I gave up piano lessons at 14 years old and switched to the guitar. The way in which piano/music was being taught didn’t appeal to me. I used “three-chord trick” books to figure out the guitar, learning songs I liked, not those prescribed by classical training. The books also taught me the underlying structure of songs in general, something classical training didn’t teach me. I went back to the piano with this newfound knowledge and I’ve used the piano ever since to write songs of my own.
I was heavily influenced by Tom Waits's use of the piano, but there were myriad styles of playing to draw inspiration from, be it Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Randy Newman, Carole King. The piano seems irreplaceable in some of my favourite songs – Grapefruit Moon, Georgia on My Mind, Imagine – and the fact that an entire singing session needs no more accompaniment speaks to how much joy this instrument can bring.
Transport restrictions aside, I think it is the most versatile and powerful instruments available to humans, save perhaps the human voice. Having both hands free to create melody in bass and treble ranges gives the player a huge scope of possibility. Along with that there is dynamic range in each key and the advent of sustain in the pedal system. It’s a beautiful construction, and I’m very grateful to have spent many enjoyable hours in its company.
Classical pianist and artistic director
I started playing the piano aged five, mainly due to a dear family friend called Greta, who had ended up in Ireland when her family fled Nazi-occupied Vienna. My mum worked with Greta and became very close friends with her. I remember being a little boy sitting on the couch watching the BBC proms with Greta; she adored music. She had an upright piano and encouraged my parents to send my sister and me to music lessons. She gave me that piano and I still have it at my parents' house to this day. Sadly Greta is no longer with us but she definitely had a big part to play in my introduction to music. I also must acknowledge the massive sacrifices of my parents to make it possible for me to have a musical education.
In terms of mental wellbeing, music is just the perfect form of meditation and escapism from reality. When I’m practising I try to turn off my phone to ensure I’ve no distractions, as you really only achieve the greatest results from practice when you are super focused. Small amounts of quality time spent is the key. It is a privilege to do something you love as a musician. It is a vocation, and with it there are big sacrifices one has to make, but the positives greatly outweigh any perceived negatives, and ultimately music just brings me such joy, especially collaborating with others and sharing musical experiences with wonderful colleagues. For me music is absolutely necessary for a happy and peaceful mind.
Minister of State with responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion
I started learning the piano when I was very young and used to go to piano lessons every week. My parents always believed in the importance of music and being able to play an instrument, and they were absolutely correct. I see that now as a parent myself. I have always enjoyed the escape that music could provide, especially after a challenging day.
The piano in particular offered a wonderful challenge to work hard and produce something beautiful. I remember the long hours of practice, which could be frustrating at times, particularly when working on a particularly complicated piece, but was always worthwhile. Being able to gain some level of ability and comfort playing a particular piece of music was worth all the practice. It also brings me a great sense of inner calm and personal wellbeing. To this day, though I do not always have the time to play the piano very much any more, I find that it is a skill that a person never really forgets.
It is similar to riding a bike in that way. If I was to sit in front of a piano now, I certainly wouldn’t have the ability that I used to have when I was younger. However, it is a skill that is always there somewhere in the back of your mind. As if your muscles and joints never really fully forget the ability to dance around the piano keys. So while my piano-playing capability these days may be rusty in the extreme, I feel it would be easier to revive than if I was learning piano totally from scratch again. That is the magic of music. It never really leaves you.
DUKE SPECIAL (PETER WILSON)
Award-winning singer-songwriter from Belfast
My parents tell me the first time I cried was when my granny played Danny Boy on the piano. She was already deaf and close to the end of her life, and I was still a baby. In earlier years, my granny had taught piano to my mother and her five siblings. My cousins and my three older sisters also sat under her stern but kind tutelage. Knitting-needle correction with a warm heart. She died when I was two but the piano remained.
For many years to come when visiting my aunt, who continued to live in the house my mother was born in, it wouldn’t take long before I would enter the good front room, which overlooked the Square. Instant silence as I closed the door behind me and crossed the thick flower-patterned carpet to where the piano lived. Another world.
I grew up in Downpatrick, where I became better acquainted with our own piano, losing myself in its colours and atmosphere, oblivious to the sounds of my peers playing football in Ardenlee Gardens. When I play on stage now, I like the piano loud because I want to feel inside its sound, to lose myself once again.
One of the epiphanies for me wanting to do music for a living was watching the film Help!, which I think was shown on TV the night John Lennon was killed. Seeing the Beatles perform You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away as a 10-year-old set something in motion. Writing and playing music is a huge part of who I am and on a basic level allows me to express myself.
DR GERALDINE COTTER
Academic and first tutor for Irish traditional music for piano
I've been playing piano since I was able to climb up on a piano stool. My mother, Dympna, was a well-known piano teacher in Co Clare for more than 60 years. That meant there was a gentle easing in from toying with the piano to formal lessons. I couldn't get enough of it. My early music education was centred on western classical music. I began playing traditional music on whistle and fiddle and adapted these tunes for piano. My style evolved from playing with local traditional musicians and listening to recordings of the Tulla and Kilfenora Céilí bands and pianists Bridie Lafferty and Josephine Keegan.
The game changer for me, as an accompanist, came when I heard the playing of Charlie Lennon on the recording The Banks of the Shannon in which he accompanies the accordion player Paddy O’Brien and fiddle player Seamus Connolly. His approach, although harmonic, was melodically constructed. Over time my style changed from being chordal to a more melodic approach to accompaniment.
I love playing piano as a solo, introspective thing and during the lockdowns I had the opportunity to refocus and reflect through composing and the recording process. Playing is also a way of interacting and communicating with other people. To me it’s as natural as breathing. I feel privileged to have amazing bonds with my extended musical family – you know who you are.
Internationally renowned French pianist
I’ve always been attracted by music but I was always conscious that it is a rare privilege to have music as a profession. I was lucky enough to pursue it professionally, and it has enhanced my life immeasurably.
It has offered me two great privileges; one is to work on pieces of musical art all day, every day. Immersing myself in them lifts me up and educates me continually. It nourishes me and gives my life meaning. The second one is to have the freedom and independence in the choices; in repertory, in interpretation and in the way we communicate with an audience. To have autonomy in the way we connect with each other on a human level (emotionally, intellectually, physically, etc) is our way to personally serve a work of art.
Minister for Social Protection and for Rural and Community Development
I started playing the piano and taking music lessons at the age of seven and continued my tuition until I was 16, having completed all of my practical exams up to and including Grade 8.
While I was initially excited about learning how to play the piano, the hard grind of practising soon set in and much to my mother’s despair it was through cajoling and hard work on her behalf that I managed to spend some time practising the piano each week. The lure of the sun shining outside was hard to resist when sitting at the piano practising scales and arpeggios. Mother used to send me to the sitting room to play the piano, and any excuse I could possible find was used to make an escape. In winter time I used the excuse of cold hands that couldn’t possibly practise or play the right notes.
I was fortunate also to have a long-suffering piano teacher, who in fairness had the patience of Job. Every week she asked me the inevitable question: “Did you practice much this week, Heather?” I never broke her heart with a bad answer but I’m sure she knew well that practising the piano was not one of my priorities.
Little did I think at the time that all of these efforts would pay off in terms of the love I eventually developed for playing the piano. I am not a natural musician, as I must read every note. I love playing most types of music but classical, country and church music are probably my favourites.
I can honestly say that there is nothing better to clear my head than an hour spent playing the piano; it transports me into another world that is carefree and totally focused on music.
Pianist and recording artist
My father was a music teacher, and there has always been a piano at home. When I was four or five, I was spontaneously drawn to these black and white keys; my father showed me what to do. I have never been without a piano by my side. Even in my hotel room, I always have a keyboard to practise on. I am sure the piano will accompany me until the end of my life, and I should consider being buried with a piano next to me. Long live the piano! The piano has given me this strength to travel through the decades while keeping my mind in good health and it has always helped me to manage some of the difficult times that we all encounter in life. The piano has always been a great consolation, especially when my love life has not been running so smoothly!