In the grip of a passionate affair: After 20 years away, Hilary Stafford-Clark returned to her piano and changed her life. Jane Taylor reports

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The Independent Online
SHE IS in love. Hilary Stafford-Clark's is a grand passion revisited: it began in earnest when she was 15, was abruptly terminated in her late adolescence and lay dormant for about two decades until five years ago. But this time nothing and nobody can stop it. She is having an affair with music.

The first part of her story is unexceptional: five-year-old has piano lessons at boarding school. She has talent. At 15 her pastime becomes a serious pursuit; she sets up the school's music society, and practises piano for five or six hours a day just for the joy of it. She gains a distinction in the highest level Grade VIII exam. But after school the lessons stop and she goes to secretarial college.

Thousands of gifted youngsters could tell a similar tale. They, too, will have undergone the years of slog that it takes to get beyond the notes and find the music. They will have tasted the exhilaration of performing. Mostly, they will not exactly have 'given up' music, but instead had their energies crowded out by other demands: study, work, relationships, life.

Yet something inside Hilary was never reconciled to the loss of her music, though her life was busy and turbulent. She was married, divorced, remarried. Her first baby died, she now has two sons. She worked throughout. Soon after the birth of her younger son she hit 40, deeply depressed and exhausted. Her marriage was foundering. She went into therapy. And she started going to classical concerts.

Soon it was every week. 'And then,' she says, 'I went to a concert given by the Philharmonia, of Carmina Burana. It was like St Paul on the road to Damascus. I knew this was what was missing from my life; this was what was really important.'

Consider the importance of such a decision. Although you never forget how to read music, after years of neglect previously supple fingers and hands are sclerotic and weak. In your head, you might be able to play every bit as well as you did at 16, but on the keyboard it is disappointing. Pianists are, after all, athletes, and the assumption is that once you give up the instrument as a young person, you can never return to it seriously. Did this worry Hilary? Not a lot.

By 1989 she had been energised by her Carl Orff experience. Within weeks she contacted the Guildhall School of Music in London, put herself on to a strict practice regime, auditioned and was accepted for weekly tuition. 'Two weeks after I started having lessons, I stopped having therapy. I just didn't need it any more. Music has become my therapy.'

The irony is that all the years she was musically bereft there was a piano sitting around the house. It had belonged to her mother

who, says Hilary, had been very

musical, playing songs from the shows by ear. But she did not like her daughter to play. 'She really resented my music, she didn't like my having that much interest in it . . . The day I got my Grade VIII it wasn't mentioned, it was like something awful had happened.'

So when Hilary started playing again, she sold that piano to an ex-Franciscan monk and he sold her an ancient Bluthner grand which needed restoring. Then she auctioned all the knick-knacks her parents had left her ('my mother would be horrified') to raise pounds 2,000 to recondition the grand.

Her teacher, Norman Beedie, is unusual enough to believe older pupils can have much to offer: their interest in the emotional and intellectual aspects of playing can make them more rewarding than all the detached technical accomplishment of younger pupils.

'One of the first things Norman said to me was, you must believe you are a musician. And that was the most wonderful thing anybody had ever said to me,' says Hilary. 'I realised it was true; that's where my soul is. I love my children and my husband, but my heart is in music.'

She likes to be at the piano by 8am: 'I never think, oh God, I have to do this again. It's always exciting.' So that is an hour's playing after the children have gone to school and before she goes to work. She often comes back at lunchtime to fit in another 45 minutes. She has singing lessons, too, and practises for those in the car to and from work. She might do more piano in the evenings.

Last August she took a month off work in order to practise for eight hours a day. This was for a charity venture in which people raise sponsorship by undertaking some personal challenge. Hilary decided to learn Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, the serene, sublime G major. She did it, even memorised it: 'the most wonderful four weeks of my life'.

After this her teacher roped her into a far bigger project: to establish a professional symphony orchestra in musically deprived East Anglia. It involves weekend work and regular commuting to Peterborough. Eventually, she says, she is going to work full-time for Classic East, the kind of job she hoped she might do when she left school all those years ago.

She admits her family are amazingly tolerant. They certainly are: she played for me, and the phone rang and rang and she ignored it. Her elder son tiptoed in, waiting for attention, clearly knowing better than to speak. She, without stopping, quietly told him to return later. Her younger son got the same response. Her playing is, she admits, 'totally selfish'. But that is not quite fair.

There is something necessarily introspective about playing an instrument: it is a deeply personal and intense experience. But it is also about communication. Hilary is well aware of this: 'I have to get out now with my music. I've done my stint of catching up and exploring. I have to go and face people. I forget that it's a pleasure for other people to listen, even though it may be an ordeal for me to perform for them.'

Where does she go from here? She admits she can never imagine playing well enough for her own satisfaction. She is sorely tempted to go to music college full-time, but there are her husband and the boys and the house. Perhaps that is no bad thing: this passion, which has restored her vitality, could yet devour her.

She would not be the first, as we are reminded by a contemporary of that supreme musical romantic: 'Once at the piano Chopin played until exhausted. In the grip of a disease that knows no mercy, dark rings appeared around his eyes, a feverish brightness lit up his face, his lips turned to a vivid red and his breath came in short gasps. He felt, we felt, that something of his life was flowing away with the music; he would not stop and we had not the strength to stop him.'

(Photograph omitted)