Watch the quick video above to hear Jane's story or read the full story below.
The Start of My Piano Story
Imagine a room full of sheets of white paper. They are all blank, and they all lie in a row. You are told that, if you touch them in the right order, a story will appear on the wall. You touch one. Up on the wall you see ‘and’. You touch another. On the wall you see ‘they’. You begin to see the enormity of your task. You know what you want to write, but which was the ‘they’ sheet? And how do you find one that says ‘Once’?
This is an exaggerated analogy, but serves to give some idea of how I viewed piano playing from childhood upwards. On a piano there are only seven white notes repeated, and because they have black notes between them, this creates a slightly different visual appearance for each. My brain knows and understands that, but that’s until you add low self esteem and fear.
Fear prevents learning
As an arts education lecturer at Cambridge University, and a specialist teacher of the arts, travelling to primary schools throughout the UK and abroad, I often worked with trainee primary teachers on teaching creative writing. I used the analogy of a swimming pool. You cannot learn to swim if you fear and hate water. You need to introduce it as a pleasure and a delight, letting the child dabble its toes, splash and play, so that the child learns that water is its friend. Then what a glorious moment to find that you can float in this wonderful element, and move along in it – the child revels in swimming. No-one is going to want to write if they are not taught to love and delight in words, saying them in different voices, singing them, playing with them in different ways.
I had a fortunate start, with two creative arts specialists as parents. My father was exceptionally musical and taught me to make sounds on the family piano, playing like a mouse, playing like an elephant, making little tunes, gradually teaching me known melodies. But then it was piano lessons at grammar school. There was one aim to these lessons – to pass the next exam. We were also expected to play in school piano competitions. To this day, whenever I hear Scarlatti, I feel the wave of white panic that swept through me when I had to mount the stage, sit at a grand piano that I had never before practised on, and play his sonata to the entire school. A game of Memory, selecting the white sheets of paper in exact order, exact rhythm, at speed. One mistake and I would be lost.
‘You are note blind’
I have always set myself high standards and wanted to do well. I got good results in my piano exams, but by Grade 4 I was struggling, and the Distinctions became ‘Highly Commended’ or ‘Commended’. The examiners’ reports were always the same - ‘Jane plays with great sensitivity, expression and musicality. Aural work excellent. Sight reading poor, and she must learn to look at the music while playing.’
For I played all pieces from memory once I had painstakingly worked them out from the score. Whilst I understood what the stave and the written notes represented, I found any more than one line desperately difficult. The shape of each written note was the same – round. The only thing that distinguished it from its fellows was its position on the stave. I was able to work out notes on the five lines and the four spaces, but above or below this, I had to lean in and count the lines – there was not enough visual difference for me. My piano teacher called me ‘note blind’. Yet I am a fluent reader, completely at home with the written word.
And then, having learned those five lines and four spaces, I was to find that in the bass clef, they were different. It was as if a deliberate attempt was being made to make things as difficult as possible.
Nor could I play by ear, despite having excellent pitch. My father and brother could both improvise stunningly from the age of six, and were of such outstanding calibre as players that I could never hope to compete (or even get near the piano, as it was in constant use!) My father won prizes and was a sought-after performer, and although both he and my brother were wonderfully loving, I felt completely useless next to them (as did my mother and sister!)
The music trapped inside
I gave up the piano when I went to college at 18 and did not play again for forty eight years. During that time, I was often wistful, wishing I could compose the glorious pieces, often for full orchestra, that I could hear in my head. I dwelt on possible ways of letting my trapped music out. Why weren’t the notes different colours – on the page and on the instrument? Why was the key note, the centre of everything, the beginning note, not called A instead of C? Who had decided this, when and why? Was there a computer programme that you could sing into and it would write your music? (perhaps there is?) Then later I wondered why, when I could play chords easily on the guitar by memorising where my fingers went, couldn’t I just learn to play chords in the same way on the piano? Say ‘E minor’ to me and I can instantly visualise, and make, the shape with my left hand to play that on a guitar. Perhaps I could teach myself to do this on the piano?
These thoughts disturbed and lingered until my retirement. At 66, I am at the younger end of what might be called a Senior Citizen, having retired from teaching art, drama, dance and creative writing just before the pandemic (by sheer coincidence - talk about timing!)
I have sung in highly regarded choirs for over forty years, and played the guitar, usually for schoolchildren, since I was fifteen. As with the piano, I gave up classical guitar lessons because I couldn’t cope with reading the music, but I could play chords, and improvise on it using my classical training. The pandemic unexpectedly made me start writing songs for guitar again, something I’d not done for decades. These were used in online church services - very few people knew I could play.
Even though I dwelt on alternative learning possibilities, I never heard of any method of getting what I can hear in my head, on to the keyboard, as Dad and my brother could. Interestingly, Dad stopped playing the piano altogether the day my brother died in 1995, which underlined the fact that, although I am considered very musical, I tended to feel he never really rated me as a musician.
My dear and gifted Dad died last January, aged 100. Maybe now might be the time to buy a keyboard? But the thought made me rather depressed, and I had no spare time for lessons. I felt intensely sad that I would never be able to play the piano, and recorded that thought in my diary a few months ago.
A key in the door
Then someone posted a DecPlay.com video on my church facebook page with 'Wow!' written above it. It was an elderly lady playing Amazing Grace, and a claim that she had done it in half an hour. Intrigued, and with a small spark of hope, I watched the free video. Twenty minutes later, I was haltingly playing Amazing Grace.
It took me only two days to decide to invest in the course, and a keyboard – which I had been thinking of buying anyway. Comforted as I was by the money-back-if-it’s- not-for-you guarantee, I dared to hope that this was not going to be the case.
As a widely experienced trainee of teachers, I am fussy about other people’s teaching methods. And I am not a lover of anything technical. I am busy, a doer with fingers in many creative pies. I noted Declan’s pleasant, easy manner, his clearly explained, gently paced bite-size lessons, and his wise comment that ten minutes a day is far better than one fifty minute session per week. I noted that someone is available for all your questions, no matter how basic.
There is support from the DecPlay community daily in a private Facebook group, a group Zoom call for students every 2 weeks, with Declan sharing tips and answering questions, followed by breakout rooms where you can chat and make friends with other students. It is abundantly clear that this ongoing support, encouragement and contact is bringing not only pleasure to others but something far more important. For some, after a bereavement or stroke, it is clearly a lifeline. It is for all ages, as the numerous videos posted online make clear, including many students in their 80s and 90s. I found myself smiling at the gallant efforts of all kinds of people, who obviously felt enough at ease to record their earliest and most tentative struggles.
For me, the teaching method and notation was like the unlocking of something I’d always known was in me, to which I’d never found the right door.
I should add that I am writing this because I want to, and offered to, not as any kind of promotion, but purely to share my experience. Today, I have been on the course for eight weeks. Three of those were on holiday, and I don’t engage with the course or practise every day. So call it four weeks.
The luck of the Irish
In those four weeks of engaging with keyboard and course, I have found how to play a number of hymns and songs, improvised freely and with pleasure, and introduced my partner, who has never played a piano in his life and always wanted to, to ways forward that he can manage and enjoy. The three week holiday I mentioned was in Ireland. Things happened there. First, in a charity shop, we found another keyboard, in full working order, at 25 euros. It is now my partner’s. Secondly, we found ourselves drawn to the keyboard every evening, taking turns to play and improvise. Thirdly, I composed a short piece inspired by Ireland, which I dared to video and post online. This was one month after enrolling on the course.
I intend to give the course my best shot, and friends I have told realise that I no longer have to feel I must live up to family members. I now let my hands play around the keyboard, knowing no-one is judging me. I know that there are limits to my ability. I will never compose symphonies for orchestra or be able to read Bach. But the big change is that the terrifying sheets of white paper, the rows of white keys, incomprehensible and hostile, are sharing their secrets with me and becoming my friends. The impenetrable scores are gone; instead I have numbers (and yes – C is 1!) and colours and hand shapes, all of which I can understand and memorise. I have control over the pace at which I learn, and the time and length of my lessons.
And there are no exams, no rules. A painter should be able to paint freely, a writer to write any words they like, including new ones they invent, in any order they like. And a pianist should be able to play with music as a child plays with water, delighting in it, splashing it, learning to feel secure in it, learning to love it. DecPlay is well-named – Declan is enabling me to play, in both senses, and I am truly grateful.
Jane Bower September 2021