Musical inability

I don’t think I’m tone-deaf (quite a pretty tenor, really), but playing a musical instrument defeats me, to my continual regret. I would love to be a boogie-woogie piano player, and I would love to be a drummer (like my brother, whose East Midlands band ‘Shades Of Blue’ are even now planning further RnB nights out). But there it is. I can’t move my fingers quickly (or accurately) enough.

This first came to light when I began piano lessons at the age of about nine. They were listed as ‘extras’ at my school, and not having the nerve of Oliver Twist, I didn’t like to ask for extras. So my parents came across me, weeping pails of tears, and, since a child often can’t speak while tearing its heart out, they were initially left to wonder if I had suffered some sort of pre-teen breakdown, or had lost a leg, or broken a valuable object, or found out that certain crucial bits of my anatomy were missing. When I caught my breath, and they asked ‘What’s the matter?’ for the nineteenth time, I explained, shamefully and shamelessly, that I wanted to learn to play the piano. (They may well have thought of calling the psychiatrist then and there.)

So I took piano lessons. I took them repeatedly, over a period of four years. I was introduced to scales, chords, keys, scales, chords, keys, scales… you get the picture, and it’s lucky you can’t hear it. I was useless. After four years, I had not reached Grade One. If Grade One was Everest, I had not even reached the foothills. It was determined by all who sought to teach me that I was, when it came to musicality, a lost and abandonable cause.

About that time, the only East German ever to enter the British hit parade (he was from behind the Iron Curtain, so he was actually banned from touring – one of the crazier Cold War wheezes) was a man called Horst Jankowski. His contribution to charts heaving with Mersey beat groups was a piano instrumental called ‘A Walk In The Black Forest’, or (and very funny this was to ten-year-old ears) ‘Eine Schwarzwaldfahrt’. I saved up for the sheet music. I would show them.

In the corner of a large, Victorian room called ‘The Schoolroom’ there was a piano, available to anyone who wished to play it. I commandeered it. I could find middle C, and I could find it on a piece of sheet music (parents’ extra money not all wasted, then). I could tell the difference between a minim and a quaver, and I knew the difference between my left hand and my right hand (even if the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, and vice versa). I opened ‘A Walk In The Black Forest’, and started at Note One. After a week or two, I had got to the end of the first bar, and the repetition of the action made me pretty proficient. I am not saying I managed a bar a week, or anything really impressive, but after about two months, I was quite a way down the first page. In the meantime, the staff, under-staff, extra staff, and all the children coerced into going to this school, were being driven mad. They would have given The Schoolroom a wide berth, had it not been that it also acted as a thoroughfare. It may even have been the place where I first heard some genuinely serious swearing (‘Oh for **********, Greenwell, will you stop that ************ racket’).

I pressed on. Each year there was a school concert, in which nerdy looking types demonstrated their skills, vocal or instrumental, with various pieces of classical music, and the first form got to bash their tambourines and triangles. As a humorous interlude, I was then invited, on an annual basis, to show the assembled company ‘how much further’ I had got with Jankowski’s epic tune. I think I had long trousers and a broken voice before the practice desisted. I am not sure I ever really got to the end (there was a really hard twiddly bit in the middle). But if I am really, really drunk (which doesn’t happen much at my age) and there is a piano handy, I can still do the first couple of pages, not very well, but then I’m out of practice.

I have a harmonica and a ukelele (ukulele, if my alternative spelling upsets you). I cannot play them, but I have built my inability to play into my poetry performances. ‘I can’t play it,’ I advise listeners. You can tell some of them think I’m fooling. At the start, that it is. By the end, they understand that I was in no way kidding.

Dum-DUM-di-dum-di-DUM. Great tune, Horst.


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