Father GB started me on the piano with John Thompson books when I was four or five and living in Calcutta. Learning piano from him was not very pleasant, because he was a perfectionist and the broomstick (must write more about that dear broomstick in another post) was a fixture on the piano top. Also, I could not practice piano for weeks at a time because of a troublesome eczema on my finger tips that plagued me for several decades. By the time I was eight, we—my father, the broomstick, and I—had painfully made our way upto the third-grade level. Then we had to move to Bangalore.
In Bangalore, we found that hiring pianos was not as easy as it had been in Calcutta.
So although my father was a musician, we had no instrument at home.
Baldwin Girls High School, where I studied, had many pianos where children, mostly boarders, learned and practiced. Most evenings, I longingly watched the children play. I heard them practicing their scales and pieces. Often times, from where I sat, I could hear several pianos in different rooms in the vicinity. When the time for music examinations neared, the girls were always so much better at the pieces they played; their fingers seemed to me to be on some magical flight.
Some years later, I befriended a piano teacher in the school. I do not remember her name, may be it was Mrs. Davis. She would come in the evenings to give lessons. She was the gentlest person I had ever met. She agreed to teach me, and my father agreed to pay the tuition fee.
We began all over again with the John Thompson books. I imagine I would have been about 11 years old. She was amazed at my progress, and suggested that I prepare for the second grade Trinity College exams straightaway. I bought the books and started to learn and practice in earnest. My father had arranged for me to be able to practice at school because we did not have a piano at home. Even as I write this, I can remember the smell of the piano that I practiced on. Surely, I was on my way at last. But it was not to be, for my teacher’s husband was transferred to some other city, and she had to stop giving me lessons.
Many years later, my father was given an old organ that needed a new home. Music came back to our home. My father gave me an old Lutheran Bavarian hymnal and the Nazerene Hymnal to play. Apparently, that was how he had learned to play himself, just by playing the hymns over and over again. At first, I could hardly recognise what I was playing; it was so pathetic. Gradually, what I played became more recognisable, and I could play hymns in C Major and those with upto three flats, very slowly. In those days, I used to take Sunday school for the slum children, and longed to be able to play well enough to accompany singing, but I had a long way to go.
One elderly man called Mr. Solomon, who was known to me as Sala thatha, went about various Lutheran churches in South India, teaching children and young people to play the violin. One year, during the summer vacation, he came to Bangalore. I wanted to go, and my father agreed to pay the tuition fee. We were about 40 students of ages ranging between 5 and 25. Sala thatha always brought the violins with him for these camps. While we could not take the violins home, he gave us notebooks with staves printed in them. In these we had to copy heaps of music each night. At the end of the month, the whole group gave a concert. After Sala thatha left, a violin was bought for me, a cheap one that nevertheless had a pleasant tone. But we could not find a teacher. Occasionally I played with my father accompanying me at the organ. Most of these sessions were not very pleasant because it was hard for him to understand why the notes sounded flat every now and then. As far as the violin is concerned, the fingering can only improve with practice and one needed to be patient.
Then I got married and left home. I realised that the violin was not a very useful instrument for accompanying singing, and so traded it for a guitar. I knew a few chords and for the first time, found that I could accompany singing. Philip, my husband, was not too hopeful about my future as a guitarist. He was young and I knew only 12 chords. I wrapped my guitar in newspaper to keep the dust away and put it in the loft. Sometimes, some cousins who visited us would take it down and play it, and back it went to the loft, wrapped with newspaper, this time containing more recent news.
Father GB gave my daughter Priscilla lessons for about a year in Madurai, when she was about seven, and she loved the lessons. Never was his voice raised and neither was a broomstick present. But we had to move to Madras. At first we could not afford a keyboard or teacher. Then my father got a new keyboard and gave us the old one. (A decade later, we still have it. ) When we could afford a teacher for the children, we started to send them for lessons. When they started learning music, for the first time, I felt better about my failures at piano learning. I felt an immense sense of gratification even in the thought that my children would play. A time came in 2004 when I lost my job and had to freelance; I sent my cook away because it was becoming difficult to make ends meet; the children’s lessons continued without a break.
Five years later, and in a new country, I find that my children play only as well as I can. They may go on to learn to play better; they are still young. But they do not have the longing that I had to learn, and sometimes I wonder if it is wrong to expect them to learn music. I suspect, they will be glad if they gained this skill and rue the lost opportunity if they do not. So I must encourage them. Music lessons do not come free, and so this encouragement is an expensive one, that I will continue for a while more.
Recently I bought some hymn books with simpler arrangements for piano. I found that I could play many of the hymns, albeit slowly. I have been practicing for some weeks now, and I can see the improvement. Maybe learning piano is a bit like learning to type. I can type fast now; I couldn’t some years ago. In the same way, if I practice enough, theoretically, I should be able to play.
Father GB was at this stage when he was 11 but would practice faithfully. He prayed for God to help him play like his father before him. One day, he played a piece flawlessly and then another and another. He was amazed, and did not want to stop lest, the spell be broken. He promised God, that he would use his gift for God’s glory. He became the church organist at the age of 11. He is 81 now, and I know that he has used his music to do God’s work in the church to the full.
But will such an amazing thing happen in my case? Will a day come when I will start playing fast enough to accompany someone’s singing? Mr. Grant Linchon in our church learned to play quite recently, but he is not as old as I am, I think.
Paul Tobey, a concert pianist, thinks it is possible to learn when one is older, depending on one’s capacity and passion. What do you think? Do you know anyone who has learned to play the piano after the age of 40?