I grew up in a house with a piano, so I knew that eventually I would have piano lessons. Both my sisters had had piano lessons, and my middle sister went on to study music, that’s how good she was. My brother instead had guitar lessons – for a while – but apparently he didn’t like being teased by the kids who lived up the road when he was walking to lessons carrying the big guitar case so he quit. That’s my mother’s story anyway. Unloved and unwanted, the guitar lived behind the sofa, untouched for many years.
A piano however is less easy to put out of sight, so it was always a feature of whatever room it lived in, occupying a dark wooden space against a wall. It came to our house from Shorncliffe, far away on the other side of the city. I don’t know how it came to our house from there – it was in the family before I was born – but I know the story about how my Mum’s cousin came to visit and sat on the piano stool wearing some kind of spiky belt and after she left they saw the front varnish of the piano was scratched.
It was a special kind of piano called a pianola. It meant you could play it as normal, or you could push the brass lever over, attach a paper roll to a special coil reached through a panel in the middle and release some pedals from a panel by your feet and the by walking on these pedals, the paper roll would move and the piano would play itself. As a little kid I loved it because I could move my hands over the keys and pretend I was an amazing player playing these songs.
I’ve never thought about the technicalities of how the pianola function worked. But I do know it’s how I learnt the words to the Gene Autry song “Don’t Fence Me In”.
I started piano lessons when I was about seven along with several of my friends. They were offered as an extra at my primary school by a nun called Sister Anne. From my childhood impression, Sister Anne was at least 90 years old. She may have had some musical talent once upon a time but she was prone to mood swings, falling asleep in lessons, showing you how to play by grabbing your hands and grinding them into the keys, and slapping your face if she felt you hadn’t practised enough. I wasn’t the only one of my friends who she instructed to run around the netball courts after a music lesson to dry the tears on my face before going back to regular class.
(Why didn’t anyone complain about how their children were treated? Well, this is the magic of a Catholic school run by nuns in the 1970s.)
Lots of my friends vowed never to play again after they left primary school, but despite the horrors of my lessons, I still loved to play the piano and carried on dabbling with various bits of sheet music we had in the house, even buying my own, painstakingly learning to play tunes note by note.
At high school a friend and I decided to learn the violin. My parents spent what was for them not a small amount of money on a violin, as well as covering the cost of my lessons. This time I had a teacher who was young and normal, and this time I was determined to put the effort into practising and getting good. However my mother objected to the sound of me practising: “It sounds like you’re strangling a cat in there.”
I struggled on with my practise, but the negative feedback took its toll and eventually I stopped practising and shortly after, stopped my lessons. The violin took its place beside the guitar in the graveyard of unloved instruments behind the sofa.
I don’t know what happened to the violin – I think at one point my sister thought she might learn to play it, so it’s probably sitting behind her sofa now.
The guitar went to a charity shop in the end, where it was put on feature display in the window for a hefty price tag, so it made the charity a lot of money and hopefully it’s now living with someone who loves it and plays it.
The pianola is gone – I don’t know where. When my siblings were clearing my mother’s house last year I think they tried to sell it but there was no interest. It’s possible the pianola was left behind in the house. The house has since been knocked down.