Book Of A Lifetime: Piano Course, Book A (The Red Book), by John W Schaum

Chosen by Janice Galloway
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The Independent Culture

When I was 11, the family, against every calculable odd, acquired a second-hand upright piano. It was a nice piece of furniture, but my mother saw the main drawback within minutes: somebody would want to play it. And that means money for lessons. The somebody, of course, was me. I'd seen Liberace on TV and I wanted, passionately, to play.

Miss Hughes, who lived in the sheltered flats at Guthrie Brae, was too old to take on pupils but, presumably in need of the money, took me on anyway. And that was when we acquired it: the John W Schaum Piano Course, Book A (The Red Book) Leading to Mastery of the Instrument in Easy Steps. Despite the seven bob (35p) price-tag, my mother bought it.

The book had a red baby grand on the cover; its first page was blank with an instruction to draw around your own hands and number the fingers, one to five. A flick through the rest showed tests, tips and interesting facts ("A mazurka is a Polish Dance") and – joy! – little drawings with each eight-bar tune to colour in, once the piece had been learned. I remember in particular the welcome page from Mr Schaum, an American stranger, wishing me, some anonymous Scottish nobody, "Good Luck and years of happy playing!" because it moved me to tears.

I still have the drawing of the hands, the carefully coloured-pencil tinted drawings, tests with answers in my 11-year-old script. There are my first terms – lento, allegro, mysterioso – assiduously learned; the drawing of five lines with coin-like empty note-heads containing their single-letter names that thrilled me all the way down my back. I remember holding the thing between my hands, warming my future. This book was a pencil outline of the map to Another World. It would teach me music.

My mother hoped for Lerner and Loewe show tunes requiring Grade Six. What she got was "The Wood-Chuck", "The Little Elf", and, in due course, an exquisitely simplified Tchaikovsky Nutcracker. She got more in due time.

Now, with my flashy Music-and-English degree under my belt, and some wider grasp of playing more subtle than Liberace's, I know the Schaum books are not great shakes – more "Baseball Song" and "Hoedown!" than the token snippets of Chopin and Mozart, Schumann or Bach I learned to love. But they were my first, shaky steps. They led to free lessons at secondary school; Head of Music, Ken Hetherington's insistence I study more; lots of singing and string playing and the Purcell, Britten and Elizabethan stuff that caught my imagination and Changed My Life. (Ken also bought me my first book by a living woman writer – The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark.)

My first piano primer gave me a language of only seven letters, yet containing every sound imaginable. Mr Schaum, Miss Hughes and mum, thanks.

Janice Galloway's 'This is Not About Me' is published by Granta Books