Blog: How to play the piano

John the Divine 

With John, things could not have been more different.

He spoke with exaggerated north London camp cadences. Dears, duckies and pure polari. The affected semaphore of a pantomime dame, the awkward waddle, and the come-hither look, he’d made them his own and given them his individual signature. He had piano lessons from somebody called Ticciaci who had a studio in Ealing. “Ooh lads, I’ve got to see touch-my-arsey tonight – wish me luck boys!”, he’d quip at the fourth formers, who regarded him rather like a…

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One of Ben's Boys 

The building was a fairly humble sort of concert hall, with lots of heavy velvet curtaining. It was used for outside broadcasts. There was a grand piano, and some seating for a very small audience. I was taken into another room and taught some of Britten’s songs. I did not know the songs, but I was to learn them well enough to sing them on the radio later in the course of events. The whole experience could easily be made to sound like Kafka. I didn’t really know what the problems surrounding this broadcast…

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Hats off for Suzie 

In a local way, she was famous, Suzie. In those days, local music festivals were routinely reported in the Ealing papers. Her name was never out of print, or so it seemed to me. Suzie Tee had triumphed again in the under sixteen’s! Hats off to Suzie. A clean sweep for Suzie Tee! Somebody who might beat Rick Wakeman I thought. That sort of thing easily impressed me, and anyway, she was pretty. She had a talent for winning all of the prizes, all of the cups and competitions, to the extent that many would be…

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The enormous event of that summer had been the BBC production of Carmen. It was simply a mammoth undertaking. Any opera is hard work. But what made this quite extraordinary was that since videotape hadn’t been developed yet, the plan was to broadcast the production live, in real time. Rudolph Cartier, the director, wanted to use the small chorus of boys to swell the chorus throughout the opera, so we were required not only in the second scene, where Bizet calls specifically for youngsters, but elsewhere…

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Play Your Hunch 

Alan Freeman, the Radio DJ, hosted a family quiz game called ‘Play your Hunch’. It was one of those game-shows where ordinary people answer simple general knowledge questions for prizes. It was a BBC television show, and hugely popular. In the middle of the show was a music and dance interlude from the resident troupe of high kicking girls called the Television Toppers. They generally wore very little. I had seen them on tv at home: anyone near puberty was aware of them. It was very mildly risqué, with…

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If you can't find a partner use a wooden chair 

Alan Sainsbury-Hicks was an unpleasant little man. He had a crisp military moustache and the pink eyes of the alcoholic that he was. To the boys of Ealing Grammar School he seemed perpetually livid with rage, as if an essential part of his identity was fury laced with the threat of unpredictable violence.  He would do tours of the building, sweeping up boys who were stood outside of classrooms and take them to his study to be caned. Indeed, part of the threat of being told to stand outside the classroom was…

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Ladies of Spain 

My father played hymns artlessly. His bifocals required that he crane his neck forward and tilt his head back as he strained to decipher the dots. The piano spat out each chord with obvious resentment and with all or most of its notes correctly stacked, but with no consideration whatsoever for the rhythm of the piece. For him, playing the piano was a puzzle-solving exercise, and the puzzle – if he could have articulated it - only seemed to be associated with the notes. Behind the notes was a more sinister…

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Getting closer to the essence

David Goodis: 'Black Friday' Goodis' characters attempt to describe the effect of bebop. 45.2 KB
Ross MacDonald: 'The Drowning Pool' A nice choice of adjectives pins down the music from an early rock'n'roll band. 37.4 KB
Andre Dubus III. 'Bluesman' When his father's friend visits, he plays the harmonica, and upstairs the boy listens from his bedroom. 45.8 KB
James Cain: 'Serenade' The senorita's appreciation of mariachi is conditioned by her politics. 70.5 KB
James Cain: 'Serenade' Cain mixes the vernacular with the sublime, and challenges the assumption that Beethoven has anything to do with refined manners. 62.5 KB
Guillaume Appollinaire: 'Cors de Chasse' Appollinaire suggests the final lines of his poem, that the immense achievements of humankind disappear like the notes of the hunting horn. 52 KB
Jane Campion & Kate Pullinger: 'The Piano' Baines is attracted to Ada because of her highly stylised and individualistic playing. 51.1 KB
Jack Kerouac: 'On the Road' Another attempt to translate the wildness of be-bop into words., with familiar recourse to brutality, wildness and unrestrained freedoms. 56.5 KB
Rudyard Kipling: 'Song of the Banjo' Eight stanzas of allegory and metaphor: Kipling's Banjo has a lot to say. 41.8 KB
Ross McDonald: 'Moving Target' She was hot. And she played a rolling bass. 46.3 KB
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 'My Melancholy Whores' Puccini, Gardel and more: singing as an expression of late love. 56 KB
Martha Cooley: 'The Archivist' A striking and almost painful illustration of piano playing as trauma. 47.8 KB
Paolo Maurensig: 'Canone Inverso' A story in which music itself is the protagonist. 38.6 KB
Michael Niemi: 'Popular Music' Apart from wonderful similes, like, 'there was a crackling like pork frying' to describe the run-in on a 45rpm disc, this captures the immense transgressive excitement of early encounters with pop. 65.8 KB
Jeff Noon: 'Vurt' Searching for God inside the beats in a DJ booth in South Manchester. 56.8 KB
Annie Proulx: 'Accordion Crimes' Proulx does well to describe the sensation of hearing 4ths and 5ths as they approach resonance in this small essay about tuning an instrument. 36.7 KB
Salman Rushdie: The Ground Beneath her Feet Rushdie flirts with our memories of half-remembered lyrics, and the universality of mainstream pop. 49.4 KB
Sarah Orne Jewett: 'The Foreigner' ...dance a little pretty dance between the verses, just as light and pleasant as a child. 53.5 KB
Arnold Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky How many of Schoenberg's disciples followed his advice? 57.9 KB
Sebald: 'Austerlitz' This is the essence of the quest: the final paragraph articulates a mystery, but offers no clue about its solution. 40.8 KB
Hubert Selby Jnr: 'Requiem for a Dream' Both the literary style and the excessive lionising of jazz strike us now as dated. However the challenge is timeless. 38.4 KB
Vikram Seth: 'An Equal Music' Many musicians speak in these terms ... of a sort of immersion in music and a loss of consciousness. I do not feel it, and wonder if it is an invention of non-musicians. 53.6 KB
SueTalbot: 'The Reluctant Mystic' The point where religious ritual becomes almost chthonic, resonating with something before civilisation, decency and the mores of living together. 51.7 KB
Tolstoy: 'Natasha's Dance' The dance has become more than a merely literary phenomenon, encompassing something where the rites of passage enmesh with nationalism. 14 KB
Alice Walker: 'The Color Purple' Shug Avery's uncompromising physicality challenges evangelical culture. 44.6 KB
Oscar Wilde: 'Dorian Gray' Wildean excess, but something more than just a list of exotica: it was a cause he was seemingly willing to suffer for. 50.7 KB
Auden: Dichtung und Wahrheit A short musing on the meaning of music. 17.8 KB
Pattison: The Triumph of Vulgarity Pattison expands his theme about rock, vulgarity and the nature of American democracy. 24.3 KB