My Musical Autobiography – Primary School (~1981-1987)

Plaistow

My first memory of music is from 1981.  It was my mother playing “Macavity” from the musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber on a record player.  I remember it being the most awesome thing I had heard in the world and I can even remember where I was standing in the room.  Next to a stone statue of Gollum that held up the door with Faramir the Cat purring on the settee.  My next memory was children’s TV.  The music of the program “Rainbow”, and “Blue Peter”.  And the haunting music of “Tales of the Unexpected” which was scary with that silhouette of the lady dancing as my mum and auntie played cards. 

My first experiences of music in school (that I can remember) were also from children’s TV programs.  I am sure my early teachers from Selwyn Infant School in Plaistow sang to and with me but my first memory of music in school was watching Playschool on the big TV that was wheeled in.  I also remember watching Sesame Street on the big television.  I think I must have been about five or six years old then.

We also sang.  I remember being at the back of the hall and being unable to read the words from “Water of Life” (from “Come and Praise” – still used in schools).  This was a big deal and a life changing moment as I was told I would need glasses.  A decade war with authorities was about to start because I absolutely hated glasses and refused to wear them.  We also learned “When a knight won his spurs” – my favourite song, it had such a beautiful melody and the words were all about giants and dragons. I had to learn it by repetition – we did have an OHP but I couldn’t read the words as I didn’t have any glasses.

The first musician I was introduced to was a man called Elvis Presley.  I don’t remember ever listening to any of his music but in the flat opposite mine there was a guy called Big Tim who had a kid called Little Tim.  I used to roller skate around the flat landing with Little Tim and sometimes go into their flat.  I remember loads and loads of picture frames with this Elvis guy holding a guitar.  He looked a bit weird.  No one dressed like that in Plaistow.  I remember being told that Elvis was very important.  He must have been – why else would you have twenty pictures of him up on the wall?

My next experience was the recorder.  I was given a free recorder (I was on free school meals) and inside was a piece of rolled up paper that had the notes written down.  I was good at reading so I taught myself to play B, A and G.  I remember thinking that G was incredibly hard and I knew I should play it with three fingers in my left hand but it was much easier to play it with two in my right and my pointy finger in my left.  I then remember getting told off for bad technique.  Recorder was fun, I really enjoyed playing this and making spells in the playground with my friends as I told everybody that I was a warlock.  All the boys played football, but that was pretty dangerous so I tried to hang around with the girls.  Only one liked me, a girl named Kelly Hume.  She had red hair and lots of freckles.  I am sure I was about seven because I remember being disappointed that ladybirds had six spots and I was seven so I no longer aligned with ladybirds. 

Next was the violin.  We were never allowed to use the bow but that didn’t bother me as I loved plucking the thing.  It’s probably why I really enjoy playing the bass guitar now.  I got to have group lessons on the violin because I was on free school meals. I do remember how cool it was to be allowed to leave lessons to go to this special group.  We were taught to play with fingers 1 and 2 and my violin had stickers on it so I knew where to put my fingers.  I never got to 3 because my world was turned upside down as my mother was ill and went to live in a hospital and I went to live with my grandparents in West Wales.  I remember leaving the flat on the 13th floor for the last time and waving goodbye to Big Tim and Little Tim.  I never saw them again and never went back to Plaistow until leaving university.

Cenarth 

The cockney kid born in the sound of Bow Bells had a difficult time transitioning to life in Wales and it wasn’t just my accent that was a bit out of place.  We had some lessons in Welsh, we had to learn our times tables in Welsh as well but we did have violin lessons like before and I was still on free school meals.  I even got to use the bow this time.  What was best about living in Wales was the space to run around, I spent many hours outside on my own making up stories about a land populated by ducks and teddy bears.  I made maps of my world and I can still write it down.  What annoyed me the most was this stupid birthday cake that the teachers brought in when it was someone’s birthday.  It was the same cake every time and you couldn’t eat it.  I think it was made of cardboard.  Why would you celebrate someone’s birthday with a fake cake?  And then we would sing “Penblwydd hapus i chi”.  Singing was good and it was kinda cool to sing in a different language but I was always baffled why everyone thought this language was incredibly important but no one spoke it to each other. 

But the big deal now was this strange new word I’d never heard before – practice.  Practice was when you had to play violin EVERY SINGLE DAY for half an hour.  And if I didn’t play I got no food.  The fights we had always ended up with me losing because I liked food and I worked out that although I blooming hated getting the violin out, tightening the bow and resin-ing it and having to cope with playing the thing even though it was out of tune, once I had it out it was OK and bearable.  My grandmother never watched me play but guarded the door so I was on the room on my own for half an hour every day.  I had to rely on working things out for myself because I was given relatively no guidance.  It was a good thing I was a good reader and it was good that I had a violin book to take home.

Although I was not happy with the violin, there was something new to me in the house – a piano.  My grandmother had a honkytonk old ship’s antique piano in the house and had the John Thompson books, a book called “The Jolly Herring” full of folk tunes and some funny songs and a Christmas Carol book called “The Easiest Christmas Carol Book”.  The first piece I learned was “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”, which my grandmother taught me by rote.  That was the first and last time she taught me anything.  The next thing I learned was “March of the Gnomes” from John Thompson 1.  I was pretty good at playing C but it was a bit strange why the book kept on telling you to play with both of your thumbs.  Why not just use your right hand?  So I always ignored the fingering, right from the beginning.  This is why my technique is very bad. 

I was pretty motivated so I got through the whole of John Thompson 1 pretty quickly and I took the book with me to visit my mother in the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.  I even played some piano duets with a nurse while my mum watched,  she wrote me a letter saying how proud she was of hearing me play. 

I then got onto John Thompson 2 and remember getting half way through and realizing I could go no further.  Because my technique was bad I just couldn’t play the pieces and I was getting bogged down with key signatures.  The next thing I did I think was incredibly mature of myself as I was only about 8. I decided I had to go back to John Thompson 1 and play it properly and read the instructions carefully.  This meant playing “The Sea Bees’ with the left hand and not just using one finger. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to never give up.  I think it comes back to this moment in my life. I have taught piano for over twenty years and I have used many different books and made my own ones up as well.  For really bright kids, Michael Aaron is really good but I’ve found that everyone seems to go back to John Thompson.  It’s old but it really does work.  For primary kids I normally do John Thompson 1 & 2 and half way through 3 then go straight onto Grade 1.  For secondary kids I normally do Michael Aaron 1, half way through 2 and then on to Grade 1. John Thompson does have an emotional hold on me, one of my Year 4’s was playing a piece for an audition this year and I immediately remembered it as “The Giant Steps” and smiled.  I remember what I thought was astounding creativity because you could actually put your left hand over your right one to play.  It’s only broken chord arpeggios but it had quite an effect on me.

The reason I think didn’t find it too hard to learn piano on my own was because of the violin lessons I was having at school.  I cannot remember learning how to read music but I do remember learning “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”.  The most important thing was having the time to think and when you were on your own for half an hour with your instrument, there was plenty of time to think.  I was getting pretty good and I was playing some pieces from the “Jolly Herring”.

On the 30th November 1986 I was told by my grandmother that we were going to London.  We nearly missed the train from Swansea; it was moving as we jumped on. I saw my mother in hospital.  She was on a ventilator.  I gave her a lamp that I had weaved from weaving class.  My granny gave her a white winter’s rose.  We left the hospital, I saw my auntie Carol but my gran said we had to go.  I remember walking down the street from the hospital wondering if I said goodbye to my mum.  I am sure I did but I can’t remember doing it.  We got back to West Wales.  I went to bed.

The next day I went down to play the piano.  My gran came down and said she had some bad news.  I said that I knew what it was and that my mum had died.  She nodded.  I turned the page in the book and played “In the Field of the Willows” on the piano.  I think I played this every day for the next ten years that I lived in the house.  I still cry every time I play it now.  No one gets over losing their mum.  I was only eight years old.  A few weeks later it was Christmas.  I got three presents from my mum, a tape recorder for my ZX Spectrum, a beautiful rainbow colored teddy bear and a violin.  The violin was more important to me then.

Cardigan

There was never any music in the house in Wales apart from me playing the piano, the violin and the recorder.  My grandparents didn’t listen to music, and the only sounds I heard most the day were the “pips” before the news on Radio 4 and the theme music from “The Archers”.  There were still TV programs and the theme music from Ski Sunday, Match of the Day and Test Match Sunday were great before Grandad would watch the sports on the BBC.  My favorite theme tunes from when I lived in Wales were “Lovejoy”, because of the sound of the harpsichord, “Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds” and I remember being quite taken aback with the music from the BBC series “The Tripods”.  This had really weird synthesized sounds, and sounded like it had come from out of space.  

We had a record player at home but I was never allowed to use it.  The record box had some classical music, some musicals and some really weird people who were white but were in blackface.  My grandmother had about six albums by the “Black and White minstrel band”.  I never got to hear any of these records until I was about sixteen when my grandparents were out for the day and I was home alone.  I never heard any pop music at home or at school.  I was not allowed to watch “Top of the Pops”.

I then found an instrument somewhere in the house.  I can’t remember exactly where I found it but it was a mixture between a piano and a recorder.  It was called a melodica.  I played it in my bunk bed and experimented with strange chords.  We had very thick walls so it didn’t matter how loud I would play as I wouldn’t disturb anyone.  I remember playing it one day and telling myself I needed to remember this moment really carefully for the future.  Basically I forced myself to remember a moment in time when I was just staring at a bookcase holding my melodica.  I had the melodica until my second wedding day where I played with a sea-shanty band at my own pirate wedding. The melodica is lost somewhere in Bermuda where I was living but it had thirty years of being played.  Hopefully one of the children in the pirate choir that sang for us might have picked it up and is playing it now.

Well things got a little bit more exciting musically because I made a new friend called Matthew who lived in a farm about a mile away.  He went to church so I got to sing in church for the first time.  And this was mega cool because the songs were groovy and there was a lady called Geraldine who played the guitar.  The best song was this new one by a guy called Graham Kendrick called “Shine Jesus Shine”.  We sang this on repeat every Sunday and people would clap their hands and then there would be dancing and then this huge lady would fall over and then loads of people would start praying over her.  Then this weird angelic singing would start called “Singing in Tongues”.  It sounded a bit like a mixture of something from a monastery, and saying the word “banana” backwards.  It got louder and louder and then would calm down.  Everyone held their hands in the air.  I sometime joined in the handjive but I never succeeded in the tongue-singing thing.  I’ve found out it’s called glossolalia.  These strange happenings occurred close to every week.  But then we got to play on the swings outside Abercych community hall and go back and play on the Commodore 64. Church was something I looked forward to every Sunday.  My grandparents sneered at me for going as they were staunch atheists but I loved singing and Graham Kendrick and Ishmael were writing some mega anthems. And after church we would have shared lunch and farmers cooked really good food.  Especially pies.  They also had an old honkytonk and a typewriter.  I spent hours of time playing church worship songs on the piano, and typing inane rubbish on a typewriter that didn’t actually have any ink in it.

Computers was the next musical thing for me because I was programming my ZX Spectrum to make music, using the command “beep”. I composed my own pieces and got it to play “Ode to Joy” through painstaking trial and error.  I learned a lot about pitch and duration from the Specky and how it all worked mathematically.  It also improved your aural skills because you had to really check if the sound you programmed was the right one.

Recorders were still a big thing and I remember getting annoyed that I had to play second recorder in our recorder group because I didn’t know how to play B flat.  I quickly learned B flat so I could play “Patapan” in Cardigan Primary’s Christmas Concert.  I think I also played the violin in an ensemble because I remember going to a room where one of the kids could play “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin.  He was amazing.  I remember thinking how incredible it would be to play like that. I also heard Cardigan Secondary School’s Orchestra and this had a major effect on me.  I was absolutely stunned by the sound.  Ever since then, the sound of an orchestra is one of the only things that makes me cry. 

And that was the end of Primary School for me because my grandmother announced that I was to go to Llandovery College at the age of 10.  I never completed Year 6.  The summer holiday I picked up stones in a wheelbarrow, picked raspberries in the garden and picked out tunes from”The Jolly Herring”.  I was pretty confident musically.  I was nowhere near the best at music in my class but it was something that I knew I was pretty good at.