What inspired you to play piano? As a child, I was always fascinated by piano, from a very young age. However, whilst I came from a fairly musical family (my dad was the bandleader of the local Salvation Army Junior Band), we didn't have a piano at home. However, we had a bit of a change in family situation when I was about 10 and at that point a piano at home came into my life. I got hold of a photocopy of the sheet music of a song we sang at school that I particularly liked (While I Kneel and Pray by Candlelight) and with a bit of help from my step brother who taught me how to read the bass clef, I set about learning it. I think in the process I must have driven my mum mad and she said, 'OK, you either learn properly or you leave it alone' ... and so piano lessons began.
At what age did you start playing? I was about 10 when I started and probably kept going with lessons on and off until my very early twenties. I then stopped lessons, but continued to play a little for a few years as it was a very easy way of making extra cash as a student. I would guess I stopped pretty much completely just before my 28th birthday. Fast forward some twenty years and I picked it up again a little before reaching my 50th.
What memories/stories do you have of piano lessons? My memories of lessons are very fond ones on the whole. My first ever teacher, a local lady called Mrs. Dunn, was absolutely wonderful. Of course, I remember little about the actual lessons now, however, I do remember one of my proudest moments as a teenage learner was giving a concert of duets with Mrs. Dunn at our local church hall. I did grades 1 to 4 with Mrs. Dunn. Unfortunately, she passed away prematurely with a particularly nasty cancer and I was without a teacher for a while.
My mum then found me another teacher a little further away who decided that I should go straight to Grade 6, which I did. Again, unfortunately she passed away unexpectedly and I was again without a teacher.
My final teacher was a Concert Pianist that I managed to find (I can’t even remember how now). She decided that I should go straight for Grade 8 ... and this is where it all started to fall apart. For the first time, I was having to play music that I found difficult ... previously even things above my current grade I’d had little or no trouble learning. Grade 8 repertoire however was a real stretch for me ... a stretch too far I think.
Even with hindsight, it’s not easy to see what actually really went wrong. My new teacher was certainly good, for example, put me forward for a local music festival and I managed to get a first prize with Debussy’ Clair de Lune. However, I merely managed to scrape a ‘pass’ at Grade 8 and hit a technical wall that I just couldn’t get past ... so much so that eventually even just sitting down at the piano made me automatically tense up right into my shoulders. This is the point that I just stopped taking lessons.
Do you have a favorite piece/style of music to play? I really love Chopin and Rachmaninov. Chopin really understood the piano and, despite his relatively short stay with us on earth, produced a great body of work. Much of it is still way beyond my abilities, however, the sheer joy of playing those pieces that are within my reach is hard to express. My current favourite piece is his C Sharp Minor Waltz (Op. 64, No. 2). I’m also working away steadily at the Minute Waltz (Op. 64, No. 1). Hopefully, before the end of 2019, I’ll be able to play both of them convincingly.
As for Rachmaninov, there is just something amazing about his music ... such an amazing use of harmony - puts me in mind of jazz reharmonisation at times. If I were to have an ‘impossible dream’ on piano, it would be to be able to perform the entire Rhapsodie on a Theme of Paganini. At the moment, the 18th variation is one of my longer term projects ... I can play it sort of ok(ish) at the moment, but those big chords are a challenge for my rather short fingers.
As an adult, why do you still enjoy playing piano? For the last 20 years, I’ve had a job that sees me away from home pretty much every week and so a hobby such as piano which requires regular practice has not really been on the menu. However, finally, back in 2012, I decided to treat myself to a Yamaha Clavinova.
I started to play infrequently until maybe 2016 and then decided finally that I needed to stop dabbling and get on with some serious work. So, for the past 2 or 3 years, I’ve been practicing regularly and really enjoying it. I get up an hour earlier than I used to and I practice before leaving for work. This really sets me up for the day ... I have a sense of achievement before even leaving home in the morning. Learning a piece of music is immensely satisfying - and even just managing to improve a small exercise is really great.
My renewed passion for piano led me to create Tommy’s Piano Corner as a way of both documenting my progress and sharing that passion. Aside the ‘piano’ side of things, what has really struck me since re-starting is the amazing things that modern technology has now made available to the amateur pianist ... everything from access to amazing teachers via media such as Facebook and YouTube, to almost unlimited amounts of sheet music for free from resources like www.imslp.org. Equally, you can now even create fairly professional looking recordings of your own playing with little but the phone in your pocket ... something that would have been almost totally out of the question when I was a teenager. These technical discoveries are typical content on Tommy’s Piano Corner.
Do you have a favorite experience that involves the piano? When we were all young, we used to go to Butlins for holidays as did many families. They used to run a Talent Competition which consisted of a first round run weekly during the holiday season, then with quarter, semi and finally season finals (which took place at the London Palladium if my memory serves me correctly). For 3 years (whilst I was still school age), I managed to win the first round in exchange for which we won a holiday for 4 to attend the quarter finals. The experience of playing on a large stage on a grand piano was fantastic ... a little nerve racking, but certainly cool. I never managed to get past that first round but that didn’t matter ... I got to perform twice each year in the competition and as a bonus we got an extra holiday (although, of course, my dad needed to top it up as there were 6 of us and the holiday was only for four). I imagine at the time it must have been a financial stretch for him but he always found a way.
If you teach piano, what has been your most memorable teaching experience? I’ve never done any serious teaching but I do remember exchanging guitar lessons from our Art Teacher at secondary school for piano lessons. He taught me some rudimentary classical guitar (he was a very gifted guitarist) and I tried to teach him some basic piano. This exchange went on for about a school year and it was great fun.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not playing piano? When not playing piano, I’m a keen scuba diver. Another hobby that totally takes you out of everyday life and emerges you in a different and magical world. Being under water and surrounded by that beauty is a little like being immersed in a piece of Chopin.
What do you/or have you done for a living? For the past 25 years I’ve been in the IT Industry. Something I fell into almost by accident but has proved to be an interesting and challenging career.
Where do you live? (city, state, country) I currently live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.