I’ve just taken up piano for the second time.
I started playing not as a child, but in my early twenties. I lived in a rented apartment in Kiev that came with its own piano. I took lessons from a melodramatic and usually heart-broken Ukrainian musician who became a great friend. As my fingers crashed on the keys, so my Russian and her English crashed together to make some kind of vodka-fuelled conversation. We enjoyed making the music. Natasha let me take shortcuts, gave me free rein to experiment, as you might with a child learning to speak. We laughed a lot. It was fun, it was rewarding. After a few months I could play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from start to finish, from memory. There are 6 year-olds in the world who could play it better, but for me it felt like an achievement.
So now, 15 years later, I finally have my own piano and I can play again. I thought I would like to add a bit of Bach to my repertoire, some Satie, maybe even Philip Glass. I found a new piano teacher, a highly organised German lady. No more tipsy, strung out evenings teetering between music and friendship. Now I have strict 30-minute lessons, squeezed into days already full-to-bursting.
I showed my new piano teacher what I could play.
“You’re using the wrong fingers,” she said. “It’s no good.”
I looked at my fingers. My wrong fingers. I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“You have to use the right fingers in the right places. Otherwise, when you move on to other pieces of music, they are going to get all tangled up. And what are you doing to the pedal?”
It turns out that although I could play the piano, I couldn’t actually play the piano. So I’ve been re-learning where to put my fingers, where to put my feet…and why.
At first it broke everything. There was no music, just disjointed staccato jabbing at keys with weak little fingers and overenthusiastic thumbs. I thought I had made a big mistake. I’m not a piano player after all. What would I tell my mum, who had saved up to buy me that piano for my 40th birthday?
Of course I couldn’t. So I carried on. The neighbours made comments. They thought it was my 4 year old (pictured above) playing…Still, I carried on. My new teacher is very encouraging and hardly ever laughs.
And now after a couple of months it’s starting to come back together again. Better than that, it feels more fluid than before. More comfortable.
Why am I telling you this?
I was speaking to someone recently who told me she used to win prizes in short story competitions. And because she was encouraged by her success, she wanted to write a novel. And she took a writing course, which she thought would help. On the writing course she started to learn techniques.
She discovered that she needed something called an ‘inciting incident’, that her story should have an arc, that her book should be divided into fifths and at each part something specific should happen. She copied down lists of things never to do, and more lists of things to always remember. She found it all overwhelming. She panicked, convinced that she wasn’t clever enough to write fiction after all. She stopped writing altogether.
There is a joyful expression of language, or music, or art that we have instinctively as children. Until at some stage someone tells us that we are not necessarily doing it ‘right’.
Some people take it in their stride, are lucky to find helpful coaches who explain how a little theory can help in the long run. Some people are less lucky. They are hit over the head with rule books and shame until they give up. Sometimes, as adults, we really know how to train the joy out of people.
What advice would you give to the woman who stopped writing? I told her to forget the rules for now. To write some stories that pleased her. To play with her words and find her delight again. I don’t know if that’s the right advice, but it made her smile.