Learning Piano – My Learning Journey Part 1

Our 1897 Thurmer Piano

As I look back at more than sixty years since I started learning piano, which eventually led to a career as a professional pianist and teacher, my mind keeps on bringing memories of where it all started in 1949. Most other musicians to whom I’ve spoken on the subject usually give credit to a recital or concert, whether it was in a theatre, hall or in the case of local brass bands, in a band rotunda at their local park. Dances in local halls and ballrooms where the future musician heard a dance band or orchestra often is the kick start to learning piano or another instrument of their, or their parent’s, choosing.

MY FAMILY MUSIC BACKGROUND

Pedal Organ – kept Dad fit !

Both of my parents were musical to a degree. My Mum played the piano by ear [ often with too much sustain pedal ] and Dad was a church organist on the old style “pump with the foot pedals” organ. Dad had been a church choir member since he was very young and had a very powerful baritone voice. Mum owned an 1896 Thurmer upright piano which had been part of our household for as long as I could remember. My sister still owns it, and it plays remarkably well.

A VERY DIFFERENT INSPIRATION.

From the time I was very young, about five, there were continuous, not very subtle hints from both of my parents about me learning piano. No way, said Harry, that is a game for sissies – I want to play cricket, football, cycling, fishing and exploring this wonderful world in which we live. Besides, the other kids at school would make fun of me.

The Beach Horse Ride

The real reason I started learning piano was because I was bribed into it while we were on our annual beachside holiday at Inverloch, Victoria, Australia, which was sixty miles from home. One of the attractions was horse rides which cost ten shillings [ about one dollar ] A horse ride at ten shillings was ten weeks of my one shilling per week pocket money, and I was captivated by the thought of mounting up and going for a ride of several hours duration. When I asked my folks to pay for the outing, that is when the bribe took place ! The contract / agreement was that I would begin learning piano when school resumed. Ha ! I thought – I’ll be able to wriggle out of that when we’re home and continue with my very boyish activities. How wrong can a boy be? The deal was set with no escape clause. Sixty two years later I’m still doing and loving it.

MY VERY FIRST TEACHER.

Mum and Dad found Miss Thirwell, a spinster lady with Batchelor of Music degree and years of experience helping people learning piano. She taught piano at her home in a room I vividly remember as being dark and dingy with deep red drapes over the one window in the music room, and a very nice upright piano.

Beautiful Steinway Upright

So began my efforts at learning piano. Miss Thirwell very particular about posture and technique, and I seemed to make OK progress. I clearly can bring to mind the first music book by John M Williams called“First Year at the Piano” STILL AVAILABLE ! Within weeks simple tunes were learnt, but by then football season beckoned and my concentration waned. One  afternoon after showing her that my ten fingers behaved like ten unsynchronized thumbs, in frustration she picked up a wooden ruler and gave me a hard whack across the back of my hand, and yelled at me. My reaction was to grab the ruler and break it across my knee. I stood up and with all the authority a nine year old could muster I told her there would be no more lessons. I escaped to Dad’s car waiting outside.   Football here I come……………

 Part Two – Click Here

My Learning Journey Part 2

Second Teacher.

Ornate Early Weber Upright

Oh No, said my parents ! You made a promise and we will stick to the contract. And with that they found a very nice lady teacher named [ would you believe it ? ]  Mrs. Finger, who lived about five minutes bicycle ride away from home. What a contrast she was – the lessons were FUN and progress was more rapid than before, in spite of my heart being set on football.  My mother reminded me years later about my practice routine. Mrs. Finger suggested a minimum of thirty minutes daily, so during that time I took one trip to the kitchen for a glass of water, one to the toilet, and one extra kitchen trip to make sure I hadn’t exceeded my thirty minutes. And still made progress ! Sadly, Mr. Finger had a work transfer after a happy year of learning, and they moved interstate. Ah-Ha I thought, no more piano lessons .  Wrong again, Harry………….

Third Teacher.

Guidance for a Small Hand

My Malvern Star Bicycle

Mrs. Alice and Mr. Hugh Ross were my next teachers, located  five miles away.
This meant my Dad had to drive me, but only in inclement weather as they figured a five mile [ 8 kilometre ] bicycle ride in fine weather would be a good amount of exercise before and after the lesson. The Ross method of teaching was very disciplined and more professional than the previous teachers, and I had my first experience of setting goals – they put time limits on the amount of time I studied and practiced a classical composition to an acceptable standard. Then move on to the next piece. They had two excellent German upright pianos,  a Ronisch and a Lipp.    So far I had never seen a grand piano except in the movies.

Music Examinations.

LCM Logo

After several months they proposed I undertake biannual examinations with the London College of Music and work towards this goal. Because they had such positive attitudes to teaching and made all the lessons very interesting and challenging, I thrived on their program. For the next two years my routine was to have my regular lessons for two months, and then commence a four month period of preparing a series of finger exercises and fairly major classical pieces for the examination by an external examiner. As a thirteen year old, like many of my contemporaries, I was subject to pressure and some nerves in the final weeks.

Examination Statistics

London College of Music Certificate Similar to Mine

A Pass With Honours was 85%, and all we students aspired to that or a higher score. I regret that I didn’t quite get there – my best effort was 84 % twice and an 81% and 82 %. After two years, this pressure and the constant attraction to do more sporting and teenage boy pastimes helped me reach the decision to quit classical piano lessons.

Nowhere Land Musically. In Limbo !

For the next few months our piano and any form of learning of it was ignored by me, and I concentrated on anything but music. Yippee ! I got to play football and almost did serious permanent damage to my right thumb in the process.

 

Part 3 –  Click Here

My Learning Journey Part 3

Lightglobe Moment !

Nat King Cole Trio

Then two things happened in rapid succession.
Firstly, a new neighbour played me a recording [ a 78 RPM ] of the King Cole Trio which comprised Nat King Cole piano and vocal, Wesley Prince bass and vocal, and Oscar Moore guitar and vocal. It was the most exciting and thrilling music I’d ever heard in my short life.

The subtleties of their playing and their innate sense of rhythm spurred me on to learn more. I really wish the name of that particular album could be remembered as I have quite a few of the trio on CD and would love to create a shrine to the original. It was an intense life changing experience.

 Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Secondly, like most boys of the era, I had a big crush on Marilyn Monroe who had just starred in The River Of No Return. The local music store had a sheet music department where I found and bought the theme song of the movie. Then, whenever Dad was at work on afternoon shift I practiced that song until it was a polished piece. My Mum was delighted at my renewed interest, and encouraged me to learn other popular songs, until we decided to show Dad what I’d been doing. The evening recital of River Of No Return and others, was received most enthusiastically and with approval. My Dad said ” If that’s the sort of music you like, I’ll see if I can find you a teacher of that style.” An engineer where he worked played in local dance bands and hotels. Enter teacher number four.

Hello the Shefte Rapid Method and Joe Rea.

Joe was a rotund Irishman with a fabulous sense of humor, wonderful swinging style, and an extremely loud left foot which he used to keep time. The whole house shook when Joe played [ or kept time when I played ] The Shefte Rapid  Method he used as a teaching manual demonstrated what was called “ STRIDE “ piano in the style of the great ragtime pianists such as James P Johnston, Thomas “ Fats “ Waller, Teddy Wilson, and the genius of all of them Art Tatum. My excitement at being able to play in this style was beyond my wildest dreams, and within two years I’d developed enough technique, endurance and repertoire to be asked to play in a local dance band “ Paddy O’ Dowd’s Millionaires “ where we played arrangements with the five piece band. Learnt to sight read charts ! I was now competing with Joe for gigs !

Learning by Listening to Recordings

Miles Davis – Round About Midnight

Joe introduced me to something my classical teachers had neglected – by listening to other players such as I had with the King Cole Trio in my introduction to swinging music, my musical education was stimulated to a high degree. To this end I bought my first Jazz LP album which was the Miles Davis Quintet’s “ Round Midnight “ with wonderful Red Garland on piano. Many others followed.

Listening to Live Bands

Visited the local two-band continuous-music Shaw’s Ballroom where I saw my first Grand Piano at one end and an upright at the other. I quickly made friends with Steve Hicks who played the grand and was honoured at being asked to be his page turner and sit with him on the piano bench. It was the first band I’d heard where the drummer actually read the arrangements. What an education !  I talked at length with Dick Winter who played the upright piano in the other band and learned great tips about playing by ear. All wonderful information for an enthusiastic young player.

A Special Treat – The Nat King Cole Trio playing Dream a Little Dream of Me.

Part Four – Click Here

Duet Malcolm and Harry – I Don’t Stand A Ghost of a Chance With You.

Duet –  Malcolm and Harry – I Don’t Stand A Ghost of a Chance With You.

My Learning Journey Part Four

 School Mate’s Influence.

During this time of intense application of learning piano, I became aware of a school mate from our class who was to have a profound effect on my musical future. Because I was interested in Jazz, Terry Lynch asked me to be part of a trio [ piano, bass and drums.] We found a bassist, Eddie Calleja, who was happy to join, and we had lots of fun rehearsing – sometimes at home when Dad wasn’t on afternoon shift. What a delight it was. Probably crude and rough by my current standards, but we didn’t care as we were having fun.

Terry’s Amazing Improvement

Terry Swings !

After a few months Terry suddenly seemed to be making extremely rapid progress in his playing – almost like he was turbocharged ! This is where his profound effect started. When quizzed as to why he was improving so rapidly he revealed he had been travelling to Melbourne, a round trip of 180 miles, and having lessons from Brian Czempinski one of the leading drum teachers. I was green with envy about his progress and asked him to ask Brian to find me a jazz piano teacher. The rest is history. Brian was working with Chuck Yates who had a wonderful reputation as a player and teacher and Chuck accepted me on a three month trial. “ If you don’t practice and work hard, don’t come back “

Intimidation. ??

Chuck Yates Jazz Master

Chuck was rated highly among the jazz pianists in Melbourne and it was with trepidation I knocked on his door. Even more intimidating was his nine foot long black Wertheim Concert Grand Piano which I bought years later.  He put me at ease rapidly and work began. Lessons were one hour for a cost of one pound [ two dollars ] and the value and knowledge gained was incredible. Our first study piece was “ Blue Moon “ He must have been happy with my progress as our student / teacher relationship went on for three years – I became a practice fanatic, finishing work at 5.00 pm and being home at the piano by 5.20 pm. My average practice time was SIX hours daily with up to ten hours on the weekends except when Terry and I did our five to six hours of travel for our one hour lessons. A once a fortnight learning expedition !

Sweat Shop Blues !

Sweat Shop Blues

Talk about work hard ! I had great callouses on both my fingertips, and where I sat. Chuck’s reaction to the amount of effort I’d put in was to maintain the price but gradually extend the length of the lessons until they lasted for half a day with coffee breaks included, at which time we sat, listened and discussed the records. Many years later I had the most rewarding, and hardest working student of my teaching career. Guess What ? His lessons went from one hour to all afternoon, just like Chuck had done for me.

A Touch of The Classical

The Art of Finger Dexterity

The Vituoso Pianist

Lessons from Chuck concentrated on harmony, improvisation and rhythm. To improve my actual piano technique he sent me to a delightful classical piano teacher who had recently returned from Paris, Miss Robyn Wright. She had taught him years previously. It was back to Chopin Beethoven and Liszt with technique studies from the Czerny School of Velocity and Hanon the Virtuoso Pianist. These studies and practice set me up for life with good posture, and correct technique.

The Coda

Learning Piano is an ongoing process for as long as one plays. Right now after a fifty plus year career, I am still learning by listening to other recorded and live players and by working with accomplished players such as my best mate, bassist Peter McLaughlin who provides me with both rhythmic and harmonic inspiration every time we play.

Gratitude.

Thank you to all those who have generously shared their knowledge, friendship and inspiration for all these years, you have my eternal gratitude.

Miss Thirwell
Mrs. Finger.
Mrs. Alice Ross
Mr. Hugh Ross
Mr. Joe Rea
Mr. Steve Hicks
Mr. Dick Winter
Mr. Terry Lynch
Mr. Eddie Calleja
Mr. Brian Czempinski
Mr. Chuck Yates
Miss Robyn Wright
Mr. Peter McLaughlin
PLUS – All the musicians with whom I’ve worked and learned from simply by the act of playing music together.

Yamaha Concert Grand