the piano

In my childhood the home was filled with the sound of music.

My father was a child prodigy on the piano who later added a celebrated baritone voice to his repertoire. His mother kept scrapbook upon scrapbook of his achievements in music.  Flicking through them as a child, I suspect intimidation mingled with admiration more than I ever realised at the time.

As children at Woodstock School (India) with its exceptional music department, we were each 'encouraged' to pursue a musical instrument. One sister settled on the flute, while the other went for the clarinet (another 'sister', later to become my wife, was nearby on the oboe). One brother made the trumpet his own, while the other brother tried a bit of everything.

Like I say, our home was filled with the sound of music.

However, this brother, that would be moi, was stuck with a grumpy, crumpled old woman as a piano teacher who thought scales were the very music of heaven. When finally liberated from that captivity, I migrated across to Mr F. Sharp who, as happens frequently at smallish boarding schools, doubled up as my cricket coach. Boycotts and Beethovens; scales and runs; rhythm and swing; exams and Tests; innings and movements. On and on ... it all became such a confusing cocktail. Finally, habitual distraction combined with chronic inability to put me out of my misery and lay to rest my musical career once and for all.

Two memories stand out from those long winter holidays in Delhi with my parents (where my mother and I shared a certain kinship with our musical capacities, thankfully).

Delhi was a city that attracted some high-powered concerts. I remember being dragged to one when Daniel Barenboim came to town, as a conductor, for an evening which featured his wife, Jacqueline du Pre, on the cello. The significance of these names was lost on me at the time - but I've enjoyed name-dropping ever since, let me tell you. We were in the front row of the balcony. The evening finished. I stood up and began walking towards the aisle, clapping as I went. For years, Dad would remind me of the standing ovation I gave that night.

During another winter, Dad decided he'd give us (as in 'force-feed' us) music lessons. What?! What happened to cricket on the neighbourhood maidan? So we'd sit around the piano and he'd teach us about concertos, mostly piano concertos - with time for ample demonstration of the lessons being learned, during which we were not allowed to speak, or even twitch. It was at that time that simple monosyllabic words like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff became part of my vocabulary.

Actually, it is amazing how much I remember from those lessons. Things like major and minor keys. The way the tempo changes through the various movements (for example, in the Rachmaninoff concerto below, which Dad loved so much) - from an initial upbeat moderato, to the slower, lyrical and moody adagio (from 12.15), before the pace-y climactic allegro (from 23.40). What about identifying bridge patterns - or the way the theme is played by the piano, but then also by different sections in the orchestra? On and on it goes.

I can't have a Rachmaninoff without a Tchaikovsky! Check out these dudes (pianist and conductor, especially). What a couple of show-offs...

There is a point to all this reminiscing. The sermon has some kinship to the concerto. We need the major and the minor key. We need the tempo variations. We need the bridge patterns. We need the theme to be played-out in the sermon, but also in the sections of the congregation that speak and listen. I am sure there is more, much more (but not the one about being a show-off!) - maybe some of my preacher-pianist friends will stumble across this post and add their own flourish to these reflections. A fascinating topic.

It is funny how life turns. Nowadays, on my many lonely, long-haul flights, increasingly I find myself eschewing the movie for the music. I scroll through the options, searching for the piano, especially from the Romantic period. Not just R & T above - but also Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms and the music of my childhood. In go the headphones, I recline my seat (if the person behind me allows me so to do), I listen - and as I do, I can still shed a grateful tear as I remember my Dad, for his love and his influence for good and for God on my life.

And yes, I'd even love to have those winter days in Delhi back again...

nice chatting


PS. This is probably my favourite piece of all, as I spent so much time listening to the aforementioned F. Sharp practice it for a performance with the Delhi Symphony Orchestra (with my wife, Barby, on the oboe).

LATER ... a PPS: This post led to some discussions which prompted a further memory about Dad and the piano. Because he was such a performer he was not so keen on playing in social occasions where people are distracted by other things, often immersed in conversation and not listening attentively! But when he relented, he tended to play one of two pieces: either Rush Hour in Hong Kong or The Flight of the Bumblebee. Here they are:


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