Not how you play, but that you do
Chartered client, Stephen Marcus Finn, has found joy in resuming his piano playing, after a break of five decades from lessons, and at age 67. A passing challenge set him on a renewed path of learning, with him loving the process of studying and practising. His story is an inspiration to aim for enjoyment, not perfection, in our learning journeys.
At the Grahamstown Festival three years ago, my wife bumped into a colleague who said he had taken up the clarinet again. She told him that I’d started playing the piano, after not having had lessons for about 50 years – I was 67 then. He challenged me to do my Grade 8 within the year, as that was what he’d be doing, having Grade 7 already. My wife accepted, despite my protests of never having played any exam, and not even knowing the difference between a major or minor key. At her behest, however, I promptly started learning theory, eventually passing Grade 8 with the ABRSM with distinction, and continuing lessons intensely with my superb and patient teacher.
My practical was different. I could never hear the difference between the keys and any aural test by my teacher was a disaster. I graduated to hearing aids only after the exam, having read a magazine article about how older people lose hearing facility – so, I wasn’t alone.
Came the exam in just under a year, and I breezed into the room with a smile and a “Hello”, only to be met with a scowl and a, “You can try out the piano.” It was a Kawai and I was used to Yamahas. The touch was so different, I thought I’d need five minutes to get attuned to it. But after 10 seconds (I kid you not), I was told to start with scales, my strongest point. Well, each one I played, I had to restart twice as I fouled up. My Bach (always suspect) went really well, my Beethoven (generally acceptable) was, yes, acceptable. My modern piece (which I thought I could play brilliantly) sounded as if I’d never played it, or even the piano, before. I saw the examiner wincing. Sight-reading was good, but then came the aural tests. I knew I’d get 0 for those, so just tried to work out what the examiner would ask me, guessing wildly all the time.
To my astonishment, I passed quite well, despite a horrendous mark for the scales. My aural result was stratospheric.
I didn’t cover myself in glory but I loved the whole process of studying and practising. And my wife’s colleague? We found out a year later that he’d only been joking when he’d challenged me. But what an inadvertent favour he’d actually done me.
As a postscript, for my 70th birthday I gave a recital for my wonderful teacher, my family and friends, playing Chaminade, Alkan, Scriabin and Foulds. As one of my children said afterwards: “It’s not how you played, Dad, it’s that you played.”