My Grade 1 Challenge
I’ve never played the piano. The flute and recorder, sure. As an ambitious 14 year-old I even attempted the three-quarter length guitar, even if it was just to play the chord sequence of Don’t Look Back in Anger.
But not the piano. Was it a fear of my muddled beginner’s fingers desecrating those 88 pristine, shining keys? Or the imagined scene of all those great composers sitting serenely at their pianos, contemplating their state of being and then promptly reeling off a perfectly constructed piano concerto with ease? Maybe I’m just intimidated by the idea of playing an instrument longer than my arm.
Today is my first piano lesson. My tutor, Karen Dickman of Aldeburgh Music’s Education Department, shows me how to set up the stool. “Not too high.” I’m only 4ft 10! “Just enough to sit relaxed.” Relaxed?! This could be the greatest disaster to hit classical music since the loss of Bach’s Passions.
“Show me Middle C.” It’s there, in the middle. Being a flautist, I’m treble-clef savvy so I only know this ‘Middle C’ as the final note of the scale. But today it’s just the beginning. There’s something promising its rising inflection – it was one of the first notes to be classified in the early Medieval period, so it seems appropriate that, 1000 years later, it’s still where we begin learning.
“Play D – E – F – G.” With a bit of finger-stretching, I manage C Major, and I can see the logic. Something clicks. Ten minutes later, I’m playing Frere Jacques with aplomb.
“Now for the bass clef.” In my joy at finally mastering a tune, I had forgotten the problem of my slightly less well-controlled left hand. Starting with C again, we play the same scale an octave lower. Suddenly it makes sense: the bass clef is just a continuation of the treble clef. I can do this!
Many of the great composers began learning before they were 3 years old. The proven benefits of learning as a child include building memory and confidence. Learning an instrument as an adult is equally beneficial; boosting IQ, reducing stress, and even improving time management – and who doesn’t need that?
But for me, it’s not just the health benefits of learning an instrument that has made me want to start now. It’s the Challenge itself. It can be tempting after 20 years of formal education to revel in the absence of exams and the rigours of revision. But to challenge yourself to move beyond that very enticing comfort zone can be immensely constructive, especially when the its such a creative one. Creative activities, such as learning the piano, are known to establish a positive feedback system; you play a note and you want to play more. Before you know it, you’ve lost yourself in the ambition to play that elusive tune and whatever was deeply concerning you half an hour ago is now just a drop in a very large and distant ocean.
Which is why the achievement of playing my first notes on the piano – even the repeated refrain of Frere Jacques – and, for the first time, truly understanding them, is an extraordinary experience. It recaptures those long-forgotten eureka moments that were such a regular feature of childhood. It’s the adult equivalent of taking your stabilisers off for the first time.
At the age of 29 I’ve conquered my fear of the piano. Challenge accepted!
About the Grade 1 Challenge
Aldeburgh Music and the Britten–Pears Foundation invite you to register for your Grade 1 piano exam before June. Whether you pick up the challenge as a New Year’s Resolution or it’s something you’ve always wanted to do but never quite got round to, this year you have no excuse! Sign up at aldeburgh.co.uk/gradeone to receive a host of useful information to support you on your journey – including information about piano teachers, exam boards and more. If you’re able to achieve the Grade 1 standard by June, you will have the opportunity to make your Aldeburgh Festival debut on the Steinway concert grand piano on the main stage at Snape Maltings Concert Hall.