Falling Back in Love with Classical Music
Tuesday 15th October 2019
On my eighth birthday my parents packed up the house in Berlin where we had lived for four years and our family moved back to England. English was my first language, my parents were British, I had gone to an English language school in Germany and I held a British passport, but culturally I didn’t feel British. I didn’t know what a pound or a penny was, having only ever used the deutsche mark and pfennig, and I didn’t know the pop-music or TV shows that were popular among English children my age either. We had SSVC and Cartoon Network in Germany rather than BBC and ITV. I simply didn’t hold the cultural reference points that other children who had grown up in Britain did, and felt like a bit of a misfit.
Moving from a closed, guarded military base on the edge of what had been West Berlin, to a regular British village in rural Cambridgeshire, life was very different. I had grown accustomed to a huge amount of freedom that British children in the UK in the 1990s didn’t have. For example, in Germany it was safe for me to walk to school alone, through the woods, from the age of five, and I often played out on the cul-de-sac we lived on until after dark, riding my bike or climbing trees. I was feral. It was wonderful. With barbed wire around the perimiter and armed guards on the gate, it was a different world. In England, Mum walked me to school, and I spent my evenings indoors as none of the local children played outside. That first year in Cambridgeshire wasn’t an unhappy time as I made friends and eventually settled in to my new school, but I was aware that my family was different. Whereas my schoolfriends had been born in the area and would probably stay in the area as adults, I knew that we were just passing through and would only be there for eighteen months to four years. It’s hard to put down roots or feel like you belong in a place when your family moves so often.
Moving back to England came with perks though. For a start, I saw a lot more of my maternal grandparents who I adored. My grandparents lived in London and took it upon themselves to make up for the years we hadn’t seen much of each other by supplying me and my brother and sister with nuclear bunker quantitites of kitkats, penguins, choc ices, custard creams and bourbon biscuits. All of the sweet treats that my grandmother, before the Alzheimers which would soon rob her of her memories, knew Mum didn’t let us eat.
Visits to my grandparents’ house weren’t just characterised by large quantities of refined sugar though. These visits also included healthy doses of politics and classical music. My grandfather was a staunch lefty and a pianist, and spent his days shouting at John Major on the tiny TV balanced on top of the fridge-freezer in their breakfast room, listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations on his record player and cassettes, or playing Beethoven Sonatas on the piano in the front room of their 1930s pebbledash semi.
It was my grandfather who initially taught me how to play the piano. He was a man of few words unless he was talking about music or politics, but he was very gentle, kind and patient with me as a child because I had shown an interest in his beloved instrument. Seventy-four years separated us in age, but classical music brought us together as a shared language. I loved sitting next to him at the piano, turning the pages for him as he played. With the rest of the family in the breakfast room watching TV I had his undivided attention and he made me feel more like an equal than the annoying little sister and youngest child that the rest of my family regarded me as.
In the autumn of 1994, soon after moving back to England and around the same time that Grandad was teaching me piano, I heard a recording of Bach’s Cello Suites for the first time and was so moved by the music that I begged my parents for lessons. My state primary school had a really good strings programme (the Colourstrings method) and so I started to learn the violin, which is a much more portable and affordable version of the cello. Between violin lessons at school, and piano lessons from my grandfather, I started to develop my own identity for the first time. We didn’t have a piano at home, as pianos don’t like being packed up and shipped around Europe every few years, but I cherished my rental violin in its battered black leather case with a green felt lining and really enjoyed learning how to play. The piano I saved for visits to my grandparents.
In April 1996 I moved schools again, this time for the last time, and started boarding. At the age of 9 I was the youngest boarder in the school, and the only boarder in my year group and in the junior school. I finished school an hour before the other girls did, and so I would spend my ‘spare’ hour walking around the huge, silent, creaking house, trying to befriend the dinner ladies who always had a big tray bake and squash ready for tea time, and playing piano and violin. I went to school with quite a few Chinese girls and they often brought massive song books with them from Hong Kong, leaving them on top of the practice pianos in the boarding house, so there was always something new to learn to supplement the classical music I was learning in lessons.
Classical music soon became a huge part of my life, and provided me with a ready made friendship group. I dodged sports lessons (which I hated as the teachers were sadistic) by arranging my music lessons to clash with them, and almost every day after school I had choir, or strings group, or orchestra to keep me busy. By the time I was sixteen I spent every spare moment in a practice cell, preferring to while away my lunch break on my own at the piano than in the common room.
Despite my love of music, and of violin and piano in particular, I didn’t choose to study music at A level or at university, and I preferred to go to punk and hardcore shows than to a classical concert. Part of this was because I felt tremendous pressure to choose what others might consider ‘proper’ subjects and studied maths, physics and politics at A level rather than music and the arts, but part of it was because I didn’t enjoy the ABRSM grade system. I also felt that I didn’t belong in the classical music world as I wasn’t good enough to be conservatoire material. By seventeen I felt ‘burnt out’ on classical music, or rather the repetitive, hoop jumping that is passing ABRSM exams. ABRSM requires you to learn three pieces in order to pass each grade. An ‘A’ piece which was baroque or early classical, a ‘B’ piece which was romantic and a modern or contemporary ‘C’ piece. Sometimes I didn’t like the sound of my pieces, and struggled for motivation when it came time to practice. I wish I had been allowed more time between grades to play, and to find the music that I really enjoyed, because when I love something, I throw myself in at the deep end and put in the hours.
On top of my struggles with the performance and practice elements of being a musician, I also didn’t find the way in which music history was taught very inspiring or engaging. Perhaps if I’d had James Rhodes teaching music history it would have been a different story as he makes Bach, Beethoven and Chopin sound like rock stars, but the way it was taught at my school was very dry, dull and unengaging. Feeling uninspired by and disengaged from the world of classical music which can be very snobby and exclusive to boot, I found myself pulled in instead by the urgency, emotion and community of the punk-rock and post-hardcore scene which would become my new ‘home’.
After a ten year gap where I didn’t practice much at all but kept both instruments ticking over with scales and Bach, I picked up the piano and violin again two years ago because I felt like something was missing from my life, and I have played both instruments most days ever since. I feel like I have ‘come home’ in a way, back to my roots and who I am after a long period of time where I was making decisions about my life based on what I thought would make other people happy. A big part of my rediscovered interest in classical music is that I have allowed myself to only play the pieces that I truly love. I love the purity, counterpoint and harmony of Bach and the contrasting fury and drama of Rachmaninov (the heavy metal of the early 20th century), and I am getting to know Chopin too, but I have long ago put away the religious choral music I was forced to perform at school and I have also forgiven myself for being an amateur. I’m sure other perfectionists can relate. I was told from a young age that the music I played was a nice little side interest, but that I could never be a professional because I didn’t start young enough, which sort of made me feel like practice was futile if I couldn’t be the best. These days it doesn’t matter as much to me that I’m not the best pianist or violinst, what matters is that I love my instruments and enjoy playing them which is more than can be said for a lot of children taking lessons from the age of two.
I prefer listening to solo piano, violin or cello to large orchestral pieces, although I love string arrangements too. I have also discovered a love for contemporary classical, minimalist music through the likes of Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter, Yann Tiersen, Giya Kancheli and Philip Glass. It’s really lovely to have some new pieces to play, as even I get tired of playing Bach every time I sit down at the piano and I am an intermediate pianist, so most of my favourite classical pieces to listen to are out of my skill range.
I still have lifetime goals of learning to play Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin and pieces by Rachmaninov on the piano, but my renewed love for classical music stems from allowing myself to experiment, to play and listen to the pieces I enjoy, and to forget the rest. On violin, I supplement classical with improvised punk-rock and post-hardcore covers with Ed on his guitar, which is something I wish we’d discovered years ago. If only I could go back and have a word with seventeen year old me on the cusp of leaving school, as perhaps there wouldn’t have been such a big gap where I was ‘away’ from classical music and my instruments, but for now I’m just glad to be back. Some days all I want is to listen to The Wonder Years, Brand New, Billy Talent or The Menzingers as I don’t think I will ever fall out of love with punk-rock or post-hardcore, while others I will reach for Rachmaninov or Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s a good balance, and I’m glad I’ve found my way back here.
As for Grandad, he died in 2008 and I still think of him every time I play the piano (and vote; we share more than our love of music). I’ve been listening to the Goldberg Variations on loop recently, and if I close my eyes I can picture him sat beside me at the piano with his eye patch, slowly picking out his favourite pieces. I’m so lucky to have had such a wonderful grandfather, and to have been introduced to classical music by him at a young age. For that I’ll be forever thankful.