IT’S PIANO TIME
In a former life, I was a pianist.
I started young, as a ballet accompanist when I was just thirteen, often playing in gloves to combat the temperatures in the barely-heated rooms. It was good money and far easier than standing behind a shop counter every Saturday.
In the pre-digital era, pianists were a sought-after commodity. Every concert needed an accompanist and I was happy to oblige. As often as not there was no payment but I would happily play for a Chocolate Orange and a thank-you.
I grew casual, with it. I played often by ear or from memory. I could read a newspaper propped up on the music stand while playing whatever was on the running order. Until that one Christmas …
The one thing a jobbing pianist learns is a repertoire of Christmas music – we are in demand at Christmas more than at any other time of year. And I knew the carols from back to front. Or so I thought. And so, when Once In Royal David’s City was announced, I launched into what I was sure was the last line as an introduction. The congregation rose to their feet and I ploughed into the first verse — of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
Now it works – for a bit. The words fit the music beautifully – try it if you don’t believe me. Until, of course you run out of words two thirds of the way through. Oh yes. Hark the Herald is two lines longer than Once in Royal David’s City. However, if you simply add on the last 2 lines of Hark the Herald it works beautifully. All the time I was playing it, I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t quite work out what. I’ve exchanged the newspaper for the sheet music for those two carols ever since.
The years that followed saw some more up-market venues: Gardyne Theatre and Dundee Rep to name a couple. And then I found a job playing in a hotel cocktail lounge for three hours a night at the week-ends. What bliss! I could play whatever I liked and adapt it according to the time of year and even current events. I recall the scandal of Peter Mandelson’s resignation in the late 1990s. I opened that night with Barry Manilow’s Mandy. I doubt anyone else got it but it kept me amused.
Requests were common and I usually managed to oblige. However, on one occasion I delivered two for the price of one: I was asked to play something from Phantom of the Opera. I launched into All I Ask of You. Somehow, as I moved through the song, it became The Music of the Night. To this day, I have no idea how I did it.
And then the 21st century happened. I turned up one evening to find I had been replaced — by a widescreen TV. However, I had been booked to play, so play I did — to the background noise of an FA Cup Match. I played my three hours, collected my money and walked out, never to return.
Gradually, over the years, the demand for pianists has fallen and I find I play less and less. But there is so much lovely music to learn. Perhaps I should play, not for the ballet pupils or bemused Lloyd-Webber fans, but simply for my own pleasure. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a piece of Brahms I’ve been meaning to learn.