Making a Concerto-ed Effort

The Sage Gateshead and the Tyne Bridge, photo by Paul Forrester

The Sage Gateshead and the Tyne Bridge, photo by Paul Forrester

Being a clumsy and uncoordinated sort, teaching myself a musical instrument was always likely to be a doomed enterprise – I just didn’t realise it for the several weeks in 2006 that I tried learning to play the keyboard.

My right hand dashed out melodies (sort of), but I had to will the fingers of my left hand to disobey their instinct and contort into the unfamiliar positions necessary to play chords. A piece of paper stuck along the top of the keys told me which note each one played, because I couldn’t remember which key was which and read sheet music at the same time.

Like I say: doomed.

How I wanted it to sound

When my fledgling repertoire extended to a barely-capable rendition of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, I got over-excited and bought some songbooks. With one full of popular hits, and another with theme tunes from James Bond films (obvs), I turned my attention to the likes of ‘Always’ by Bon Jovi and ‘Live and Let Die’ by Paul McCartney and Wings.

And both morphed into quarter-speed funeral dirges when subjected to my merciless, talent-free hands.

What started as a fun experiment, alas, steadily turned into a dispiriting chore. Quickly realising that the carefree joie de vivre of a talented and well-practiced lounge entertainer was going to be even harder to achieve than I first imagined, a terminal rot soon set into the regular, disciplined exploration of what I could achieve with an £80 Bontempi.

I questioned whether playing every day was worth sacrificing the other things I wanted to do with my spare time. After all, beyond playing the recorder at school, I’d never shown aptitude for anything musical. An average singing voice, maybe, but no feel for beat or rhythm. Clapping along to music was a nightmare because of how quickly I ended up out of step with everyone else!

Daily practice soon became every-other-daily practice, which became a couple of times a week. After a few months the keyboard started gathering dust, standing as a monument to thwarted ambition and unrealistic ideas of what I could teach myself. I packed it away and moved on.

How it should have sounded

Several years later, a friend introduced me to the music of Ben Folds. I didn’t know who he was but his songs were funny and moving and interesting and energetic. They were like nothing I’d ever heard, and they were all performed on the piano. They made my poor efforts with a keyboard resemble single-celled organisms compared to his fully-evolved animals.

Hearing the same sort of instrument with which I had fared so miserably produce such vibrant results hooked me in, and it’s never let me go since. Folds normally performs as part of a three-piece with a bassist and a drummer, but over the years has diversified and played with orchestras(the DVD of a concert with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) is worth checking out).

He has toured his native United States, playing with orchestras in an effort to revive the recognition of symphony orchestras as an important part of a healthy culture. In 2014 he played half a dozen such shows in the UK, featuring a piano concerto he was commissioned to write the year before. I went to see one at The Sage Gateshead and sat awestruck for the duration.

Even having seen the WASO DVD, witnessing the spectacle live was something else. All the familiar songs on which Folds collaborated with the Royal Northern Sinfonia were realised in a fresh and interesting way. The arrangements reached a crescendo that was met with three standing ovations but, oddly, that wasn’t what moved me to write this.

Instead, it was Folds’ introduction to his concerto that struck a chord (as it were).

How it was made to sound like that

He had never previously attempted that style of music, and to do so was a commitment to a year’s worth of work. If he felt nervous about accepting the commission or thought he wouldn’t be able to adapt then it was clearly tempered by the excitement of creating something original. There was definitely a recognition of needing to go beyond the skills he already had, even if it all looked like ‘playing the piano’ to someone like me. In an interview on The Tennessean website's music blog, Folds talked about separating composition and performance:

Anything that I wanted the piano to do, I just said, "You know what? I'm just gonna have to practice and do it. That's fine."

So there was no hesitation about attempting something new, and Folds was prepared to push himself by writing a piece that not only challenged himself but also the conventions of the concerto. Most inspiring was the way he broke down the writing into a manageable goal. He knew he had a year to compose and learn it, and while introducing the piece revealed that he set himself a target of:

…fifteen seconds of finished music every day, then it’d be complete.

Which just goes to show that no matter what length of career you’ve enjoyed, what milestones you've reached or achievements you’ve unlocked, sometimes a creative task has to be reduced to its basic components. Fifteen seconds doesn’t sound like much, but try telling a writer that they have to work in an unknown genre and produce a publishable page every day for a year – all of which need to come together as a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual chunks.

Quality aside, though, it’s the discipline that counts. Even with nearly two decades of recording, producing and releasing albums behind him, Folds had to apply himself to something he knew wasn’t second nature. Yes, he was adapting existing skills whereas my keyboard playing started from scratch, but it shows that creativity doesn’t discriminate between anyone. It simply demands that you put in the hours.

Folds' achievement was to produce an absorbing twenty-five minutes of music that I can't wait to listen to as often as I want once it's committed to a record. Does it show that I shouldn't have lost faith in my efforts to learn a musical instrument? Well, I can hardly say I was truly passionate about it, but with a year of practice, who knows?

I would hopefully have been able to play chords fluently at least. I would never have got to the stage of playing with an orchestra, but I could have achieved my own milestone of sorts.

Learning the theme tune to ‘Goldfinger’…!