Sing With Me
AUNTIE JAN is coming to stay with us for a few days; you must make sure and play for her, Joanna.” I shrank into myself at the thought and wished Mum wouldn’t keep pushing this issue of me being quite good at the piano.
I knew she was proud of me and all that, but I wasn’t the most confident person and playing for anyone really made me cringe.
I liked playing for myself and my piano teacher.
His name was Emrys and at one time he was a really famous impresario, but some horrible accident happened when he was about thirty.
It messed up his face a bit and trashed most of his vision.
Although he could still play the piano better than anyone I’ve ever heard, he didn’t give concerts any more.
He was shy and quiet – “withdrawn”, my mum called it – and hated publicity now.
He wouldn’t teach, either, except for a few “disadvantaged” inner London children like me who’d been selected by some Arts Council thing because we had shown a bit of talent.
I was never sure whether to feel patronised or delighted by the invitation to learn the piano for nothing on this scheme.
But by now I’d been having weekly lessons for four years and I practised faithfully every night.
I could sight-read and play stuff up to Grade Eight, but I refused to take any exams.
Play in public? You’ve got to be kidding!
I wondered sometimes if the Arts Council people were regretting choosing me, because I wasn’t quite matching up to what I think they wanted of their Chosen Few.
I imagined they wanted someone they could show off at concerts to prove that their initiative had been worth it.
But I couldn’t see me ever turning into any kind of professional like Emrys had been before the accident.
He reckoned I had lots of talent and wanted me to have a proper piano, but let’s face it, Steinways don’t come cheap, and Camberwell is not exactly a likely place to buy one.
Emrys’s piano was a Steinway Grand. I adored it. It had the most fabulous tone and it really made me want to be worthy of it and good enough to play on it and do it justice.
Its keys slipped under my fingers, making them feel light and nimble.
It was so sensitive that when I touched the softest notes it listened to me and responded like a gentle, beautiful, living thing.
I practised on the old, overstrung, upright Rogers at home (£30 from a closed-down hotel sale) which had a gorgeous bass but slightly noisy upper reaches.
Although I guess it was good for sing-songs, it wasn’t really up to the Chopin nocturnes I loved so much.
But I did enjoy the familiarity and homeliness of it and would not part with it when Mum and Dad offered to get rid of it and replace it with a more modern instrument.
They had to scratch around for enough cash for their own treats as it was, and anyway, there were my two older brothers to consider as well.
I knew I would just feel horribly guilty if my parents splashed out a couple of grand they couldn’t afford on something they didn’t really understand and wouldn’t even get that much from.
This “playing for Auntie Jan” was something I was going to have to do, for their sakes, whether I wanted to or not.
It would be to pay them back for the hours I spent deafening them with Beethoven, or boring them to death with arpeggios and scales.
I was due to have a lesson with Emrys at his magnificent house in a posh London square one afternoon, a few days before Auntie Jan was due to arrive.
But his housekeeper, Mrs Minchin, told me that he had been held up and I was to go in and start my practising alone, and he would join me shortly.
She left me to return to what she called “thrashing out menus with Cook” and I made my way to the first floor, where the Steinway lived.