My granddaughter, when she was seven or eight gave an impromptu violin performance at family barbecue. It was an instrument that she had recently started to learn at school. She stood, with remarkable confidence on the garden decking in front of an audience of friends and relatives sprawled in chairs on the lawn. She announced that the concert would comprise three short compositions. The first tune could be compared to a cat carelessly standing on a red hot cooker element, the second a cat at the moment of impact with a bus. Then the finale, a cat accidentally falling from the seventh floor window of an apartment block. She is now learning the piano. I hope she perseveres as the piano is an instrument that I once had an ambition to play but didn’t stick at it. I wish I had.
One of my first musical memories is of my mother tentatively playing Clare de Lune by Debussy. There must be a difficult section halfway through as I’m sure she never ever seemed to complete the whole piece. So, we always had a piano in the house, but I never had any inclination to touch the keys far less attempt to play a tune.
That is, until the American music teacher passed briefly through our school bringing his American songbook. Suddenly music became interesting and I decided to have a crack at learning the piano.
My mother, suspiciously pleased at this development, promptly booked lessons before I had a change of mind. The local piano teacher was Miss Reid, an intense spinster of indeterminate age, bohemian dress sense and wild hair. She resided at the end of Broomieknowe, a street at the more affluent side of Bonnyrigg, her house standing amid colourful horticultural chaos in the shadow of the local Scottish Episcopal Church.
I duly arrived, crunching noisily up the path to her door thinking that a machete would have been handy and that Miss Reid might be up for a spot of gardening during the forthcoming ‘Bob a Job’ week. Miss Reid’s sensitive hearing must have alerted her to my approach and the door swung open just before I had the chance to use the large brass bell pull.
“Good afternoon. You must be Alexander?” enquired Miss Reid in a cultured Edinburgh accent. I looked behind me. No one had ever called me Alexander since my Christening after which I was called Sandy; a quaint Scottish custom.
I followed Miss Reid into the hallway, gagging slightly on the atmosphere composed largely of furniture polish mingled with a slight hint of cat. One seat was already occupied by an elegantly dressed woman who regarded me balefully as she noticed the dried streak of snot on my comprehensive school blazer sleeve. I sat quietly opposite and listened to the exquisite piano tune played, presumably by the offspring of the elegant, aloof lady. This maestro must be at least twelve, I thought. The lesson ended and the music stopped and Miss Reid ushered out a girl wearing a smug expression who was at least two years younger than me. I knew then I was out of my league.
Miss Reid then summoned me into her drawing room which resembled a Victorian stage set. Patting the piano stool next to her she invited me to sit. “May I look at your hands Alexander?” She held them gently like a palmist seeking an optimistic portent. “My goodness, such large hands” she exclaimed. I gathered from her tone that this was not a desirable physical feature of a successful pianist. She then peered doubtfully at my fingers as though examining some pork sausages on display in Mr Scott’s grocery shop. Sausages well past their sell by date.
Releasing my disappointing hands she enquired “So, Alexander, what sort of tunes or songs do you like?” I really, really wanted to say “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” which we had joyfully sung with the American music teacher but decided it best to play safe. “‘Claire de Lune’, Miss,” I muttered. Miss Reid, surprised by this revelation, contemplated the picture hanging above the piano, lost for some time in the peaceful scene of sheep grazing in some Highland glen.
As weeks turned into months the lessons progressed in the way that explorers struggle across vast, endless snow covered landscapes. Miss Reid would welcome me at the door with a look of worldly resignation and sit patiently with me at the piano. At first I could follow the notes because, conveniently each had a letter denoting which key to press but without these aids I was lost. A sheet of music was as incomprehensible as the Rosetta Stone.
Unknown to me at the outset Miss Reid organised an annual concert to showcase her pupils. Held in the hall of the church next door attendance was considered essential by the local music aficionados. But not by me. I had two serious handicaps; my piano playing was rubbish and I suffered from stage fright. Miss Reid, in the interests of production quality sandwiched my performance between the smug seven year old girl playing Chopin and an equally smug teenage boy playing Schumann. I recall clumping up the steps and clumping across the stage to the piano clutching my music book in my large, sweaty hands and porcine fingers. I did my best, made a fist of it; literally. Then clumped back across the stage to polite, very restrained applause.
That, then, was the last time I played the piano. The end of my piano project.