Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grade 3 anxiety

My grandfather used to play the piano around various working men's clubs in the mining villages where I grew up. In 1980, on his way to one of those clubs, he walked out in front of a bus, was hit by a car and killed instantly. He was one of the reasons why I wanted to learn to play the piano, and so I pressured my parents to give me lessons. Eventually, a teacher was produced and I went on to have weekly lessons for the rest of my childhood. My younger sister also had lessons, and we made sure we both did 20 minutes of practice a day, timed to precision with an electronic timer.

I was never sure where my perpetually cash-strapped parents found the money for those lessons, and I never once thought to ask how much they were costing them. But it's a credit to them that we got them and were never made to feel guilty about it.

My teacher, Mrs Terry was the poshest person my family had ever encountered, and I never got over my fear of her and was able to relax in her presence. I still have all of the piano books I learnt from, with her neat cursive handwriting in the corner of each page, marking dates from 1983. Although Mrs Terry was never big on praise (and she didn't seem to like putting children in for exams), apparently my sister and I were held up as exemplary students because we practiced 20 minutes daily, and our electronic timer was used to torture less motivated students. We did not realise it at the time, but we later found out that we were hated by other pupils who had never met us.

I took Grade 1 piano in 1985 and then Grade 2 in 1987. Then my parents decided I needed to concentrate on my GCSEs, so lessons stopped. I hid upstairs guiltily on the day when she was told her services were no longer needed, so I never got to say goodbye and thankyou. And of course, she died years ago, so that's a wrong I'll never get to put right.

I continued playing the piano, and even had a brief job as a student playing in a small restaurant on Friday nights. I still have a piano - a £2000 electric upright variety that sounds and feels just as good as the real thing and never needs tuning. But I don't play it every day any more.

However, when my fella caught glandular fever last October, and was stuck at home for three months, he decided to take it upon himself to learn to play the piano. He's much more of an alpha-male type than me, and within a few weeks had figured out the basics and was whizzing through my old tuition books at the rate of about one a month (it had taken me about one year to get through each one). And, because he's so goal-driven, he's decided to take Grade 1, and has also persuaded me to take Grade 3. I'm sure the 25 year gap won't matter too much.

So I've bought the pieces and am practising them, along with horrible sets of scales. Playing a piece to perfection is horrible, I continually make stupid mistakes, and after my nightly practice sessions I normally feel hot and slightly nauseous, leaving the keyboard with a pounding heart and shaking hands. I've even had bad dreams about the exam. It's a very long time since I've sat any form of exam (I suppose my PhD viva counts as the last one, and that was 11 years ago). I normally set exams. My fella is much more relaxed about the whole thing, he LOVES learning scales and is already planning his Grade 2 exam in December.

I have until June to work out the awful scales. And somewhere, in Piano Heaven, I can imagine Mrs Terry shaking her head disappointedly, and tapping the page with her (always sharp) pencil. Maybe it's time to dust off the electronic timer.


Paul Brownsey said...

When I took some grade exams as an adult, the examiner tended to look down towards my knees as I entered, wondering where was the tot whose father was bringing him to an exam.

"I've even had bad dreams about the exam. It's a very long time since I've sat any form of exam." I couldn't believe what a state I got into in the exam room. I was telling myself, "I'm a lecturer, I can stand up in front of 300 students without a qualm and deliver a perfectly fluent lecture, yet here I am, hands sticky with sweat, panting, heart racing." The examiner had to grant me a pause to recover myself.

"Where's Paul?" I'd be asked, and would reply, "That's me."

Still, I did get a helpful, slightly camp examiner who, when I hesitated about identifying an interval - I knew it was a fifth but couldn't think what sort - said archly, "Think of me!" and, thus cued, I was able to say, "Perfect."

Paul Brownsey

Lubin said...

Thanks Paul, it's good to know it's not just me!