managed, although I do recall him telling me just how ghastly it was to attend a court martial (presumably for cowardice) as the note-taker. But do I remember him telling me how awful the war as overall? No, I don’t. Perhaps he simply buried most of the memories. He was more willing to tell me about his second world war experiences, when he did his part in England, being too old for active service abroad. Nevertheless, he was able to be in London to marry my grandmother in May 1917, and this piano was his gift.
My grandmother, according to family lore, could have been a concert pianist (at least in principle). She was certainly very good, even in her 60s and 70s when I knew her. She would still sometimes sit down and play – for others as much as herself. She would accompany us (we all lived together) when I was practicing my viola, or when my sister and I were learning choral music parts. The main music I associate with her was Chopin – there were bound volumes of his music, as well as of all the Beethoven Sonatas, also I think part of the original wedding present. One Polonaise in particular (the ‘Military’) was the one I most strongly associate with her and that was the one I would always ask her to play when I was a child.
My mother also learned on this piano. In my memory, she was an excellent sight-reader – she would also accompany my squawks on the viola and make encouraging noises as I moved up through the grades. However, technically, I suspect I ended up being marginally better than her, albeit much less competent as a sight-reader (something I discovered in due course when I tried to accompany my husband or my own child on violin). I don’t think she particularly enjoyed playing; singing was much more her forte, of which she did a lot in a semi-professional capacity.
In due course I came along and had various unsuccessful attempts at learning as a small child. My grandmother and I did not manage to set up a successful teacher-pupil relationship. As when she tried to teach me to drive, I’m afraid we fought more than we progressed. However, in due course, as my viola playing progressed, I was fortunate enough to be offered lessons through the generosity of the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) which paid for a second instrument’s tuition once I’d reached Grade 5 on the viola. Those were the days when music in schools was well supported by local councils. This opportunity for formal piano lessons I seized, although I told my lovely teacher at the school that I didn’t want to bother with scales and studies – I was by then 15 or 16 I’d guess – as there was no future in it and I wasn’t going to take any piano exams. That was my decision, but one in hindsight I probably regret.
Anyhow, I had fun playing in these mid-late teen years, working through various books of assorted classical pieces for the novice piano player plus some of the easier Mendelssohn Songs Without Words (also, I think, in the bound volumes of my grandmother). During my gap year – although it did not go by that name – messing around on the piano was a great source of recreation. Needless to say, when I went to university, all piano playing lapsed. Nevertheless, as soon as my husband and I bought our house I requested that, along with sundry bits of furniture, the piano might come to Cambridge from my mother’s house.
Here, in due course, my children learned and, in the case of my daughter, kept learning throughout her school years so that she had duly reached Grade 8 by the time she too went to university. Then history repeated itself. When she settled down and bought a house, the request came from her for us to ship the piano north. And there it is, along with all my grandmother’s, my mother’s and my own music. Ready for the 5th generation of learners. I hope they will make good use of it. It is a lovely piano, of no particularly notable pedigree by manufacturer, but it was always a joy to play even if, by now, its action may not be what it once was.
So, for me, it has to be Radio 3 for my musical companion. No chance to improve my own piano-playing, but plenty of time to enjoy the music as I sit inside during lockdown.