There are many people who have inspired me to play the piano, but it took a while to find them…
I began to learn piano many years ago when I was a small boy, and I didn’t really have anyone that inspired me at all at the time. The music itself was what inspired me to learn, and I just enjoyed it for what it was. However, after passing all of the classical grades I was suddenly left unsure of what to do next, and at the age of nineteen I was rather lost in terms of what style I wanted to play.
My tutor at the time wanted me to take my diploma’s and consider tackling full Beethoven Sonata’s of around 30 pages long, but it wasn’t something that I was interested in. And in all fairness, I wasn’t that good at classical either. Sure, I passed my grade 8 easy enough, and I never really practiced as much as I could have. So if I had put the hours in, then I could have gone even further and taken piano to the next level. But although I’ve always liked classical and still play it now, it’s not something that truly inspired and motivated me to want to play the piano.
I remember telling everyone at work that I’d passed my grade 8 and I was so proud and wanted to show off. And as luck would have it we had our works Christmas party a couple of months later and there was a piano right next to our table. So after a couple of beers they were all egging me on to play, which I agreed to do. However, when I sat down to play I suddenly realised that I didn’t have my music with me, and all that I could really play was the classical pieces I’d been learning for the grade 8. I could remember a few things however without the music, so I played some sections of the classical stuff I’d been learning over the previous few months. The problem with this though was that when you are in a restaurant surrounded by your work colleagues, they don’t seem to really enjoy classical too much whilst they are having a beer. So after about 10 minutes everyone seemed to get bored and just talked over me. I sat back down feeling a little embarrassed, and although everyone told me I was good, I realised that I hadn’t made much of an impression.
So what was the point in me learning to play all these years when I couldn’t entertain a few of my friends? Now I’m not saying that classical piano doesn’t entertain, and it probably didn’t help that the grade 8 pieces are not exactly the crème de la crème, and neither am I when it comes to playing classical piano. But in that particular scenario and atmosphere, it just wasn’t the right style.
I remember feeling really disappointed with myself after that night, and I felt that all my hard work had gone to waste. However, salvation was just around the corner, and on my 21st birthday my Dad surprised me with some tickets to go and see Jools Holland who I’d started to take a liking to at the time. My brother came along also for the ride, even though it wasn’t to his liking usually, but as it was my birthday he agreed to come. So the three of us were sat on the balcony waiting for him to come on, and I happened to realise that we were sat on the right hand side of the stage looking down and across, and I wouldn’t be able to see his fingers. So although we were really close to the stage, I wouldn’t be able to see what he was playing, which was a huge disappointment as a pianist. But fortunately for me, when Jools Holland came on and starting playing, a big screen came up behind him and a camera was sat pointing along the keys showing everyone in the audience a close up of what he was playing. This was a very new concept to me and it hadn’t occurred that something as simple as this was going to happen. And it was amazing! I was able to see what he was playing and it made the whole show much better for it.
What inspired me the most was what he was playing – boogie woogie. I’d heard this style a couple of times before, but not really to the extent of a whole show. And what amazed and inspired me the most about this style and Jools Holland, was his ability to sit down at the piano and just starting playing a left hand on his own, without anyone else playing, and make such a huge sound. I’d always been taught to play mainly with both hands, so to hear a left hand make such a statement was unreal.
From that day on I realised what I wanted to play, and that was boogie woogie and blues. So I set about watching as many videos as I could of people playing boogie woogie left hands, to try and learn them for myself. At the time I couldn’t seem to find any sheet music, so the only way I could learn was to observe and try and pick up the notes, fingers, and rhythm of what I could see and hear. It was very difficult at first, but once I’d mastered a few left hands, then the rest fell into place. However, the hardest part I found after learning the left hand was to put a right hand to it over the top. Hand independence is a huge part of play boogie woogie, and I set about practicing the left hand for hours and hours before I played the right hand. It was very boring at times, but essential if you want to play boogie woogie well.
After many years of practice I can finally play this style well, along with slow blues. I’ve played in some great blues bands over the past few years which have allowed me to play what I’ve learnt, and to see the reaction and enjoyment on the audience’s faces is priceless, and something that continues to inspire me to play and perform when I can.
However, I don’t forget my roots, and taking the classical exams and spending countless hours practicing scales is what got me here. So if anyone asks me now how to play boogie woogie, then I always try and push them in the direction of learning classical first. It isn’t always essential, and there are many exceptional boogie woogie players out there that haven’t played classical and can’t read music that would disagree with me; but I always feel that these people are in a very talented minority that can get away with it. For the most part, learning to read music and playing classical is an important foundation that can be used to either continue playing classical, or to branch out to other styles.
If I ever now come across a piano in a bar or pub, and my friends want me to play something, then I always make them smile with boogie woogie. I can sit down, start playing that left hand, and get everyone’s attention.
So for anyone reading this that’s keen to learn the blues and boogie woogie styles, don’t forget that you may need to put the hard work in first to get what you want…