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June 13, 2014 6:25 pm

Lessons in the key of life

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Learning later in life is hard. Bad habits become ingrained and feel like part of one’s being

I’ve started taking piano lessons again, an improbably long time after my last ones. I remember those well, because I liked my teacher Clare – a gifted harpsichordist – so much and because she was almost as disorganised as I was.

She was also exceptionally musical and I marvelled at the way she could breathe life into passages I had been attacking in a somewhat mechanical manner. I can still read her larger-than-life jagged pencil marks on a Beethoven sonata movement: “Sing!” she wrote, and again “Sing!”. Unfortunately, the lessons lasted less than a year, before Clare emigrated from London to Suffolk.

I took no more lessons from that day until very recently; I wanted to cherish warmer memories than I had of my first serious teacher, who always seemed dissatisfied, frustrated and tetchy, though he did not actually rap me about the knuckles, as I’ve heard some teachers do. Perhaps the nicest thing he ever said was when he commented that his pupils probably practised best when he wasn’t there; this was sad but true.

He entered me for a school piano competition (scary but exciting) and then summarily withdrew my entry when I played the piece to him shortly before the big day, which did wonders for my confidence.

My latest teacher, Rob, I’m glad to say, is quite a different character; enthusiastic, creative and eccentric. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from my lessons but I thought fingering, accuracy and rhythmic sharpness would be on the agenda. Not a bit of it. We have hardly gone into fingering and Rob seems positively to relish wrong notes. He is almost entirely focused on the quality of sound I make, which is too hard and restricted. This in turn has to do with the position and freedom (or lack of it) of my hands and arms.

I found that I was sitting far too close to the keyboard and too high above it. We screwed down a three-legged wooden stool to its lowest position and then he proposed sawing each of the legs, so it would sit a bit lower. I knew that would end in disaster, so didn’t try it.

At first I was thoroughly disoriented. I had felt relatively comfortable sitting snugly close to the keyboard, in my restricted way. Close to the keyboard meant closer to the keys, with less possibility of striking the wrong one. Now I feared I might have to throw a lasso to reach that high C. But, at the same time, I realised that my wingspan was much greater than I’d thought. I could – in theory – let my arms swing free, transcribe great circles in the air.

Arms were one thing – broad brush; hands were quite another, even more complicated and involving finer adjustments. Could I detach the thumb more, strengthen the bridge of the four fingers and knuckles, so they didn’t collapse and buckle (especially the weak little one)?

The intricacies of technique – this new kind of technique, which had almost nothing in common with the old technique I’d been taught – seemed endless and daunting. The first effect of my new round of lessons was to make me feel I couldn’t play anything at all. I couldn’t play the pieces I thought I could play, because my technique was all wrong. I couldn’t play the new pieces because it takes more time when you are older and time is more precious.

Gradually things have improved. There have been clearings in the fog, even passages of enjoyment, when something has clicked, and I can hear my sound has gained richness, moments when a previously impossible bar has mysteriously become playable.

There have been setbacks also. I have regressed alarmingly, back well before the age of puberty. I even had something approaching a tantrum when Rob told me to spread a chord that I thought I could play perfectly well without spreading, and what is more, was written that way.

Learning later in life is hard. There are a number of reasons for this but the most obvious is that late learning always involves unlearning, freeing oneself from the bad habits of decades. Bad habits become ingrained, and feel like part of one’s being.

A second reason is even more embarrassing: in middle life one may have acquired a certain weight of self-importance, and discovering the depths of one’s ignorance or incompetence is even more humiliating that it is for a child.

But late learning can also be especially satisfying. The physical apparatus may have dulled but the meaning has become clearer. Life is not just a linear journey but a constant circling and returning upon itself, so that eventually, as TS Eliot put it in “Little Gidding”, we may “arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time”.

Finishing this piece, I get into conversation with an acquaintance from the tennis club. She is old, she tells me, more than 90 (I would not have guessed it), and gave up playing tennis a few months ago. But now she is thinking of starting lessons again., Twitter: @sloweyres

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