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Bar 34: A Dangerous Ambition

January 17th, 2021

Three weeks have passed and the pandemic has put another girdle around the world putting a stop to everything. We are in an official lockdown with the only glimmer of hope being this vaccine rollout. Ignoring the chaos I am practicing every day. I have learnt the fingering for the Bach. I am still not up to my old speed but the difficult bar 13 is not daunting in the way it first was.

The process of learning this piece has had several stages. First up was the fingering drummed into me by M.

‘If you stumble it’s because you haven’t learnt the fingering.’

And what about my nerves, I ask, hoping for some sympathy. Playing to a virtual teacher on zoom is not for the faint hearted.

‘Take a deep breath. Relax,’

With a tiger in the room? Really?

‘Can I just start from bar 13?’

Bar 13 is the difficult one.

‘No! Start from the beginning!’

Naturally I’m all over the place, squashing the notes together as though I have webbed fingers, playing false one, generally messing up.

‘I have been practicing,’ I say.

‘Take it slower,’ comes the crisp reply.

I take another couple of days and suddenly, as if by some miracle I start to play without mistakes. Are my fingers finding their memory?

I ring the dealer. Yes. I’m keeping the piano.

‘Start on the Mozart, now,’ M suggests, just as I am beginning to think I am a one-piece pianist.

The very last piece I played before abandoning the piano twenty years ago was a lovely Mozart sonata. In the intervening years I had been filled with a longing to play it again. In fact at some point I’d stopped listening to it altogether as the memory of what I once could do was, well… a little painful. Now I stare at the music and shake my head. I can’t see how on earth I will every play it again. I have another painful lesson on zoom where I am told to keep in time.

‘Are you playing from memory?’ M asks suspiciously. ‘I want to see your eyes. Are they on the music?’

God, I think. She’s back being a fiend again. I am very bad at sight-reading and tend to automatically learn the music so I don’t have to follow the score. The problem with this is if I stumble I never know where the hell I am.’

‘Keep your eyes on the music.’

I nod feeling my hands sweat. But looking at the music, (I have no idea where I am, now) I freeze.

‘What’s that note?’ M asks.

I haven’t a clue.


‘It’s a semi-quaver. Don’t play it like a demi-seminquaver.’

I nod.

‘Now, play those three bars again.’

I do and suddenly, for one magical moment, I hear Mozart lurking amongst the mess.

I’m given a week to practice.

M suggests I read a book called Play It Again by Alan Rusbridger. I order it.

Alan Rusbridger, I read, sets himself an almost impossible task: to learn in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No 1- a piece that inspires dread in many professionals.

The book has arrived in my hands at exactly the right moment. True, he is a better pianist than me, has more contacts in the world of music and is good at sight-reading. But we are exactly the same age and although my own sight-reading is rubbish I, unlike him (I am thinking smugly) can memorise music automatically. In between painting and hours at the piano I read his book and am loving it.

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