When I was a teenager, my girlfriend had a piano, and just sitting and watching her play Rachmaninoff, Liszt & Beethoven made up some of the most mesmerizing experiences of my youth. By Kind Permission Of was to me, the pinnacle of human achievement, and I’d beg to her play the various pieces it samples. Her piano was in a room facing the road, by the front door, and if she was playing when I went around the corner to call on her, I’d stand outside the window and listen until she noticed me. Sometimes I’d be standing out on the street for 10 or 15 minutes listening before actually going inside and saying hello.
I’d mess around on her piano whenever I got the chance, making her wince at my timing as she gave me the easiest possible arrangement of a duet; or trying to imitate her father and pick out the melodies to Beatles songs with my right hand whilst my left played the closest approximation of the written chords that I knew. But, frankly, however much I enjoyed it, I was never much good. And so, at University, when spare time was limitless and I was exploring music in every which way with various bands I played with, from a really quite good jazz band down to some less well-advised ska and prog ensembles, I ended up buying myself an electric piano.
Not just any electric piano though, I did my research and talked to some fantastic pianists who played them, and ended up getting a second-hand Fatar SL-880 for far less than it was worth from a musician a couple of hours’ drive away in London, who had so much fancy equipment he was practically giving the thing away at a few hundred quid just to make space. Unlike more traditional keyboards, this has fully weighted hammer-action keys, which means it really feels and responds like an actual piano, and whilst I used to get a decent sound by running it through my computer, I now have a beautiful midi module which, whilst nothing like the real thing, provides a nice approximation of a range of quality pianos.
For the past three years, with varying levels of discipline, I’ve been teaching myself to play piano on that. Various friends, band-mates, girlfriends and so on have given me tips, but it’s mostly been a solitary affair with infrequent feedback, and so I’ve doubtless picked up some bad habits. Most of these – using the wrong fingering, pedalling too much – are noticed and subsequently resolved after I play in front of a more experienced pianist, but one I’ve noticed myself and, despite some effort, haven’t made many inroads on fixing as yet.
When I play, I nearly always play for my own pleasure. This doesn’t mean I don’t practise my scales, arpeggios and the endless horrifying pieces from Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, but it has meant that I only learn any given piece just enough to make it sound wonderful to me. One of the most stressful experiences of my adult life was playing piano at a small exhibition in a church in London, and even in that I ended up making a couple of small slips during the recital.
I used to be a hero on Guitar Hero. My console was filled with 100% ratings on songs at the Expert level, and the rush of adrenaline as I got finally got through the solo and towards the end of a song without having made a mistake was exhilarating. Trying to play a piece on piano flawlessly approximates that, but knowing that there’s no real benchmark of 100% and that even if I hit every note at exactly the right time, I’m still far away from achieving the grace and feeling that I hear on professional recordings, takes away some of the joy from that. In the spirit of external motivation though, I’ve started recording my attempts, and sending them to a couple of friends, and I’m tentatively sharing one of these below.
I’d like to make a slue of excuses: that I’ve lost the sheet music for this piece; that I was tired; that the recording quality of an iPhone and some computer speakers is always going to be terrible — but having done that I also have to admit that this recording was probably the 10th or 11th attempt that evening, and probably the best of the lot.
Right now I can’t listen to this recording without all my focus on the mistakes. Hopefully not everyone will feel that way.