As a child, I believed that piano lessons, like everything else related to education and self-improvement, were to be endured. I knew what suffering was; after all I was brought up a Catholic – I’d read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and so knew how to withstand my lot with a silent and resolute dignity.
Once a week, every week, I would get out of the car, leather satchel flapping in the wind, and wander down the path to Mrs Green’s house. The door would open, there would be a gust of boiled cabbage and a kindly, frail old woman, with a single, Nanny McPhee tooth, would usher me into the lounge.
Not exactly music to the ears
I’d sit at the piano, place my hands in the grooves of yellowed ivory, invent an ever-more elaborate illness that had impeded my practice that week, and then inflict an hour’s worth of broken scales, faltering arpeggios and syncopated Mozart on her. Poor Mrs Green.
I had passed all my grades by the time I was 14 – due to my teacher’s persistence rather than any real talent on my part. It was just something I felt you “should do” – another unexamined, unemotional achievement on the way to adulthood.
And yet, with all these certificates, I couldn’t do the one thing any decent musician would want to do – play a tune. Outside of the rigours of the Associated Board syllabus, the three-minute exercises in technique with which I’d become accustomed, I was utterly stuck.
And then along came Michiyo Onoue: beautiful, bright and talented – just the sort of lovely girl that other girls love to hate. Aged just 15, she sat down at the rickety piano at school assembly – a place previously ruled by me – and played Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. Perfectly. Musically. It was as if she’d exposed me for the faker I was. I never played the piano again.
Return to music
I returned to music in my late 30s, during the BBC2 show Maestro, which remains one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Through the opportunities that arose from the programme, I got to engage with music from an entirely different perspective.
While working with full scores and a concert orchestra, I started to consider the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on each individual, painstaking note, as I had as a child, I started looking at the overall shape, the form that the composition took – and I fell in love again with the instrument of my youth.
Recently, thanks to another TV project, I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by the extraordinary Paul Lewis, Alfred Brendel’s protégé – with additional help from jazz supremo, Neil Cowley.
Both were generous to a fault, and illuminated me in a thousand subtle ways. The experience they gave me felt a world away from the loveless pragmatism of scales and arpeggios that I’d struggled with as a child.
The result? I simply did my best. That’s a big thing for a perfectionist to say. That’s because the process made me rethink the notion that music is about “getting things right”.
Yes, technique is important, but only in so far as it gives you a place from which to express yourself. Music is about inhabiting the moment. Absolutely. Completely. So however I played, it made me happy. It made me think. It made me want to buy a piano. I think Mrs Green would finally be proud of me.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 January 2012.
Sue Perkins features in the first episode of First Love on Tuesday 24 January at 8pm on Sky Arts 1/HD.