Piano playing, I should probably have noticed somewhat sooner, was not my forte. It took years for me to realize this inescapable fact. Of course at school we all did things, year after year, that were not exactly our cup of cocoa. But most of these were perforce: We had to play cricket. We had to do arithmetic, Latin, geography, and woodwork. We had to do gym. We even had to do art. Come to think of it, most of the things we did, we had to do. Choice was not a much-valued commodity in my education.
But when it came to playing an instrument, the choice was mine. Why music was a matter of individual decision, I don't know. I was keen about the piano from an early age, and I stuck with it from about age 8 to 18.
At home we had a grand piano in the drawing room that had once been played by the marvelous and popular Australian-born classical pianist Eileen Joyce. My older brother recalls, still with infantile grumpiness, having to be absolutely silent around the house while she played. She played, but he couldn't. He never took up piano for some reason. But I didn't have his disincentive. I would tinkle away hesitantly and inaccurately on the keys, "practicing." If pianos had memories, ours would have been blushingly ashamed at the depths to which it had fallen.
My repertoire consisted of a book full of rather charming Clementi pieces, ideal for novices; an elementary Mozart Minuet in G; Beethoven's teeniest sonatina; "Wonderful, Wonderful, Copenhagen" (I was a Danny Kaye fan); and some lush little piece by a forgotten, possibly Scandinavian composer full of finger-stretching arpeggios. One of my favorites was Delibes' Mazurka from "Coppelia" - tiddle POM, tiddle POM, tiddle pompompomPOM. I liked the way it swung along and reminded me of peasants dancing with peasant gusto. But the rhythm I wanted was disrupted by fingers hitting wrong notes or not being nimble enough. I played my whole repertoire atrociously. But I also did it with a kind of undying optimism.
By mutual understanding between the pianist and the other members of the household, the drawing-room door was kept firmly shut in the unconvincing belief that it might offer a modicum of soundproofing.
My brother had been wiser than I was. He knew he would never be a musician and confined his prodigious musical talents to an extended version of "Chopsticks" that included a swift rocking of four knuckles across the keys. But I fostered dreams of pianistic glory. Here was something that was pure magic, and I wanted to perform pure magic.
I had started by deciding to be a composer. This did not last for more than about an hour. I composed a tune on our piano. I played it to one of my older brothers. He listened and said, "I believe I may have heard that tune somewhere before." This was not only utterly crushing, putting a stop to that particular ambition forever, it also truly puzzled me.
I couldn't recall having heard my tune before. But it seems that was premature evidence of a trait my wife remarks about today: I am a sponge. I absorb a tune on the radio, perhaps without even knowing it, and can be heard humming it, totally unaware of its origin.
So I attended piano lessons for years. I sort of dreaded them, but hope sprang eternal (as it tends to), and I never thought of admitting defeat. Today I think this was rather callous of me. Those poor piano teachers! Did they not also groan inwardly as my lesson approached? They never winced openly, though, true professionals that they were.
There were one or two more unfortunate adventures along the way.
The time, for instance, I played a duet in front of the school with Bruce Foster of a Grieg piece called "Ases Tod," a funeral march of measured tread. Bruce played the complicated part and I plodded on simplistically underneath. I was grateful for the slow tempo. It gave me time to arrive at more or less the right chords.
Much more disastrous was the hymn.
Apparently there was a shortage of hymn players in our old schoolhouse, and so the powers that be looked around for someone who was taking piano lessons. I was given the most straightforward hymn in the book. I practiced it for weeks until, at last, I felt that, on a good day, I might just get most of it right. So a date was set.
I had nightmares in anticipation.
What I had not anticipated was that 60 lusty schoolboys belting out the words would mean I couldn't even hear the notes.
My playing fell apart. I have never been entirely fond of that hymn ever since. It was one of the worst moments of my career. I pleaded never to be subjected to such a task again. I even appealed to my parents. Finally I was let off the hook, to my phenomenal relief.
On one occasion the teacher suggested I try a short piece by Bela Bartok. I loved it, when he played it. It was percussive, bright, very modern, slightly funny.
Although I never did manage it, it gave me a lifelong taste for Bartok, and it opened up to me music more recent than Beethoven - Satie, Stravinsky, Prokofiev.
I remember rather vividly my final music lesson. The teacher, a kind man nearing retirement, said quietly, "Well, there we are. You have never really progressed very far, you know, have you? But perhaps at some point in the future you might find what you have learned turns out to be useful in some unforeseen way" - or words to that effect.
I felt his assessment was fair. I liked him. I thanked him for all his patience in the face of my shortcomings. I suspect by then we were both happy that the charade had ended. And since then I have painted, acted, written, and gardened, but I have not played a note on the piano.
As far as music is concerned, I have become a listener. I am not very informed and am scarcely able to convey the elation, stir, and breathtaking admiration I feel, particularly when listening to superb piano playing. I like to think that all those rather unsuccessful lessons at least succeeded in making me an acute and sensitive appreciator of the magic, even if I have not become a magician myself.