’’Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.’’ Winnie the Pooh.
I was born singing and dancing.
The taller I grew, the more I danced.
Singing got me through the day.
My first Ah-ha moment came when I was taken on a trip to one of the swankiest cinemas in London to see the ‘Sound of Music.’ I was four. I was hooked.
I pestered my mother to buy me the LP. I played it non-stop. I memorised the words. I was Maria, the Reverend Mother and all of the Von Trapp Children. I learnt all of the harmonies, and each time I listened, I sang a different part.
My mother soon got the message and bought me some more magical LP’s: My Fair Lady, West Side Story and the like. As she did not want me to grow up an ignoramus, she also acquired some classical albums. My mother introduced me to the greats: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner.
I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Moonlight Sonata’ played by Daniel Barenboim. I knew that my life would not be complete until I could play that piece with a love, style and finesse that equalled his.
In nineteen sixties England, most homes only had one ‘gramophone’ in pride of place in the sitting room. To ensure sole and undisputed access to that wooden box of delights, I took over the cleaning and tidying of our lounge, knowing my labour would buy me the peace to pursue my self-directed musical education.
Then, a miracle happened. It was early one Monday morning. Our class teacher herded us up the stairs towards the school hall. As we climbed, I heard the tinkling of the piano keys growing louder and louder. As we entered the hall, I saw that the music was not coming from a record; a real live man playing the piano that usually sat unloved and abandoned in the corner of the hall.
News soon spread that this was not a one-off occasion; the school had engaged a music teacher. I was in heaven.
Those weekly 45-minute music lessons, when Mr Chesire introduced us to classic pieces, then invited us to bang on drums, shake tambourines and zing xylophones, where bliss. He formed a recorder group which my friend Barbara and I attended religiously. Within months we were playing recorders of every shape and size. He was an enthusiastic young man, and in the 1960’s music was well funded in London schools. He took us around the capital to play in recorder consorts. We even played at the Royal Albert Hall. I was in paradise.
Eventually, he told my mother that I should have piano lessons, gave her the name of a teacher and arranged the rental of a piano.
The next 3 years were the best in my life.
Twice a week, I visited Miss Percival, my piano teacher. She was blind. She taught by first playing the tune and then standing behind me, placing her fingers over mine and pressing them on the correct keys until I got the right idea. As I became more competent, she moved to sit in a large winged armchair wedged between a pile of music and her grand piano. She followed every note on a score written in braille.
I knew that I was doing OK on the day when she invited me to play on the grand in preparation for my first piano exam. I knew I was doing better when she insisted that I stay and listen to the pupils who were preparing to go to music school.
At home, I spent every waking hour at my piano. I started composing little songs, I performed at every opportunity that I was given. Occasionally, I was asked to sing, but my nerves always got the better of me: I found it hard to remember the words.
I had only one desire: to take a degree in at the Royal Academy of Music, a place that I visited every few months to take the graded exams.
Then everything changed. My father was posted aboard and the piano could not come with us. I was Eleven.
The sad part of this story is that once I returned to the UK, I was focussed first on building my career, then on raising my family. I married a music biographer who sang semi-professionally, so my life was full of music made by other people. I did suggest that I take lessons, but there was always a reason for that not being possible. I came to the conclusion that he thought that I was not good enough. I never asked myself the pivotal question: ‘good enough for what?’.
The silver lining was that I amassed the most incredible body of knowledge about music and musicians. So much so, that I was always triumphant in that stupid game ‘name that composer’ that was a popular after dinner entertainment in the more pompous musical circles of the time. I could not stand and perform with the rest of them, but I could beat them with my knowledge of some pretty obscure musical trivia.
Years passed, my son grew, my marriage ended and any thoughts of making music became a very distant dream. I plunged into a depression so deep that at times it was hard to get out of my bed.
One evening, I was messing about on facebook, when a friend posted that he’d had ‘a brilliant night at choir’. I pinged him back asking where the choir was based and could anyone join. His reply was to invite me to go along the following week.
It was 2013. I was 53.
It’s hard to describe what happened next.
I fell in love. At first, some odd noises came out of my mouth, but they blended with the other 99 voices. After a few weeks, I realised that it wasn’t just my spirit soaring, I could feel my voice floating upwards, it sounded pure and clear. I decided to learn how to sing. I found a teacher. After 4 lessons she started preparing me to take my first singing exam.
It’s now 2017. This year I will take and pass grade 8 singing and grade 5 piano. I am a member of two very respected chamber choirs and I ‘fix’ two amateur orchestras.
Do I regret not doing this earlier? maybe it just wasn’t my time. Maybe I did not have a real understanding of what my place in music is supposed to be. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough not to be wracked with disappointment that I would never have a career as a soloist.
Music has opened up a whole new world to me: new challenges, new friends, new self-respect, self-confidence and new ambitions.
The point is that it is never too late; you just have to adjust your expectations and value your talent enough to work as hard as you would have as a young person starting out. You have to have the maturity to understand that your talent, whatever it may be, has been gifted to you. It is your gift and you have to learn how to use it in a way that will give you the most satisfaction.
All too often, as we get older, we impose false limitations on ourselves. Increasingly, I find that friends who are approaching their 60th birthdays are only really considering one thing: retirement. They want to make their houses retirement proof so that they won’t have to worry about fixing roofs in ten years time. They want to make sure that they have enough money in the bank to get their kids on the property market. They want to have enough money so that they can go on a couple of holidays a year. In their spare time, they may want to play a bit of golf or do a bit of painting. But essentially, they want to wait for death in comfort. They rarely see that they now have the luxury of time that can be used to gain mastery the passion that fired them up and made their childhood magical. They fail to see that active and focused engagement could bring them back to joy. They fail to see that the child within them wants to play and sing and dance in the same way that it did when they were five. They just have to give it free reign.
Getting involved in music has taught me that drawing my pension need not be the end of a useful and fulfilling life. If I apply the 10,000-hour theory and practice in a focused way, I can use the skills that I am gaining to entertain, educate and heal…but above all to keep me in my happy place.
I have recognised and accepted that I will never play the Moonlight Sonata like Daniel Barenboim, nor do I wish to, but I can bring a shitload of pleasure to a lot of people in a more modest and possibly longer lasting way.
There is an additional bonus: forcing my fingers to do 40 minutes a day of scales and arpeggios followed by an hour of learning pieces bar by bar, may hurt, but it will keep them strong and flexible enough to be able to open a jar of jam without the aid of one of those rubber thingies. Opening my mouth to singing, pumps air through my lungs and sends oxygen to my brain. Learning songs by heart in French, German and Italian, keeps my brain cells sparking and firing. Music is keeping my mind and body strong. Music is keeping me young.
Now that I have found it again, I will only abandon music to death or dementia; whatever comes first.