Escaping to a sound-proof box

Throughout 2022 I’m exploring my connection with the piano. I want to gain a deeper understanding of why I came to learn to play it, what the experience of playing it was back in my school days, and why I find it so difficult to return to playing it again now.

Today, I’ve sat down at the piano for the first time in maybe three years.

I’ve been meaning to take the first steps for a few days. The piano behind has become the subject of conversation in various different video calls – some with new coaching clients, others with journalists in Istanbul, one eager for me to conclude my training session on Google Analytics with a tune at the keyboard. “The answer is no.”

I won’t play on demand. I don’t do that. I can’t. I must explore that some other time. But I also won’t practise because I know it won’t sound any good. I’m too out of practice. I won’t be able to play anything. It will sound awful. So I won’t play it. 

Classic procrastination. And yet, if I were to make a start I would start the process of getting back into practice. Start the process of getting better.

So, I start with scales. Two hands. C major. Keep it simple, I think. What I notice first off is the complicated demands of the thumb passing under the third finger in the right hand, and the fourth finger crossing over the thumb in the left hand. Two unnatural movements occur in rapid succession, fingers moving automatically. My fingers awkwardly climb up towards the top of the keyboard but my brain is struggling to catch up with the movement. I’ve no idea whether I’m doing it right or why when I discover I’ve run out of fingers and there’s some kind of snarl-up, what went wrong when.

I try other scales. G major presents itself as a slightly more straightforward affair and perhaps even a more interesting scale, what with contrasting black F sharp key in the middle of all the white. But I’ve forgotten how different scales demand modest changes in the fingering. A major is instinctively the most appealing scale what with its three black sharp keys; F major feels oddly pathetic.

But what links all of these brief tentative excursions is how quickly half-forgotten processes return to the fingers. Also, how quickly I’m able to discern there’s tension in my upper arms and once I’ve identified how relatively straightforward it is to relax the arms mid-scale.

There’s also the finger position. Arched not flat as if to emphasise at the moment how important it is to isolate the fingers. Memories of John Bradbury return – make the fingers move not the arm.

And not long after, another forgotten process creeps back in. Relentless repetition at varying speeds, first to ensure the right fingers are pressed down on the right keys in the right order, but also to create a fluid line. As each scale is completed the challenge begins again. Focus on the movement from one note to the next. Pay the closest attention you possibly can. Wherever there is movement strive for grace.

There is something rather beautiful and calming about this moment. There is an understanding that fluidity doesn’t only come from the movement in the fingers but also from the mind. The mind needs to visualise the goal – a fluid line – so that everything can be aligned mentally and physically in order to pursue the goal. Then comes the question – what is the greater power in achieving this state? Muscle memory or mindset?


I remember how I used to enjoy this process in the past. It is as though the lights are turned down low and all focus is on the smallest of movements, bringing awareness to the whole body in order to create the best state for the production of sound. Having the opportunity to bring that much focus to something so small is in itself a joy. I remember experiencing that joy forty years ago even if as I recall now, I wouldn’t haven’t realised what was actually going on. I am here and now in a mindful state.

There were noises off. Sneering voices. Faces laughing and pointing through sash windows. “What do you want to do that for?” and “That’s boring. You’re boring. You’re gay.” What did I know that I didn’t? Familiar words – some heard at home, some at school – I escaped from in soundproof practise rooms.

Music practise provided purpose. Goal setting. Discipline. It was a haven. I don’t recall any of my other studies bringing quite so much satisfaction.

Yet it was an activity that was evidence of somehow being less of a person – deficient in sporting ability. The crowd can’t deal with the difference. Music compensating for being awkward. If I was the same as them I wouldn’t need music.

Practise provided a physical barrier. An excuse. Practise offered a valid reason to extricate me from risky interactions. Respectable justification for an unhelpful avoidance strategy.

One term during the production of a school play I was in, rehearsals were scheduled late into the evening necessitating day pupils mixing with the boarders for an evening meal. Unexplored territory. A new frontier. Peers out of uniform, even more, self-assured than they were during the day. The prospect terrified me. This was not somewhere for the self-conscious. Instead, cheese and beetroot pickle sandwiches in a practise room before slipping into rehearsals without anyone looking. Practising scales to kill time.

Play It Again

Throughout 2022 I’m exploring my connection with the piano. I want to gain a deeper understanding of why I came to learn to play it, what the experience of playing it was back in my school days, and why I find it so difficult to return to playing it again now.


Behind me sits a black upright piano, currently dust free but not always so. The same scores sit on the music desk as a year ago. Occasionally the keyboard is approached to bash out a vaguely recalled melody, but for most of the time the piano stands silent and dejected, holding its own as impactful Zoom call backdrop.

I think we paid £750 for piano. Soon after me and my partner met and I’d moved in to his flat on King’s Avenue, we woke up one Saturday morning bleary-eyed wrapped thinking that buying a second hand piano might be a good way to start the nesting process. Later the same day at Markson Pianos showroom the trade was made, the serviced instrument delivered a few days later.

Sometimes I look at the thing and pity it. Twenty four years later it’s a piece of furniture that fills a gap but goes unplayed. Just play me. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? That’s what other people do with their pianos, they play them. There have been occasions when I have, usually when I’m performing for others. But most times I’ll feel the weight of the past – a big hand pushing against my chest, telling me to steer clear. How can something which has in the past played such an important part in my development as a human now be such a barrier?

It got quite a lot of use to begin with, at first rehearsing a range of tenor solos preparing my still-new partner Simon for theatre auditions.

My recollection of ‘98 is one of dissatisfaction with my own technique. I was no rehearsal pianist. No pencil in my ear, a keen eye cast across the top of the instrument looking out for a two beat intro and then in on the first beat of the bar, heel pounding the floor.

I was a sluggish player, stumbling over seemingly unexpected chords. Speed changes which were at best aspirations, and dark messy key signatures promised failure, apology and shame. Mozart opera transcriptions were no good because I couldn’t expand on the simple score laid in front of me. Sondheim was too fast and too complicated. I would end up ‘marking’ bars and, after a few failed attempts quietly suggest that maybe I should just practice a little more. “It will be better when I’ve got it under my fingers.”

My main problem was not being any good at approximation at the keyboard. Plenty of others in my past had seemed adept at making a simple looking score sound considerably fuller than the manuscript indicated. Simon’s singing teacher Scilla’s ability to add a shake to any written chord gave proceedings a much grander sound. Mr Lane – my first class music teacher at Culford School – was able to make anything in The Beatles Complete sound as full and exciting as the fab four. And then there were the likes of Jerome at school or Pete at university who defied any kind of rational explanation who sat at the keyboard and did something known as ‘playing by ear’. Skills such as this made me as suspicious as I was jealous.

Forty years on I still can’t hear the title track from Ghostbusters and wince a little, remembering my peers crowding around Jerome as he bashed out Ray Parker Jr’s top ten tune with energy and attack I could only dream of.

Whilst diverting from the score seemed like cheating, there was also the need to build on the score – making more of what was printed in the manuscript. This too, like improvisation, was something completely alien to me. This was the ultimate in making yourself vulnerable to the world. This no doubt largely down to the formal tuition I received rooted in scales and arpeggios, and the value placed on accuracy, not only in practised pieces of music but also in sight-reading too. There was order in this process; chaos in improvisation.

There was too an implicit expectation established early on, originating in watching peers or teachers at the keyboard, that the really good musicians were those who played from memory or from ear. You needed to be able to improvise. You needed to be dextrous. These were the musicians who weren’t intimidated by the keyboard, they commanded it. I always felt like the keyboard insisted upon negotiation (and probably had days off at the weekend too.) the piano instead wanted to be played not participate in a scientific experiment.

How did those other musicians get to that stage? Did Jerome just wake up one morning and discover he could do this thing with this hands at a piano keyboard without so much as even one music lesson? If there were those who could sit at a keyboard and play without seemingly the many hours of practise I felt I had to put in, what was the point in continuing? Why was I wasting my time? I was going to have to run to catch up if I was able to catch up at all.