Lessons in the key of life

They say that you can't teach an oldie new tricks, but, as Richard Ingrams discovers, you're never too long in the tooth to start learning the piano
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"It is a crying shame," my piano teacher at Shrewsbury School wrote, "that a lad of his ability and intelligence should be so easily satisfied with himself... everything does not work out all right as a result of playing straight through tricky passages!"

How right he was - but it took me about 50 years before I realised it. How many boys and girls take up the piano with enthusiasm and then give it up when they reach the age of 16 or 17? It is too demanding, too tricky. What's the point of sitting in a little sound-proofed room struggling with a Mozart sonata when all the others are out having fun in the gym or on the playing-fields?

Perhaps because I belonged to a musical family, with music being played day and night, I did not give up. But I never took the words of my teacher to heart - comforting myself with Chesterton's edict that "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly", I continued just to bash away, enjoying myself but never making any improvement. As you get older, most things become more difficult, like learning lines or playing cricket - what compensates for these failings is the willingness to devote attention to detail. Aged now 66, I actively enjoy grappling with those tricky passages, working out the fingering, practising a few bars over and over again until I get them right.

The world has been conditioned to think of piano playing as the province of the virtuoso, a man in black tie and tails on a concert platform dashing off a study by Chopin or Liszt with amazing dexterity. It seems a far cry from the amateur pianist sitting alone at the keyboard struggling to interpret a favourite piece. We forget that the bulk of the classical repertoire was written not for the public but the private performer. It was Bach, the greatest of all composers, who wrote at the beginning of his book of Six Partitas that they were "composed for the pleasurable diversion of music lovers".

If you need further encouragement, it is worth bearing in mind that a great deal of the repertoire is not, from a technical point of view, difficult to play. Many composers wrote music specifically for beginners, and just because it is comparatively easy does not mean that it is inferior music. The great works of art are almost all simple. Bach, I believe, wanted to make this point, at the same time encouraging the amateur with the opening of his 48 Preludes and Fugues, the prelude in C major. No one has ever written so profound a piece of music, yet it is easily within the grasp of a beginner. Here, he is saying to the learner, this is what you have in store, this is the world you can enter.

It's easy to play, but not so easy to play well. The same point was brought home to me when I started to learn the Moonlight Sonata. "It's got that very difficult movement," my piano teacher said, referring, I assumed, to the fiery Presto Agitato. No, he meant the first movement, Adagio sostenuto (very slow) and pianissimo (very quiet). You have to bring out the melody notes and keep the inner triplets soft. Above all, you have to keep it alive, stop it from becoming sleepy and boring. Anyone, given time, can rattle off the last movement. You have to be a real pianist to do the first.

So, you begin as I did, over 10 years ago now, to learn to relax. I was taught, like many, to play with a stiff wrist, starting with an old penny balanced on the back of the hand and keeping it level. All wrong - the hand, wrist, arm and shoulder have got to be loose. You must try to cultivate what the piano teacher Joseph Levine called "the floating arm".

I can date my conversion to 20 April 1986, when I saw on TV the virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz giving a recital in Moscow, having returned to his homeland at the age of 82 for the first time since he emigrated to America. One of the advantages that we have now is to be able to see a film or video of a great musician close up, to watch his fingers at work. Two things impressed me. One was that he made it look easy, he was completely relaxed - unlike other pianists, who crouch over the keyboard frowning with intense concentration. The other was that he seemed to be breaking the rules. His fingers were not rounded but splayed, and frequently his wrists were well below the keyboard.

In that concert, Horowitz began with Mozart and Scarlatti, and then played two preludes by his friend Rachmaninov (Op 32, Nos 5 and 12). I had never heard this music before, or if I had, it had made no impression. One of the pleasures of a musical life is that, as you get older, you keep making new discoveries. I decided that I wanted to be able to play this music, and signed on with a local teacher who gave me Czerny exercises to work on. That was something I wouldn't have been prepared to do when I was a schoolboy.

A few years later, I had a great stroke of luck, which plays an important part in the business of finding a teacher. Raymond Banning, who described himself on his notepaper as "Professor of Piano" at Trinity College of Music, wrote to me at The Oldie in praise of the pianist Shura Cherkassky, and I wrote back asking, in a postscript, whether he knew anyone who would give me some piano lessons. To my surprise, he said that he would. I was starting to have doubts about the whole enterprise, having recently sat through a Beethoven recital by Alfred Brendel totally unmoved. Raymond assured me that that was the correct response. Modern piano playing, he said, had lost touch with the past. Virtuosity alone was now prized. Students were taught merely "to put down the notes". My admiration for Horowitz, my enthusiasm for Rachmaninov, he said, was an excellent start.

So, I began to relearn the piano - not with exercises or scales, but dropping the fingers on to the keys to produce "a beautiful sound". Slow practice was essential. Legato - changing fingers on the note with the key pressed down - was something that had never occurred to me before. Gradually, after a course of regular fortnightly lessons, I realised that my playing was beginning to sound completely different.

In 1995, Raymond and I organised a "Piano Weekend" at Magdalene College, Cambridge. About 45 people of varying ability signed on. Raymond gave an introductory talk with the help of videos of Horowitz and Claudio Arrau (another of his heroes), and then anyone who wanted to could come up and play a piece. For many amateurs, piano playing is a lonely business that often creates marital tension. People welcomed the opportunity not just to play but to talk about their problems with others who might share them. And because Raymond is unusual in seeing no essential difference between amateurs and professionals, or between Grade 3 and Grade 8 - everyone has problems - the whole atmosphere was very informal and relaxed, unlike more high-powered seminars. It was such a success that we have repeated it every year since.

When you get older, doddery and forgetful, it is good to have at least one thing that you feel you are getting better at. Piano playing is ideal because, while it engages all the faculties, the right hand and the left, it demands no physical strength - witness the many great pianists who have carried on playing into their eighties and nineties. Quite apart from that, it brings you into direct personal contact with the great composers who bequeathed us all a huge repertoire of music that no one could ever hope to exhaust. No other activity that I can think of can do so much to preserve our sanity and well-being.

The next Cambridge Piano Weekend takes place 2-4 April. For further information, contact Ben Jackson on 020-7436 8803