Learning your instrument…

30 September 2015 Blog The Queen Street Observer

Hey there, and welcome to TCRfm’s new website and to this, the first of my monthly blogs. I suspect these will be more often than not music related and that being the case where better to start than with the basics – learning your instrument.

Musical leanings were strong on the maternal side of my family. My mother, aunt and uncle were all more than capable pianists while my grandmother played violin, so I suppose it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be going down the same route at some stage. That day came when, in October 1970 and aged 9, my mother announced to me that I’d be taking piano lessons under the watchful eye of Mary Calthorp who’d taught her and the afore-mentioned family members how to play. I was happy with this. The idea of learning to play was exciting. Miss Calthorp lived in Manor street Waterford city, just a few doors from Shefflin’s pub. She was a softly spoken smallish woman, maybe 5’3″ in height, with steely grey hair cut short and John Lennon style granny glasses perched on the end of her nose. I’d guess she would have been in her late fifties or early sixties at this time.

Lessons took place every Saturday afternoon and lasted about an hour. As I’d get up to leave miss Calthorp would give me homework for the week and remind me of the need to practice. The first couple of months were spent learning scales, terminology (Tone, semitone, octave, etc.) and doing basic exercises for left and right hands culminating in the heady experience of combining the two and actually “playing” piano. Exciting stuff indeed! While all of this was happening my dad, ever the practical one, decided to delay shelling out for a piano just in case this was a passing fad which would leave him with a large piece of furniture clogging up what was a very small sitting room. To practice then I’d go to my grandparents’ house several evenings a week where I’d work my way through the Alfred E. Roland book for beginners which contained such delights as Daffodil Dell and the Boy Scouts’ March. With everything going swimmingly wouldn’t you just know it, the wheels fell off.

A bit of a cautious disclaimer here – I can’t be certain, but I think my uncle and I had this conversation years ago so what comes next should be familiar to him. In case we didn’t and he’s reading this, steam coming out of his ears whilst furiously Googling libel lawyers, I should say that we got on TREMENDOUSLY well in the years after (mostly) with hardly ever a cross word between us (usually) and he was always the coolest, whether bringing back goodies for me from his holidays or taking me to numerous performances of the Theatre Royal panto every year with a seat next to him in the orchestra pit (all true). There now, that should do it.

He was still living at home at the time and liked to keep an eye on my practice so while I was trying to navigate my way through the various pieces of music that miss C. had assigned to me for the week my uncle would stand behind me, watching over my shoulder. The discontent would usually manifest itself as a kind of sighing, then up to tutting, before finally turning into something like “No! NO!! What are you doing?? It’s easy but you’re making a mess of it. Here, get up and let me show you how it’s done”. With the nuclear button pushed he’d sit at the keys and knock what I was struggling with into next week. “There. See? Now try it again”. He meant well of course, but in those days his fuse was short. This happened on a regular basis, so much so that I began dodging having to go to the house if I thought he was there which meant piano practice dwindled to maybe once a week if at all.

Things couldn’t go on like this of course and as I look in my Roland music book today I see at the top of one page miss Calthorp’s note dated March 13th 1971 which reads “If I want to do music next term, I must play the piano a few times a week.” The end was nigh. So nigh in fact that when I turned up for a lesson in early April and yet again showed no sign of having practiced or progressed miss C. had had enough. She sent me home with that lesson’s money still in my pocket and a note for my mother. “As Colin can’t/won’t practice he’s wasting my time and your money” was the gist of it. End of fledgling piano playing career. My, how I’ve regretted that all down the years since. It’s a great thing to be able to play any musical instrument and had I stayed with it and practiced like I should have I daresay I’d by now be more than capable of banging out a tune on the old Joanna. Weddings, funerals, and all of that……….

Moving on a few years, while all of my friends were extolling the virtues of guitar heroes like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, et al, I was drawn to the bass guitar as an instrument and was listening out for what the bass player was doing on any record I liked. I still do that today.

So it came to pass that I eventually ended up owning a bass guitar, a metallic blue bodied thing of beauty shaped not unlike a Spector. Spectors, in case you didn’t know, are a very high end, very expensive American bass, gorgeous they are. Anyway, I’ve had this thing about fifteen years and have yet to figure it out. I do fiddle about with it from time to time, telling myself that self-taught is the way to go but of course it all comes to diddly squat, no surprise. More baffling perhaps is the fact that some or all of my daughters vandalised it when they were but tots. The socket where you plug in? That’s gone, gaping hole where it used to be. Two of the three control knobs are gone too, while one of the machine heads for tightening the strings doesn’t work anymore so it’s now a three stringed bass to all intents and purposes. Ah here now! How can this be? I won’t be getting rid of it anytime soon though, because as long as it’s sitting in the corner of the room there remains the faintest hope that I might, well, you know…..

As, er, captain Sensible said, “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream……”

and he should know. He was a bass player. Sort of.

Until the next time………………

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