INTERVIEW WITH GARY
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Gary’sperformance of the Ballade in the Lot Valley started me off on this journey. In the two-bedroomed flat he shares with his partner Wendy he told me an extraordinary story about the piece and its part in his life. He’s about two or three years younger than me – in jeans, loose T-shirt and trainers, shortish grey hair, with a fleck of brown at the front. A long face, with a fine aquiline nose and good cheek- bones. The words tumble out in a Manchester accent, with a slight drawl and frequent punctuations of ‘you know what I mean?’
Gary tells me his life story, drinking from a mug of tea on the sofa, sometimes jumping up to illustrate what he’s talking about on the small Steinway in the corner. He first encountered the piano as a little boy at his grandmother’s house. ‘We used to go round on a Saturday afternoon and it was the usual “Three Blind Mice” and “Frère Jacques” and that kind of thing.’ It wasn’t until he was twelve that he started to take lessons. He had grown up in Manchester, his parents divorced; the family, which was in the rag trade, was still there when he was offered a scholarship to a school in Hampshire. When he arrived, he discovered a piano in the dining hall. ‘I just phoned my mum up and said “Can I have lessons?”’ But he didn’t really enjoy playing that much at school, with the routine of lessons and exams it involved. And, as I’d suspected in the Lot Valley, we had been similarly average players as adolescents. ‘I did up to Grade 7, but wasn’t very good. I got passes but I didn’t get any merits or distinctions.’
After he left school, Gary more or less forgot the piano. He studied accountancy. ‘But then I realised I wanted to work for myself. At the age of 22, I came back from Australia after being there for a year, as you do, like a gap year after accountancy. I bought a newsagent’s just across the road here.’ After a while he left this behind, becoming a licensee in the pub trade for a few years. Then the 1990s recession hit and Gary got into financial difficulty. He soon needed to find new work that earned money fast. So he became a black-cab driver – ‘Great money. Very simple.’ And before he knew it almost ten years had passed. It was 2005 and he was 49.
‘I worked hard, you know, I was able to go out, do twelve-hour shifts, six days a week and then, when you come in, you just crash out, you know what I mean? But I hated the cab, every morning going out, I hated it.’
The work took its toll and by 2005 there was no doubt in Gary’s mind that he was depressed. ‘It was like every morning was Groundhog Day. And the only way I knew of getting out of that is, at the time I tried to do it through artificial things like, go to the pub you know? Or maybe if the right girl comes along, you know what I mean?’ He’d hit rock bottom – and at times felt suicidal. But then something happened.
Through the wall of his flat, Gary had become used to hearing a violinist practising. He made a decision. ‘I was so depressed, I thought I needed – I knew I needed – something to divert my thoughts. So I thought “Well what about the piano?” because I hadn’t touched it for years, never touched it. So I knocked on my neighbour next door and I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I can hear you playing the violin, I fancy taking up the piano again, can you point me in the direction?”
‘He was a violinist with the BBC Philharmonic, and so he says, “There’s the Alberti group that meet up in the city centre, at the Unitarian church on Cross Street. They meet up fortnightly, on a Wednesday.”
So Gary went to Cross Street Unitarian Chapel on a Wednesday evening in March 2005. (The chapel was, by coincidence, the church that C.P. Scott, the legendary editor and eventual owner of the Manchester Guardian, had attended.) The Alberti group consisted of amateurs, ‘just people like us. They have other careers or are retired or whatever.’ On that first evening, Gary played Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ – the only piece he could remember from his schooldays. ‘And that was it. I carried on going.’
He began to play frequently and found that the piano and these musical evenings with the group were having a wonderful effect on him. ‘I used to find that to get myself out of myself, if I spent a couple of hours on the piano, bang, you know, I could sort of forget the depression.’ And there was further happiness. After nearly a year with the group he met Wendy, asked her to play a duet with him, and fell in love.
A few months before he met Wendy, Gary had discovered the Ballade. He was watching Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, the story of the Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. In the film, Szpilman suffers terribly in the Warsaw Ghetto, loses his whole family and, once the city has been razed and its population deported, finds himself more or less alone to wander the wreckage. In perhaps the most important scene in the film, Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) is discovered by a Wehrmacht officer in the ruined city. This is possibly the end of the line for Szpilman, but first the officer forces him to play for him. Szpilman chooses the G minor Ballade.
Gary was spellbound. The piece spoke to him more deeply than any music he had ever heard. ‘It was the combination of me, the film, the music, and the piano. It all sort of came together, like, in a bit of an equation and a little bell rang.’ At first Gary struggles to explain the immediate appeal of the piece: ‘If I was to put it on now for you . . . it’s just majestic, it’s sublime, it’s . . .’ But then he strikes on something very interesting.
‘To me, Chopin’s telling a story of what he’s going through in his life with the first Ballade. He composed it when he was in his early 20s and, like a lot of great minds, they suffer with depression, searching for happiness and, as you know, through the Ballade, it starts very morose and then he’s trying to get himself out of this, and then it goes into that happy bit in the middle, and then it goes back into the depression, into that same theme, doesn’t it? It’s crying out for happiness. And then, right at the end, it’s sort of like, “I’m determined not to let life get me down.” It goes into this coda with a flourish right at the end saying, “I’m winning.”
‘The great thing with the Ballade, at the end it’s like giving you hope, saying, “You know what, life is not that, it doesn’t have to be that bad.”’
Gary immediately decided to learn the piece. ‘It didn’t take me very long to remember the notes.’
‘When you say it didn’t take you very long . . .’
Gary goes on to tell me that for the next two or three years, he actually played the Ballade as many as six times a day every single day. But this wasn’t enough. ‘I hammed my way through it mainly on this digital piano. It has a tendency, because you can turn the volume down, to make you sound better than you really are.’ Not only was the instrument deceptive, Gary was deceiving himself. ‘The days and the weeks and the months tick by and, really, if I would be honest with myself, I was thinking “You’re not doing this Gary.” You either give it up or play it very very slowly, or start again at the beginning.’
After these few years of obsessively playing the Ballade, but never really playing it, a moment came in early 2010, when Wendy asked, ‘What are you going to play at Lot?’ And from then on, for the seven months until piano camp, Gary put in an hour and a half a day of real practice – slow, methodical, repetitive, painstaking – the results of which were to have such an effect on me in that old French farmhouse.
I leave Gary feeling both uplifted and daunted. The story’s an inspiring one – someone who had sunk low and was in something close to black despair who had found his way back to life through the associations of one ten-minute piece of music. I actually think of the piece very differently: far from the ending expressing hope, it seems to me to be about disintegration and despair. But it had, in the film, saved Szpilman’s life and it had, in a way, saved Gary’s. He found in the G minor Ballade a particular kind of redemptive power which drove him to play it obsessively. And then, when that didn’t satisfy him, to begin all over again and learn how to perform it. Which was the daunting bit. Gary was my own beacon of hope: he gave me cause to believe that a modestly gifted amateur could, if determined enough, conquer the piece.