Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
An interview with author and amateur pianist, Howard Smith
Howard Smith has had a top-flight career in the world of computing and computer programming. On approaching retirement, he decided to leave his career and try something completely different – learn to play the piano. Howard had started the learn to play the piano as a child but was uninspired by the rigid approach adopted at that time and did not continue with his studies. In his book, Note For Note – Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered he describes the new and creative approaches which his teachers adopted to enable him to engage with the process of learning to play.
In the early part of the book Howard shows a voracious intellectual appetite for information which leads him to explore musical theory and harmony. He describes how his teachers equipped him with the knowledge and skills to enable him to improvise at the piano and to write songs. Howard displays a fascination throughout about how to merge and integrate the technical and formal aspects of music into the creative process. He describes how he was able to draw on his experience as a computer programmer which was highly technical and innovative. His objective is to understand what it feels like to be a musician notwithstanding the fact that he has come to the process later in life.
Howard’s musical journey was interrupted by a serious accident which he describes in the book. While this was in many ways a setback it nevertheless provided him with the space and time for reflection which he needed to write the book.
I spoke to Howard about what drew him back to the piano as an adult, the various relationships he describes in the book and how they helped him to understand music and to become a musician, how he got to grips with the theoretical aspects of musical theory and harmony, his approach to improvisation and writing songs and the impact of the accident on his musical journey. I also asked if he had any advice for anyone else who wishes to learn to play the piano later in life.
Robert Beattie: In the book you say you got to Grade 3 on the piano as a child but otherwise had no formal musical education. What drew you back to the piano as an adult?
Howard Smith: Memory can play tricks. I remember something about ‘grade 3’ as a child, but cannot be sure and have absolutely no idea what that mark would mean four decades later? I have always loved music. All music. I flirted with the music department at school and was drawn to a diversity of forms. It included, of course, progressive rock, but also the major works of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett (specifically) and also music that was regarded at the time as ‘avant garde’, such as Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle; ‘English’ contemporary composers. I have no idea how I came across those unusual works as I was channelled at school into science and engineering. As you know from having read my book, I was bewitched by the physics of music, the resonances and the mechanics of the piano mechanism and did not take ‘practice’ seriously. I used to spend hours prodding and poking our modest family upright, more as an engineering and aural toy than as an instrument to play. As a child, I did not have the patience to learn classical technique so, inevitably, lessons dried up. Yet throughout my adult life I listened to a vast amount of music, in every conceivable genre. Equally, I had a love of computing and was building and programming computers from a very early age, from the late 70’s onwards.
It was a career which was all consuming and it really took off in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was marvellous to ride the ‘digital wave’ from its beginnings, but as projects became larger and more complex the management work became stultifying, even ‘political’, especially those lightening-rod projects in the public sector. Success wasn’t measured by innovation but by Politics, Public Relations and the Stock Market, or all three. So, approaching sixty, I spotted a narrowing window of opportunity to do something new. It had to be creative, but also ‘different in kind’ to my work in IT. I was out shopping, walked into a music shop, and asked for a lesson. Over time this became my passion, foil to any regret I harbour about not pursuing music from childhood, a far easier path. I think I wanted to understand what would it mean to be a musician. No, to be clear, I needed to FEEL what it was like – a second life. I set out to take the process of learning the piano as seriously as I had taken my career in software engineering. Why did I take up piano as a mature adult? It’s all that mix of reasons, Robert.
RB: In the book you describe your relationships with your teachers and your penfriend, and your cat also makes an appearance. Can you tell us about these relationships and how they helped you develop as a pianist?
HS: There are three teachers in my book. They know who they are and I owe then a great debt of gratitude. When I first stepped into the music shop, they asked me questions about the type of music I was listening to and married me up to a very talented jazz musician. He and I grew up in the same era and we had listened to similar music. I was entranced by his ability to play by ear, note perfect even from complex music. Moreover, he demonstrated what I labelled ‘extreme musicology’. Whatever I threw at him, he could see where the music had come from, tracing back the harmony, style and instrumentation, often to the original composer or influence. He embodied everything I would have wanted to be had I pursued music as a career. We met once a week for ‘lessons’, although many of these seemed more like ‘jazz improvisation’ than what I imagined a classically training piano teacher would provide. He had clearly ‘worked me out’. I was intrigued as much by the theory as I was by performance and having a technical facility. When we studied a piece of music he dissected it as I wanted to understand it. Two years later he was racing ahead and I was struggling to keep up. His course of magic has run its course, for me at least. I was ‘blocked’. I needed something else and did not know it; until I saw it.
The next musician I worked with was a singer songwriter. Her genre was what might loosely be called ‘folk-pop’. How we met was one of several strange, other-worldly, coincidences I relate in my book. She was in the throes of an early song-writing career and I found her music beguiling. It appeared to come straight from her soul. Such music cannot be described so easily: words and harmony speaking as one, without any pretence. The music arrives new-born, newly minted, each and every time. I desperately needed to understand how this was achieved. I had been writing a few embryonic songs of my own, using my knowledge of jazz theory, but was struggling to complete any. One of these was called ‘The Blue Snowman’. No spoilers. Something about my concept chimed with her style. I sent her a sketch of the thing and it was that which connected us. We collaborated on and off over the following months. I was in awe with her ability as a songwriter.
Generally, I am in awe of talented people and how they approach the creative process. This may bear a connection with my career in IT which, towards the end, had increasingly focussed on the management of innovation teams. In any case, my unexpected relationship with this musician grew into a friendship as she helped me to develop my songs, several of which we performed together. More than anything else, she taught me that whatever I write must come from an honest place in my heart. It was why the first song I wrote was a love song for my wife. The lyrics, harmony and steps of the writing process I set out in detail in the book. I hope to have achieved something unique here, an explanation of song-writing that I’ve not seen elsewhere. The process of writing ‘Unbound’ and then to perform my first songs in front of my wife and a large group of our friends (our first ‘living room concert’) finally gave me an insight into what it means to be a musician. An emotional rollercoaster for sure! It also revealed that I still had a mountain to climb. Performing to friends is one thing. Working in the studio is quite another. Wishing to record my music, I found that despite a decent understanding of theory and some well-notated ‘lead sheets’, my technical facility at the keyboard was not yet up to the rigours of improvising a sufficiently rich accompaniment for the vocal parts, beyond simple chord sequences and arpeggiation. And so …
Three years into my adult journey to music, it was back to school; for piano lessons, classical music, and piano technique. A classically trained concert pianist and teacher determined that ‘I had some facility’; maybe Grade 5 at a stretch. She agreed to take me on. Our lessons together were the polar opposite of everything I have so far described: chalk and cheese. Freewheeling conversation about the physics and jazz harmony and vibrating strings, let alone any emotional soul-searching while song-writing, were not her thing. Not at all. We agreed to focus purely on technique; studies and music that demanded attention to detail. And yes, J.S. Bach, the Inventions and Sinfonias. It was this teacher who guided me through my first practical examinations and thus set the scene for further progress towards my ‘unrealistic’ goal of ‘becoming a musician’ in late middle age. It paid off. Bad habits, ingrained through unguided self-teaching, were slain.
I often hear from friends in my piano circle that it is difficult to find the right teacher. I found three. And all by chance. They could not have been more different however. Each allowed me to be who I am and worked with me on my own individual goals. Then I had a set back.
RB: Do you want to say something about the accident?
HS: No. It’s too painful. I could not play for over 9 months. I estimate I lost maybe 18 months of hard-won skills. It’s far from easy to learn to play the piano as an adult and even easier to lose. Most good amateurs, I noted, achieved more as a child than me, or they returned to the instrument earlier in life. My ‘gap’ was forty years, from a very low base. I am the proverbial VERY late returner. Acutely aware that my ‘window of opportunity’ was closing, to lose 18 months was unbearable. Even when playing at intermediate grades, any significant time away from the keyboard means that you are going backwards. Piano is NOT like riding a bike. My surgeon told me there would be ‘an inevitable period of retraining’. Sobering.
And then the pandemic hit. Music teachers, and summer schools, started closing up shop. Among amateurs, but also among professionals, I’m hearing more and more stories of musicians who feel their development has been set back by the Covid-19 restrictions. Remote learning and Zoom is not enough to sustain us. Many musicians feel a need to be around, and to collaborate with, other musicians.
RB: Piano lessons over Zoom can be a problem. I am a piano teacher myself and it can be difficult if the screen freezes when someone is in the middle of doing something. I find one has to be innovative in one’s approach to giving lessons over the internet and to develop new techniques to keep students engaged. You go into a lot of detail in the book about musical theory and harmony. I was pleased to see this emphasis on musical theory as I always encourage my own piano students to focus on theory. How valuable was the theoretical work in helping you develop as a pianist?
HS: For me, invaluable. I’m as interested in the science of music as much as the art. As I explained, I was never in the ‘music set’ as a teenager, but for reasons lost in the mists of time and memory, I had a copy of Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony as a child. Of course, I recognise that theory is not a prerequisite for being a great pianist. I’ve met astounding amateurs who have no interest in theory and yet are marvellous pianists. Having said that, the more you dig into the top musicians’ biographies, you do find a surprising degree of academic study. Had I not learned theory from my jazz teacher I could not have written the songs we talked about. I wanted to know how to craft a piece of music to create specific effects which would engage an audience. I needed to be able to improvise around a piece and to play ‘at will’; to compose at the keyboard. I find the encoded language of musical theory both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I find it useful to look at the scores of major works. I don’t know, but I suspect, many of the greatest virtuosic pianists, the great interpreters, do understand deep theory even if they have never written a simple song of their own. How else could they absorb a complex work and then sit down to play entirely from memory? It’s a miracle. I once witnessed an extreme example of this, perhaps. A young man, I forget his name. Without score, he played the entirety of Birtwistle’s ‘Harrison’s Clocks’. Remarkable.
RB: It’s interesting the different approaches which Classical composers take to composition and notation. Chopin used to improvise at the piano but when it came to writing the music down afterwards he sometimes found the process very laborious. Mozart on the other hand composed music in his head and just wrote in down.
HS: Then I feel closer to Chopin than Mozart, if that is not an entirely pretentious thing to say. My jazz teacher was able to instantly play something on the piano which he had just heard on YouTube for the first time. And not just the usual ‘pop hack’ tricks. No, complex music. I have picked up a little (I stress) of that capability from him. Oh, how I would love to do more. I often talk to my friends about what it means to be ‘musical’ – it seems to be a mixture of the physical, mental and theoretical all coming together to create the musician, an artist. I need to feel what that is like, in spite of coming to this journey in later life. It is, of course, an entirely unrealistic goal, I know that. But I must try. It’s what I now am.
Yes, that’s the reason I walked into the music shop and stepped onto my ‘escalator’: a metaphor I use a lot in my book. Have you ever tried to get off? It’s virtually impossible. As you know from the text, I’ve experienced many blocks; mental and physical – some lasting a few days, others coming back to haunt me, time and again. ‘Voice leading’ among rich chords is one of those. But having embarked on this crazy journey, I cannot accept failure, doomed to repeat childhood ill-discipline with practice (and the inevitable regret forty years later when you find yourself wondering why you never learned to play!). My own escalator may not always move forward smoothly. More often than not it moves in fits and starts; a bumpy, unpredictable, yet utterly unstoppable magic carpet. It’s the music.
RB: Can you describe your experiences learning to improvise at the piano?
HS: I am aware of the many harmonic progressions used in popular music and in jazz music, 2-5-1s, 1-6-4-5-1s and the like (major and minor). I see the correspondence between jazz harmony and the harmonic progressions in the music of Ravel, Satie and other impressionistic composers. I know what I can theoretically achieve using particular chord transitions, what will and will not work. But I’m not an accomplished improviser in any sense, although my family are sometimes surprised by my meanderings. I know the truth. When I improvise, I rarely achieve more than a fragment of music. It starts well but does not ‘go’ anywhere. I hope to gain an ability to improvise ‘whole’ works, music that could then be refined through notation and played to and by others. I am attending Chetham’s School of Music this summer and have signed up for improvisation classes there. Theory at this level I find esoteric; hard to grasp hold of. Given that music is concerned with emotions and feelings, there appears to be no script I can follow. But I am always looking out for clues on how to achieve the psychological impact. The world of pure musical creativity is a fuzzy landscape indeed. Will I find help at summer school? I hope so. I think so. I recognise it will take time; time that is running out for me. My fear again.
RB: Do you know the Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero? She often asks the audience to give her a tune and she them improvises on it. I always find it very impressive that she is able to do that spontaneously in front of an audience.
HS: It is extremely impressive. I have never met an unintelligent musician and there is a strong correspondence between raw intelligence and music, I feel.
RB: What prompted you to write the book?
HS: Note For Note was not a commercial project. I am not a teacher. The end result was as much a surprise to me as it must be for established musicians who come across it. I was entranced by music and musicians, and by the process of learning to play. It led me to write to a friend (the ‘penfriend’ in my story) on an almost daily basis. A biologist with an interest in neuroscience, he has a special interest in the learning process; the functioning of the brain; the human cortex. Our response to, and experience of playing music, offered him a playground for thinking about consciousness, brain plasticity and more. That I was corresponding with my friend about such matters was interesting to him. A few years into my journey we realised I had the raw material for a book – a musical fable. I had written a couple of successful technology books in the past, so I knew what was required to take on such a project.
Initially I put the idea aside, fearing it would interfere with the limited time I had to practice. (At this point I was still in full time employment.) But then, with the accident, I had nothing better to do than sit at a computer and write. I probably had 3000 emails to work from which provided the raw material (memory jogger) for the book. It was therapy for me. In writing, I was replaying my time on the escalator and wondering how I would ever be able to jump back on. As a properly structured book emerged, I was encouraged by friends and teachers to share it with the community. I could have dumped a crude PDF on them, but I like doing things properly. And I felt the book (I also designed the cover and typography) would be something for me to hold and read in old age, when my hands, and/or mind, have given up the ghost and ‘playing the piano’ would no longer be feasible. Did those parts of my story shock you, Robert?
RB: I wouldn’t say I was shocked although I had the sense that the latter part of the book was much more personal than the earlier section which talked about more about your piano journey including coming to grips with musical theory and the various relationships you developed as part of this.
HS: Yes, I think the accident allowed me more time for reflection and to think about why I was so drawn to music. The earlier chapters, more concerned with the theory, simply reflect what was happening in my life at the time. Everything you read in the book is true, covering the period Friday 14 February 2014 to New Year’s Day 2018. Every event, every note, every chord symbol, every lesson, even the process of lyric writing. All my struggles, lesson by lesson, month by month. But I stress, my book is not a diary. I hope I have managed to create something unique: a blend of theory and practice; how one person navigated their transition from one career to another. Is software and music that different? Perhaps not. Performance, on the other hand, surely is. My ‘performance anxiety’ is profound. And that’s the awkward journey I also try to tell in Note For Note: from theory to practice and beyond: the mystical process my teacher calls ‘song-writing’ and I call voodoo magic.
RB: I was actually very pleased to see the theory chapters in the book. I always strongly encourage my own piano pupils to learn theory. It can often seem very dry and mathematical, but I came away from the book feeling you were relishing and enjoying all the theoretical work.
HS: Yes, I was. My penfriend played the game, perfectly. When I could not explain some aspect of theory to him (he having never picked up an instrument, other than a brief flirtation with percussion), he told me so, and in no uncertain terms. I doubt our conversations helped him with neuroscience, but he helped me, enormously. Our frequent interactions crystallised my thoughts. His naïve questions forced me to explain what I thought I knew and revealed what I did not. He became my sounding board and agony aunt. The back and forth of our correspondence proved a much-needed pulse of reinforcement along the way. It was a boon for which I shall be eternally grateful; he kept me going during the most difficult – and occasionally dark – periods of my journey.
RB: Would you encourage more adults to take up the piano later in life?
HS: It’s not for me to tell anyone what to do. I would encourage them to take up whatever they truly need to do. Many of us are living longer these days, and there is ample time to do all manner of things. I can sit alone at the piano for hours, often late into the night. Let’s call it aimless improvisation. It’s certainly not music, but it is entirely absorbing. Night-time is the best. The quiet lends a particular focus to the proceedings. I feel I am falling into the piano, descending into the body of the instrument and experiencing its resonance first-hand – a glorious place. But would I tell anyone to try? Piano at a decent level? It’s hard. As I say in my Preface, ‘only embark on such a costly expedition if you are clear that it is what you need and must do. The road ahead will be more than a little rocky.’
RB: How far have you progressed on the piano and what pieces are you learning now?
HS: I have recently completed Grade 7 and I’m hoping that my stay at Chetham’s this year will help prepare me for the significant step to Grade 8. In other news, I’m intending to record music by Satie, with my own improvised fragments between each piece. The concept is to reset the listener’s ear ready for the next in sequence. Satie’s harmony can be an ambiguous slippery fish. And I am working on a set of miniatures by Giya Kancheli, hoping to record many of them. And … perhaps this is a step too far, I’m studying the Andante from the Ravel G Major Concerto. There is a wonderful transcription for piano solo which includes just enough of the orchestral parts to satisfy me. I think it’s playable by someone at Grade 7/8; if they work hard at it. It’s a challenge to sustain the long lines. When I approach a new work, where it is obvious it will require a lot of repetition over several months, I have to REALLY like the music; it also has to offer some elements that will help move me on to the next part of my learning. I fell in love with this concerto a long time ago and the Andante is extremely reminiscent of jazz solo lines over a well-defined set of harmonies. Ravel said it was tortuous to write.
RB: I think Ravel was a fairly fastidious composer and it normally took him a relatively long time to write new compositions. He was also influenced by jazz and there’s a famous photograph of him with Gershwin in New York.
HS: That’s right. I always try to mix jazz and classical as I move forward. Right now I am working on a piece called ‘Random Hearts’ by the Jazz musician Dave Grusin. Originally written for the film of the same name, it’s a beautiful improvisation around the main themes. The transcription I am using is pretty accurate (detailed) but the notation cannot completely capture Grusin’s performance from his solo album. Details matter, and not everything can be written down. That’s another thing I’ve learnt about music that I had no idea about when I first stepped onto the escalator.
RB: Howard, it’s been most interesting learning more about the background to your book. Your comments about taking up new challenges as an adult certainly had a lot of resonance with me as I am sure they will with many others. Thanks very much for talking to us.