Bach for more – An Irishman’s Diary on returning to the piano

As growing numbers of children swap Mozart for Minecraft, a new boom is under way: adults learning, or returning to, the piano

As growing numbers of children swap Mozart for Minecraft, a new boom is under way: adults learning, or returning to, the piano

 

Westland Row is a short street in Dublin but, once upon a time, I wished it went on forever. That way I would never reach my destination: the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM).

Once a year I would disembark at Pearse Station and say a few sweaty prayers in St Andrew’s Church. Then, like countless others before and after me, I passed through that shiny door to face the music exams.

This youthful trauma came back to me while watching Making the Grade, Ken Wardrop’s wonderful documentary about learning the piano.

It is a glorious, hilarious tribute to the piano students and, most importantly, the people who persist in teaching a love of the instrument.

The time spent learning to make the piano sing – or even croak – is like being granted asylum in a calmer, happier place. As well as music you learn the importance of discipline and focus – crucial skills in the era of permanent distraction and short smartphone attention spans.

I enjoyed learning the piano, in spite of my first piano teacher: the diabetic aunt of a well-known Irish sportsman, whose demands of her students became more erratic as her blood sugar levels fluctuated. My second piano teacher was a steadier and kinder woman, but, in hindsight, I regret deeply never managing to escape the Westland Row tractor beam.

I passed grade eight with honours then walked away in frustration. The RIAM appears to still have a firm grip on the market

The piano grade system devised, tested and monetised by the RIAM is the focus of Making the Grade. It is a system that offers a cumulative acquisition of skills: prescribed pieces of music, technical exercises, theory and – my personal hell – sight-reading: having to play a piece of unknown music put down before you.

Piano lessons are not cheap, particularly when money is tight, but the RIAM system offers parents the comfort of a closed system. And many parents, particularly those who don’t play, have the naive assumption that, once you have completed the grades you are somehow a trained musician. If only it was that simple.

“Grades are great for pushing people, but they’re not for everyone,” remarks one teacher in Making the Grade. Hearing that, I sighed with relief.

I appreciated the discipline of the exams system: practising a piece until I had a eureka moment (yes, Bach, I mean you). But those moments grew rare as I got older and realised I could fake my way through the exams and still pass with flying colours.

Like a performing monkey, I played loud where I was told to play loud and soft where it was marked soft. Clattering through their music without a thought in my head was like rattling off learned-by-rote answers to Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.

Like the Leaving Cert the RIAM exams were, for me at least, a racket: less about creativity than (muscle) memory.

Somewhere along the way, I realised in my mid-teens, the joy of making music had been supplanted by an obsession with exams and grades and the pressure to perform.

Of course there was nothing stopping my teacher and I from breaking out of the exam system to play something fun and inspiring. Occasionally we did, but these were short happy interludes before landing back in training for yet another exam with “real” – read classical – piano music.

I passed grade eight with honours then walked away in frustration. The RIAM appears to still have a firm grip on the market, and charges anxious parents a pretty penny for its exams, but it does not have a monopoly on music.

As growing numbers of children swap Mozart for Minecraft, a new boom is under way: adults learning, or returning to, the piano. Piano parties – playing for each other, without exam pressures – are a growing phenomenon. YouTube is filled with inspiration, as is ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s extraordinary book Play it Again.

I wondered how many, like me, still play the piano in spite of the RIAM exam system?

I never really gave up the piano, I simply declared my independence from Westland Row and now play the music that means something to me: Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers. Their music – deceptively simple yet clever beneath the surface – is my music. When you’re playing the piano for yourself, and not a stranger in an exam room, there is no good or bad music, just the music that means something to you. For me, working out why the harmonies in You’ll Never Walk Alone make football fans weep is far more stimulating to me than working out Schumann fingering.

Many wonderful musicians have gone through the doors of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. But after Making the Grade, I wondered how many, like me, still play the piano in spite of the RIAM exam system? And how many deeply musical people has its exams-grades system put off music for life?

It’s never too late to return to the piano and, as the film shows, for some it is a rescue ring in times of crisis. If music, as Shakespeare said, be the food of love – forget Westland Row, and play on.

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