Learning To Play A Musical Instrument

Mrs Jamieson’s front room was for special occasions.  The room had a stale smell, not of dirt but of lack of use.   It was swathed in beige, mahogany trestle tables, sealed with a brown brushed velvet sofa and corralled by paisley patterned curtains on sash windows.  The coal fire centred the room as if every bit of furniture and detritus had been placed with the aid of a spirit level.  It was stifling.  I sat on the couch with my back to the window, but it, too, was pressing in.  Long lines of uniform attached houses on either side of Dudley Terrace were connected but separated in a way only curtain-watching neighbours allow. The upright piano was against the wall, with a leather stool, sometimes bolstered with cushions to accommodate Miss Ward’s different piano pupils.  Miss Ward perched in an antique armchair to the right of the keyboard as if watching from a conning tower.  She would press forward or relax into her chair, depending on the skill of the player.  When my sister Morag was playing, she was always leaning back with a thin smile of appreciation.  There was an eerie hush during the lessons, only the melodic tones of Miss Ward gently coaching Morag as she played a Schubert minute.

I had a piano lesson every Wednesday, after school, and even during the school holidays. Miss Ward started with her star pupil, Morag, then my other sister Fiona, who at least practised once during the week, and then me.  Miss Ward’s mood fluctuated downward through each lesson, her wispy grey hair neatly tied in a bun, seemingly in tatters by the time she finished with me.  She was austere and rotund, with prominent but smooth jowls and direct pale blue eyes.  I imagined a coldness that wasn’t there.  I discovered her spinster status after I overheard my parents’ whispers.

‘Yes, she lost her fiancé in the last weeks of 1944.’

Miss Ward was, in fact, kind and supportive towards Morag, who had real talent, and at each step in her musical career, Morag would contact her to give her an update.  I didn’t have such fond memories of her or the lessons.  I’d sit there waiting, longing to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Huge hornets churned in my stomach as I waited to be reprimanded when Miss Ward realised the last time I’d played the piece was the previous week. 

After a long day at school, I was tired and starving.  During the interminable wait, I’d squirrel sweets out of my blazer pockets, coughing gently and surreptitiously placing them in my mouth.

‘You’re not eating John, are you,’ she’d scold as if she had a radar hidden within her bun, turning like a raptor from the sheet music.

‘No,’ I’d mumble with a lisp, trying to swallow or place the fruit gum under my tongue.   

‘I’ve told you before, you must not eat while you are in Mrs. Jaimeson’s Music room.  This is her best furniture, and she kindly rents this room to me.’

I would be summoned to the stool after Fiona had charmed her with her excuses of why her practise wasn’t as extensive as it should have been. It was an ordeal for me and torture for Miss Ward.  I had no desire or aptitude to learn to play the piano. Fortunately, there was always a knock on the door mid-way through my lesson.

‘Miss Ward, I’ve your tea and biscuits,’ Mrs Jaimeson would say, giving a knowing glance at me.  She could hear my efforts and, through design or good manners, realised that Miss Ward needed respite.  It was the moment I yearned on, as there was a pause while Miss Ward, with the precision of a surgeon, would tip two heaped spoons of sugar into the steaming tea without a granule falling on the floor or piano.  The cup was placed on a small table at her side, and she’d stir the cup as if in time to the last melody she could remember, which was from when Morag played an hour before.  Again, not a drop would spill, and she would tap the spoon on the side of the cup as a signal for me to start playing again.  She would break a digestive in two and lift it to her mouth every so often.  The sweet aroma of tea and the sound of a crunchy biscuit would make my tummy scream.  It was as if Miss Ward knew exactly what affect her tea break was having on me, and she enjoyed tormenting me.  And yet, she had an uncanny knack for hovering her fingers above mine and pushing them forcibly on the notes so that a tune emerged.  Not surprisingly, she never put me forward to complete my piano grades, fearful of her reputation.  When I finally convinced my parents that they were wasting their money, five years had elapsed, Morag had been awarded grade eight with distinction, and even Fiona had reached grade two.

That salutary story of learning music contrasts considerably with Derek Dickson as he describes on the podcast Sue and Johnny – Everything and Anything.  Derek recalls being asked to enter the music storage cupboard at Portobello High School to select an instrument for lessons.

‘I imagined a trumpet or a coronet. Instead, I was handed a heavy Tuba; the rest is history,’ he laughs. 

But he took to it like a duck to water.  He found it easy, and it wasn’t long before he was in a concert band.  It was fun and provided an outlet to be on stage and to show off.  He loved making music.  Of course, he’s modest, and there must have been something in the genes; his dad was the Head of Music at Portobello High School and then Ross High, Tranent

 A couple of Saturdays ago, I listened to the Today programme on Radio 4.  The guest editors were musicians from Dumbarton who focused the programme on playing musical instruments.  These intrepid crusaders explained that many of their concert band members had started to learn an instrument in later life, opening new horizons of stimulation and social interaction.  Various eminent professors were interviewed who explained that learning a musical instrument is proven to aid the well-being and happiness of children.  Moreover, they suggested that there is evidence that it improves all-around learning and attainment.

The lack of funding for Music has blighted schools throughout the UK over the last forty years.  Derek Dickson explained in his interview on Sue and Johnny – Everything and Anything, that his father, a music teacher, used to have annual budgets to purchase instruments in the 70s and 80s, but the budgets were slashed.  This was confirmed on the radio programme where there was a passionate plea for Music to be part of the National Curriculum, as budgets have been cut and the subject sidelined.  They argued that it is a vital part of education, and it’s hard not to agree.   

Thankfully, this is one Speakers’ Corner that isn’t a rant about the past because the Scottish Government has introduced free music lessons for every child in Scotland.   I couldn’t put it better than the official Government website:

‘Learning to play a musical instrument is a lifelong skill that helps develop learning across all subjects, as well as confidence, resilience, responsibility, social skills, and wellbeing. Music helps build links between literacy and numeracy, helping to develop thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as physical coordination and fine-tuning motor skills. Playing a musical instrument also helps improve mood whilst the commitment and responsibility required to succeed are important characteristics in life after school.’

There was an infectious enthusiasm from the musicians editing the Today programme that beamed down the airwaves.  A culture of togetherness, community, and joy of creating music.  It was the same feelings that Derek Dickson espoused when he described his lifelong participation in playing for concert and brass bands.  It’s heartening that it is a feeling that our politicians recognise.

And it made me wonder.  I love music and listen to an eclectic array of bands, composers, and traditions.  But why didn’t want to learn an instrument?  Is it too late for me to take piano lessons again?  I can hear Miss Ward screaming disapproval from her grave.