Friday, 27 May 2011

The Impossibility of Playing The Piano

Awesome. I heard part of an amazing new recording of Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata Wednesday morning on Radio 3 (Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, Op. 53, played by Martin Roscoe). There's really nothing quite like a Beethoven piano sonata, and the first movement of the Waldstein has an almost cartoonish sense of fun and dynamism. Composed in 1804, it makes you wonder whether we're really trying any more. "No more heros, No more Shakespearos..."

I have always loved the sound of a piano. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never had access to a piano or lessons as a child. Who knows, perhaps by now I could have been Keith Jarrett, effortlessly spinning improvisational magic before rapt audiences, or at the very least that bloke down the pub who can vamp his way through Roll Out The Barrel and Whole Lotta Shakin'.

I did have trumpet lessons, briefly, at school. It didn't work out, as there was a monumental clash of assumptions. The peripatetic tutor who visited the school was a dry old stick, who had never heard of, never mind listened to, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. He liked scales, proper posture and embouchure, and sight reading.

We played tunes which were supposed to be helpfully familiar, but which I had never heard in my life. "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes", for God's sake! I was an eleven-year old whose exposure to music was limited to the BBC Home Service on the radio and my father's taste in jazz. Plus my mother's cousin happened to be married to Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, a trumpeter with the Edmundo Ros orchestra, a popular combo in the 1950s and 60s, who played Latin American dance music. To me the trumpet was a hot instrument, but trumpet lessons were dull, dull, dull. I gave it up.

My mistake, really. It is one of the misperceptions that a generation of self-taught popular musicians has brought about, that true music-making is a spontaneous, expressive thing, a million miles from the academy and those baffling black dots and squiggles on paper. I am a moderately competent self-taught guitarist, and capable of making a thoroughly pleasing and convincing noise on pretty much any instrument. But I am no musician.

As consumers of music, we tend to be obsessed with music's expressive power, and worship the musicians whose improvisatory skill and individuality of voice goes beyond the bounds of "mere" musicality. But, at heart, all music is about learning complex patterns which you can repeat, again and again, reliably and accurately. The basic key to music-making is sticking to the plan.

A musician is someone who has thoroughly learned to play the patterns on their instrument, can understand and remember (or read) the precise patterns they are asked to play for a particular piece of music, and is able to stick to the plan. The plan may be very rigid (A Beethoven sonata) or it may be quite loose ("ten bars in we shift to A flat, Miles solos until he lifts a hand, then McLaughlin does that crazy guitar thing he's been working on") but the plan is what makes music out of merely pleasant noises.

Ever been in a music shop, where a 14-year-old is sat in the corner "shredding" a guitar? Up and down the neck, lick after lick, very fast, very impressive. But try asking him (it's usually a him) to play Happy Birthday in D major. The kid's not a musician.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a decent musician is a form of computer. You feed them a program in the form of musical notation, and out comes music. Same every time. It's a marvel. One of the people who works in my office used to be a music teacher and can sight read: put sheet music in front of him and away he goes, "Pom pom-pom POM pom-pom POM!" Makes me laugh out loud with admiration every time.

Some years ago I was offered a used electric piano at a bargain price -- a proper 88 key job -- and snapped it up, ostensibly to give our kids the chance to figure out whether or not it might be something they'd like to learn. But my secret plan was, finally, to learn to play the piano. I would be Keith Jarrett, or more probably that guy down the pub.

What I discovered was quite disturbing. In a word: playing the piano is impossible. The idea of using one hand to play one set of notes and the other hand to play quite another set of notes is ludicrous. It can't be done -- I know, I've tried. It doesn't help being left-handed, I'm sure, but even so... The sheer improbability of being able to split yourself into two independent halves, each performing different, complex finger-wiggling moves at the same time... It's self-evidently impossible.

This discovery led to some dark thoughts. Had some world-historical fraud been perpetuated on us, and how? Multi-track recording? Mirrors? Invisible accomplices? Surgery? Hypnotism? It seemed unlikely. Besides, I've seen (or thought I'd seen) people playing a piano. It appeared that, effortlessly, these magicians did one complicated thing with one hand, whilst doing another with the other. The image of Russ Conway's evil smile and wink to camera, as he tinkled away on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, haunted and mocked me. The bastard didn't even have a full complement of fingers!

No, I had to come to the humbling conclusion that -- unlike, say, becoming Home Secretary -- playing the piano required years of dedication, effort, and -- yes -- practice, practice, practice; ideally reinforced by a degree of talent, and merciless lessons given at a young age by either a saint or a sadist (opinions seem to differ). And, yes, sometimes a dog is too old to learn new tricks.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that the world shrinks when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that a lowest common denominator society would be one without the Waldstein sonata. "Don't bother with that, mate, it's impossible!" There's also a useful lesson here when passing judgement on the artistic productions of others, who may (whisper it) be more talented, more committed, more advanced in achievement than we are. "It's rubbish -- my ten -year-old could it!"

We must do everything we can to make this world a safe place for Shakespearos.


dougplummer said...

I thought this way for years, yearning to be like the musicians I knew who engaged in this mysterious connection with each other and who could draw forth such beauty out of thin air, and deciding it was beyond me. But a year ago, my mother in law was getting rid of her digital keyboard, and I took it. I was smitten, just from playing different scales and exploring the ways each scale made me feel, each an individual constellation of emotion. I taught myself to read music from Bach's Prelude in C (a great entry level piece for the 2 hand thing). I quickly made room in the house for a real piano, which I adore. Now it's perhaps the most compelling thing in my life.

We're about the same age. Don't think it's beyond you. Your musicianship with the guitar means you're far from a beginner.

Dave Leeke said...

With age comes maturity, eh? I remember a conversation with you once, Mike, about Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells". Through the passing years, I'm sure you won't remember said conversation.

However, how many lead guitarists does it take to change a light bulb?

18. One to do it and the other 17 to say, "I could've done that".

Mike C. said...

Hi, Doug, good to hear from you! Now I know why the frequency of your blog entries has fallen off -- I was blaming Twitter, but it's rampant pianism!

Don't mistake the sizzle for the bacon, here, though... My point is not "I wish I could play the piano, but I can't" but "Let's not set ourselves up as the measure of human capacity".

To be honest, the main obstacle to my pianistic development is the mountain of Boxes of Stuff which has blocked access to the piano for the last year or two. We are in grave danger of becoming the subject of one of those "declutter your life, or else" programmes on TV...

Actually, what I really wish I could do is run long distances cross country the way I do in my dreams, or like my friend Phil who did the gruelling "West Highland Way", twice, in recent years. But I couldn't do that even when I was young and fit...

N.B. if you're not having lessons, do watch out for Repetitive Strain Injury from "bad" hand positioning...

I'm very pleased to know you're still reading this,


Mike C. said...


You're right, I have no memory of anything to do with "Tubular Bells", other than that Sandie Gill and I once spent a couple of nights in a Greek pop star's flat in Athens, 1973, and he had taken delivery of an early copy and played it non-stop. Argh.

Hope this wasn't one of those embarrassing conversations -- if so, keep it to yourself.


Dave Leeke said...

The clue is in the joke . . .

Mike C. said...


Yes, I rather thought it might be.

Why oh why do people remember these things, after all my years of charity work and selfless dedication to the poor, not to mention several contra mundum super-injunctions? As the joke says, "But, hey, you have one one-night stand with one sheep..."


Mike C. said...

We have asked our client to point out that in no way do his previous remarks about unnatural relations with livestock and super-injunctions relate to the nationality or behaviour of any footballer who might (or might not) currently be in the news.

That would be tasteless, deeply offensive, and the worst kind of national stereotyping. The idea hadn't even occurred to him until we, his legal team, brought it up. Just so we're clear about that. He's never even heard of the gentleman in question.

(That'll be £10,000 please, sir.)

Idiotic Hat Lawyers

Tony_C said...

There was an anonymous banker
Attended High Court, pulled a flanker,
Requiring Press tact
Regarding the fact
That he certainly wasn't a one for his own company much.

[Checkword Kavia - the name of the third respondent in my own (imaginary) superinjunction]

Mike C. said...

I like the idea of super-imjunctions, they're like legalised insanity -- it's so self-evidently impossible to enforce them. Apparently they don't even apply in Scotland. A real money-spinner for lawyers to fleece rich idiots.

As it happens, I used to know (as in, once upon a long time ago) one of the lawyers involved in one of the current cases, though as I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm "not one for my own company much", based on my behaviour in that long ago time, I doubt he'd be willing to defend this blog with the same vigour.


Tony_C said...

Hey, Mike, he's a professional: he'll defend your blog with all the vigour you can afford.

Mike C. said...


Very true. If it comes to it, you'll have to lend me your "Teach Yourself Lawyering" book...


Tony_C said...

You're probably familiar with the lawyers' maxim, "A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client"; you may even have quoted it to me. My retort is, he at least has a lawyer he knows has his best interests at heart. Of course there are skills which need long study, as you suggest. I learnt first in the School of Hard Knocks, followed by the University of life. I could lend you my copy of Justice in England by A. Barrister, pub. Gollanz 193?, if you like.

Mike C. said...

That wasn't meant as a dig, old son, just a friendly nod in the direction of some things no-one else here need know about.

Hopefully, I'm both careful enough and little-enough read to avoid the attentions of m'learned friends, though some commenters do make me nervous. And that D*ve L**ke is this close to a contra mundum injunction...


Anonymous said...

Waldstein, yes. It is said to portray his friend and pupil Waldstein, nutty aristocrat who spent his whole fortune raising a private army to try and defeat Napoleon. But, just to deepen your Beethoven experience, go and get the Andras Schiff podcasts of his set of lectures on all the LVB sonatas, which is wonderful. He devotes about 40 minutes to each one, or set or one or two, and it is very witty, informative. It will however raise the "Impossibility" factor in your eyes to that of a new law of physics.

Mike C. said...


After catching that new recording on the radio, I dug out my old Brendel CD of Beethoven sonatas, and have been revisiting them -- I used to listen to Beethoven a lot more than I do now. What have we been doing, these last 200 years? Coupled with my reading of Richard Holmes' "Age of Wonder", I'm starting to form the opinion that most of us are only now catching up with that true Greatest Generation. Must have been something in the water.

OTOH, I'm not sure I need any two-handed son of a Bechstein increasing my sense of inadequacy, so may give Schiff a miss for now...


Tony_C said...

"And that D*ve L**ke is this close to a contra mundum injunction..."

Don't tell me you're having an affair with him!?! I didn't even know you were gay! Is that why you spent all night chatting to him, last week? And to think, he told Bruce he went on your blog and you blanked him!

[Checkword: Brolo - Brother Luther's hip-hop name?]

Tony_C said...

Oh no, you mean the Tubular Bells thing? I first heard it round Julie Gibson's. Was that with you? Nick and Rob were there, I think.

Mike C. said...

I have no idea what you are raving about, TC, but that's probably just as well.

Keep it relevant, please, and no mischief-making, or you're next on the injunction list...


Tony_C said...

Raving? Keep it polite, please, Mike.

Injunction? Spending money, or doing it yourself? If the latter, you'll have to master Legal Latin: e.g. Nolle Prosequi, "no following the pros!".

[Checkword: sness - the position in which a litigant may find himself when hearing after hearing seems to have brought a case no closer to a conclusion. e.g. "How's your case going?" "Terrible, I'm in sness and running out of funds".]