Much of my progress, if I can call it that, in the last decade has involved making the most of what’s already there. Ten years ago, I had long-since decided never to attempt to play a musical instrument again and already sold my collection of dust-covered synthesisers.
This changed five years ago, following a well-staged reunion of NYLON, the schooldays synth, drums and vocals ensemble that enriched my teens. The four of us (and it’s three now following the tragic early death of David Brophy earlier this year) didn’t do anything so radical as play together again that day. However, I was inspired to have a fiddle with Garageband, the miraculous digital audio workstation that comes bundled with each and every Apple Mac these days.
Perhaps it was because I’d been sober for half a decade by then, but I was gripped with possibilities, and swiftly procured a proper external music keyboard. What can be achieved with virtual synthesisers these days is astonishing, especially compared to the hacking and brute force we needed in the early eighties. If I had my teenage free time and the power of the new century’s tools I would be a contender, I like to kid myself.
I found myself plonking out Bach’s Minuet in G. This was a piece I had failed to master when undertaking six months of piano lessons around the age of ten. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could actually nail it and go home and play it for my mum? I could. I did. It was.
I seemed to have been possessed with the idea of going back to my childhood and righting my wrongs. I had never even progressed as far as Grade One in those days. Could I now, in my forties, actually pass a music exam? I studied the syllabus, bought the books, and entered myself for the examination.
The week before, I slipped into one of the schools at which spouse teaches, and made sure that what I’d learned would work on an actual piano. It did then, and it did a few days later in the exam.
I passed. With distinction. On to Grade Two, then. I found myself assembling electronic soundscapes less and less, and instead getting to grips with playing the piano. This had taken me over.
When we moved from our closely-neighboured colony maisonette into a detatched bungalow, I seized the opportunity to buy a well-loved second-hand upright piano. Spouse is very tolerant of me practicing scales and pieces well into the night.
I’ve now sat and passed the first five grades offered by the Associated Board, and also followed the Theory of Music syllabus. I’ve continued to do this without the services of a teacher, a decision which has earned me some admiration but no small amount caution from professional musicians as well. One only has to listen to The Shaggs to know what autodidactic musicality can sound like.
Ascending the grades has become harder and harder. It takes me months to learn a Grade Six piece, and I am finding them so complex that I cannot memorize them and have to read as I play. Reading as I play (sight-reading) is another skill that is not coming easily, and the Grade Five exam saw me offering a piss-poor effort that I only performed in order to get more than zero marks in that section. Dealing with my anxiety in the days before and after each exam is draining.
I aim to sit Grade Six in late 2016. I may engage a teacher before then if absolutely necessary, but only as a troubleshooter. I have been inspired a great deal by Alan Rusbridger’s “Play It Again”, his account of reaching his goal of playing a beast of a Chopin piece by a certain date, while holding down one of the busiest jobs in journalism.
The sobriety, mindfulness and focus of the last decade has helped me dig up this part of myself – the urge to play a musical instrument – and not only derive satisfaction from it in the present, but also to feel less bad about jacking it in in my youth. I also feel good about having hooked up with my old bandmates.
Everything that has ever happened to you will always have happened. So it seems right to acknowledge it.
It’s a great feeling to find something in your mental attic, dust it off, and realize it was always part of you.