Haydn Piano Sonata in c minor, hello old friend, I've missed you. It's been a while, probably 15 years since my fingers have attempted you, but amazingly you are still there, lying dormant, waiting. My fingers have not forgotten you and neither have I. Haydn’s piano sonatas, so often overshadowed by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s offerings, but so full of grace and delicacy, muscularity and depth of feeling. Having browsed through some more contemporary and ‘popular’ piano music (think Nyman) I am so happy to delve into this music that sits so perfectly under my fingers. No awkward twists and turns that make little sense under a human hand, this music lives when it is played and what a feeling to again dive into it. I played through one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards the other day and felt such happiness to be back inside this music, these crystalline sounds and inspired construction. And then there is Bach, always Bach. From my first Minuet from the Children’s Bach, to the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, to the dense complexities of some of the more hairy preludes and fugues, I always come back to Bach.
My relationship with the piano is a fraught one. There is love and loss and guilt and self-criticism and love and disappointment. Do other musicians (lapsed and otherwise) feel this way? I look at my piano and I can almost hear it calling out to me, my fingers yearn to play it, there is something like an ache of longing and also an avoidance, a reproach, a turning away.
I recently read Anna Goldsworthy’s beautifully written book Piano Lessons (that it has taken me this long to ‘get around’ to reading this book is testament to my avoidance of things piano). Reading about Anna’s journey in music from childhood to adulthood led me to reflect on some parallels but also some notable differences. At what point had the joy and love for playing being overwhelmed by anxiety, self-criticism, loss of confidence and eventually an abandonment of my musical mother tongue? When did it stop being about the music? I can remember the stress of competing in Eisteddfods and music competitions, the nervousness that served no purpose other than to distract me from playing my best, the disappointment at knowing I could play better but hadn’t, the feeling of letting others down, then the scathing self-criticism only enhanced by a throw away comment from a music teacher; “didn’t you want to win?”
My self-confidence took a further battering when I arrived at ‘The Con’ and was overwhelmed on a daily basis by the technical mastery of many of my peers. Their pianistic pyrotechnics left me in awe and also in no doubt that my own musical skills were inadequate: that I was inadequate, with nothing to offer as a pianist in the face of such obviously superior musicianship. No one talked about the love of music, what a gift it is to share with others. Music was reduced to a competitive sport; accuracy and technical proficiency and virtuosity were valued above all else. Performing in front of anyone became of trial to be overcome, and an activity that inevitably reinforced my own sense of inadequacy and failure as a musician. At the end of second year I decided I wanted to major in composition but I convinced the faculty to let take a double major and keep having piano lessons. I remember clearly that I did not want to give up on the piano, it was still my musical lifeline and I was not ready to cut off this part of myself. I made it through to the end of fourth year, passed my final piano exam with a credit and walked away. I never played in public again, or indeed in front of anyone, except the occasional piano student. Composing music became my primary musical outlet, one that I convinced myself was a much better fit – I could write music and someone else could play it.
I still played occasionally for myself, but less and less as my technical facility lost its edge; enjoyment gave way to frustration and the piano collected dust. But I have always come back to the piano. When I lived in Edinburgh and had access to a Steinway grand, I would wait until weekends when no one was around, take a pile of music and spend a couple of hours revisiting loved pieces and untangling new ones. Work and young children served as further distractions and kept me away for a time and I sometimes felt, with sadness, that playing the piano was lost to me, that I had let it go and was past the point of getting it back. “What a waste” was a comment often repeated by my mother, a phrase which in many ways twisted the knife but also failed to understand the connection between the years of learning to play the piano and my current musical life as a composer. One would not be possible without the other. Piano was where I learnt to ‘speak’ music, now I use that language in another way.
A couple of years ago I took up the cello, wishing to learn a new instrument, and enjoyed immersing myself in a new set of technical challenges and the rewards that come from expressing oneself in a new way. At the back of my mind this sometimes felt like a willful betrayal, another form of avoidance. Why was I spending time learning and practicing the cello when my piano sat untouched? Why was I struggling to learn to play a simple tune on the cello when I could launch into something much more musically complex and satisfying (however rustily) on the piano?
Having had little time for either instrument over the last six months, it is the piano that I have returned to. I feel like I am reconnecting with an old friend, long avoided and undervalued. But I am also making a very conscious decision to let go of all the ‘baggage’ associated, for me, with this instrument. Self-criticism, and reproach, disappointment, frustration, guilt, feelings of inadequacy… be gone. I’m done with you: you never served any purpose anyway.
I am playing the piano because I enjoy it and if I play it for someone else, it will be so I can share something, not impress them. And if I make a mistake or if my rendition of the piece is less than ‘perfect’, that is OK because I will be playing the music with love and that’s the important thing. Not musical pyrotechnics, not aiming to be better than someone else, not misplaced perfectionism. I want the music back, the joy of playing the piano, the technical challenge, but more importantly the sense of satisfaction of bringing some little black notes on a page to life. And I’ll be happy to share that, if anyone wants to listen, and just as happy to have it for myself.
And here’s the thing: I never wanted to be a concert pianist or a chamber musician or any kind of performer. I just knew that whatever it was that I was, it was about music. And somewhere along the way a part of my musical self was sidelined, shamed into submission and left in a corner to gather dust. So, I’m sorry old friend, it wasn’t your fault, or my fault, you’ve been waiting patiently and we’ve got some catching up to do.