First Lesson

My first piano lesson at music school was unlike any other lesson I had experienced. My previous teacher, the brilliant Susan Steele in North Devon was the first person who really taught me piano. By that I mean that with her, I began to really develop my understanding of music and what we’re actually trying to achieve when we play. Without her, I would never have gotten to the stage where I could have gone to a specialist music school.

My piano teacher at Wells was John Byrne and lessons with him still stand out in my memory as some of the most musically inspiring experiences of my life. My first lesson was initially a scary experience - mostly because of the horror stories the older students liked to tell about just how much Mr Byrne expected.

Being a specialist music school, I had three hours of piano tuition each week. One and a half hours on Tuesday and the other one and half on Thursday. I remember vividly my first lesson taking place on a Thursday. I know this with such certainty because he asked me at the end of the lesson to learn an entire first movement of a Mozart sonata from memory by the following Tuesday. This was a feat I wouldn’t have dreamed of before. But I practised and practised and to my amazement got it done. And what did he say the following Tuesday when I played it to him and thought it was the best I’d played it so far?

“We’ve got a lot of work to do”.

You might think this was somewhat deflating - it wasn’t. Actually, quite the opposite. The work we had to do was a truly exciting prospect. So, what had happened in that first lesson?

Well, we played a scale and a chord....

That’s it.

A C-Major chord and a C-major scale for one and a half hours. On paper it sounds like the most boring lesson imaginable. But it was the very beginning of my true understanding of the piano and the technique required to make the instrument truly shine. Mr Byrne set the metronome to around 126 BPM and asked me to play a single octave C-major scale. I had to count eight metronome clicks on each note and then had to take care to ensure that the notes I played were a) exactly with the click and b) exactly together. I would count how many were accurate and tell him at the end. I think I confidently said that around eight of the fifteen notes played were accurate. He said..

“Nope - none of them”.

It seems like such a simple thing - to demand such perfection from yourself. But it was something that had never really been addressed. It’s something you see all the time - good people playing lots of fast notes that sound impressive, but not really listening to them. If you don’t know what sound you’re trying to create, you’ll never create it. Forcing yourself to listening for such a degree of accuracy starts to bleed into all of your playing and it becomes a more and more pleasurable experience.

Playing the chord was all about showing me how to create a good tone and how to drop the weight of your hand/arm/upper body into the note. It was a way of playing that was so new and advanced. It opened my mind to some amazing possibilities in piano playing and I knew that from that point there would be a lot of work to do to mend my technique but now there was a way forward. It was a truly inspiring moment and I try to use the same techniques today with my students.