My brother set me this challenge. And being a professional musician, he knew how hard I would find it, since the majority of Beethoven piano sonatas contain at least one movement which is virtually unplayable. He also knew just how rusty my piano playing was.
I started to play the piano when I was seven years old. My grandmother on my mother’s side played well and one weekend when we were staying at her house in Roundhay, she gave me a lesson, teaching me to read music and learn the notes of the scale in a surprisingly short space of time. Brains must be geared up to learning symbol systems (letters, numbers etc) quickly and easily at that age.
Thereafter I convinced my parents to let me have piano lessons. In typical fashion, they located the cheapest teacher in town and they also found out that a friend was selling an old workhorse of a piano third-hand, which they duly bought. To be fair, my parents’ financial situation was fairly dire at the time - this was during the height of the recession of the early 80s, with interest rates at 15%. My mother was at home full-time with me and my brother and not earning any money, and my father had been told to relocate from Harlow to Wakefield or face redundancy. In fact that’s probably why we were up at my grandmother’s house in Leeds in the first place - we must have been house-hunting. So it was possibly not the best moment for their daughter to announce that she wanted to take up an expensive new hobby. (The move north never happened in the end though as my father was subsequently redeployed in Harlow.)
So my first teacher was fairly rubbish, which my brother would confirm. You’d like to think that it doesn’t really matter in the early stages but actually it does. Particularly, for example, when a teacher never mentions things like the need to keep time by counting when you play. I can’t keep time to this day. My rhythm is always at best rubato, and at worst all over the place. But at least this teacher wasn’t strict with us – my mother always told us tales of how her piano teacher had rapped her over the knuckles with a ruler whenever she made a mistake, which is why she gave up playing the piano at a very early age.
But I made progress, nonetheless. However, when I was about 14, the term before I was supposed to take my Grade 8 exam, my piano teacher suddenly ditched me, announcing that I was now too advanced for her. So I started learning with the lady who held the Associated Board exams in her house. This was in fact my main motivation for lessons with her - I thought getting to regularly play the piano I had to use in exams would give me an unfair advantage (since otherwise you had to just go in and play it cold, with no idea of how it would feel or sound). What I didn’t know when I signed up was that that teacher didn’t let her riff-raff pupils play that piano, a baby grand in her living room. No, we were stuck in some shed out the back to play on a bog-standard upright.
My new teacher said there was no way I could take my Grade 8 at the moment and needed to go back to Grade 6 level music to work on my technique. Which I was fine with, in principle. But there is work on technique and work on technique. This new teacher was beyond pedantic. She was painstakingly slow about everything she did, from writing notes to rifling through music to explaining anything to answering the door. And she would make me play the same bar over and over again for an hour. And it was usually a bar of a technique exercise rather than a piece of music. The only piece she ever let me play was the first page of a Bach Invention.
What’s worse was that she had a smelly old cocker spaniel called Amadeus who used to sit on my feet and fart. And when he wasn’t farting, he howled along to the music about as musically as you would expect a very old dog to howl. To this day, I cannot abide the smell of dogs. Even though hardly any dogs are as smelly as Amadeus, the slightest whiff of puppy sends me straight back to those tortuous hours of piano lessons. After a year of dog farts and only playing bars of technique exercises, I was about ready to slash my piano-playing wrists, and gave up.
Thankfully, after a year or so away from lessons, I began to miss it, so sought out another teacher. A really lovely new teacher had just joined the music department at school and she offered piano lessons. I had a lot of fun learning with her, and she quickly spotted (from my ever-present rubato) the sorts of music I would like to play, like Débussy Preludes and Chopin Nocturnes. She did try and make me take my Grade 8, and I even submitted the application, but a few weeks before the exam I cracked, and withdrew. It was too much to take on in my A Level year, most of which I spent on anti-depressants as I was suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Piano exams involve so much more than playing pieces – scales and arpeggios, aural tests and sight reading. It was the aural tests that were always my downfall, not least because I was terrified of singing on my own in front of somebody else. But even performing the pieces for a stranger was a daunting enough prospect, especially in the formal situation that is a music exam. There were too many other exams looming in my life at that stage, and I just wanted music to be a hobby and therefore enjoyable. It’s hard to have fun playing the piano, as it’s very much a solo instrument. You don’t get to play in orchestras or bands that give you a sense of camaderie, silliness or a social life like you do if you play something like violin or flute. And playing a piano to accompany others is a very different kind of skill, which I never really got the hang of. Probably because no one else does rubato quite like me.
I had no confidence in my ability either. It didn’t help that my father’s idea of encouraging me as a child was to take me to see Alfred Brendel in concert, then turn round to me at the end and say “Well, you’ve got a lot of practising to do, haven’t you?” Obviously, it was brilliant that I got to see Alfred Brendel, one of the world’s greatest ever pianists, but why did my father have to make a direct comparison between my eight-year-old self, who had barely anything other than Für Elise in her repertoire, and a genius? (A genius who had been playing for seven hours a day for nearly seventy years?) Could my dad not have compared me with my peers, like someone in my class at school? Or even himself, who couldn’t play a note? (Though I am genuinely sure it was his intention to be encouraging.)
And then there were the nerves. They completely took over whenever I had to sit a piano exam or – worse – play in a church concert. My legs would turn to jelly and my shaking, sweaty fingers would slip off the keys. No matter how much I’d practised I would feel like I was sight-reading the music in front of me, and I’d make mistake after mistake after mistake. Even though the audience at a church concert mostly consisted of very deaf old ladies and the church piano was so horrendously out of tune that even the right notes sounded like mistakes, I was totally unable to put the performance into a rational context and rise above it. Every time, I would run off the stage in tears at the end. From being a teenager onwards, I flatly refused to play for anyone.
Then I left home and I couldn’t play any more anyway as I had no instrument. That’s the trouble with learning the piano – you can’t take it with you. You can buy portable electronic keyboards, but even those are massive if they have the full range of octaves you need to play most classical pieces. For 12 years after I left home I was either travelling, living in student accommodation or in a small bedroom in a London flatshare, none of which gave me room for a piano. At university I joined a music society which gave me the right to book practice rooms on campus, which all had pianos. But by then I had got more into singing (an instrument you can always take with you) and was having weekly lessons, so I usually used the practice rooms for that instead, and let my piano playing lapse completely.
Once I was living in London, I only got to play the piano when I was back home visiting my parents. Even when Dave and I bought a flat together, it wasn’t possible to have a piano, as not only was the flat on the first floor, but the lounge was round an L-shaped bend from the front door, and pianos don’t bend. It could have been winched in through a window, but that level of Laurel and Hardy style palava was not something we were prepared to consider, as we knew we wouldn’t be living there forever anyway.
So when we moved up to York, it was a deal-breaker that whatever house we bought would have to, without question, have room for a piano. And so it did, and we paid to move my piano from Bishop’s Stortford up to York. The piano is a Welmar, made in Clapham, funnily enough, where I used to live in London. Sadly, the Welmar workshop closed down for good about the time that I lived there, unable to compete with the mass production lines of the likes of Yamaha in Japan. The piano has a lovely tone and a very light touch, though I have to say that – after all that - it isn’t very happy in our house in York. It seems to go off-key within weeks of being tuned, which it never did before. I can only attribute this to the air in our house being so damp and cold. It’s also in a centrally heated room for the first time, as well as being in a permanent draught. And steam from whatever is cooking in the kitchen comes into the dining room as there is no door to block it off. I am also slightly concerned that it has a dead mouse in it at the moment, but that’s another story.
But soon after the piano’s arrival came the realisation that I couldn’t play that well any more. Funny that, if you don’t practise for nearly 20 years. The only music I owned was Grade 8 level stuff that I could no longer get my fingers round. And psychologically, taking myself back several steps just felt humiliating. It’s that memory of what I used to be taunting me. I could remember how I used to play the pieces, but no longer had the dexterity or nimbleness of touch required to manage the speed or the dynamics that they should be played at. We live in a terraced house, so I was very conscious that the neighbours were all being tortured by my musical massacres. I did intend to seek out a few lessons, but at the time I didn’t know anyone in York who could recommend a piano teacher.
And once we had Charlotte, I had no opportunity to play at all. I could (and should) have been serenading her with lullabies as a baby, but she wasn’t going to find anything about my clumsy renditions soothing. The only time I could practise was when she was asleep, but as her bedroom is directly above the piano and we had the terror of Waking.The.Baby, I never dared.
So I was very grateful to my brother for setting me this challenge, to make me play the piano again and face some of my demons.
First, I had to pick a Beethoven sonata to learn. One immediately sprung to mind. I had heard Steven Osborne play it in a wonderful concert at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall a few years ago. It had a beautiful second movement and glorious section in the first where the left hand crossed over the right. I looked through my books of Beethoven piano sonatas until I found the right one for the tune I had in my head. It turned out to be the Sonata in G, opus 79, composed in 1809, with movements Presto alla tedesca, Adagio and Vivace. I liked the fact it was in G major, as it reminded me of some crazy man I once met in a Crouch End folk club who said that Seth Lakeman was “really, really BORING!” because he always played his pieces in G. Somewhat annoyingly for my challenge, Beethoven had given this particular sonata the sub-heading “Sonata facile” or Sonatine, as if he was deliberately giving someone an easy ride. But Beethoven’s version of easy still gives you two movements that have to be played at lightning speed, full of runs and arpeggios, and a the third movement that has whole sections of triplets against semi-quavers, which are an absolute bugger to master. And then you turn a page and Beethoven makes the first of the triplets be a rest, and the whole thing goes completely to pot.
Then I had to get the piano tuned, since it had sat idle for so long. The tuner said the damp had made the wood swell a little and the keys therefore very stiff, so he spent a whole afternoon taking the piano to bits and adjusting the actions. Anyway, I was slightly heartened to realise that it wasn’t just a complete loss of muscle control and ability making me find it so hard to work the piano. He definitely made a vast improvement to the touch of the keys and my runs became a little less stumbling. What he couldn’t do anything about was the loss of vision I have experienced as the result of ocular migraines, which have left me with permanent blind spots, particularly when looking at black on a white background. This means I now find it difficult to see the lower stave for the left-hand. But I can work around it.
Then I had to find time to practise. I needed an empty house, which I never had. I occasionally got a bit of time on weekends if Dave took Charlotte out somewhere. But it was never going to be enough. However, after the terrible twos finally got the better of me, Charlotte started to go to nursery one morning a week in December, so this gave me about an hour extra a week to work on my Beethoven playing. Gradually, the sonata started to take shape. There are some sections that without hours of practice every day, I am never going to resolve. I can hear exactly where needs the work and how it needs to sound, but there isn’t the scope in my life to achieve that level at the moment.
So to complete the challenge, I felt I had to play it for someone. (I realise that in theory this should probably have been my brother, but he lives 200 miles away.) Knowing so many more people these days in York, I do now have a friend who is a piano teacher. She kindly gave me some time one morning while Charlotte was at nursery. I was really nervous beforehand, but being with a friend put me more at ease. And maybe over the years, overcoming grief and childbirth, I have just learned to be a little less afraid. My friend asked if it was OK to write some notes while I played. What I was quite surprised about was that her notes were actually things that were good about the performance, rather than bad. (Mind you, I could have told anyone the bad myself: the rhythm, the dynamics, the inability to maintain consistent tempo, the missed notes, the jerky tension that predominates throughout...) And she actually liked my rubato. But apparently, I did learn something with the pedantic dog-owning teacher from hell, as she said my hand position was excellent. The lesson gave me a few pointers on how to work on the sections with the triplets and plenty of other things to think about.
The main one of which is that life is too short to be scared. When it comes to playing the piano, I no longer have anything to fear.
So I was actually going to put a video here of my Beethoven piano sonata, for all of you. I was even going to let you listen to my total balls-up of the third movement. Even though on my computer, the sound and video play out of synch which makes me look like I am miming. Yes, I really was going to play the piano. In public. Even if my dad thought it was crap.
But Blogger won't upload the videos. Boo hiss.
So a perfect Beethoven piano sonata? No. For that I could point you towards my CD of Daniel Barenboim playing it faster than is surely humanly possible with an almost celestial grace. But able to bash it out? Yes. Better than that even. At times.