INTERVIEW WITH FIONA BALLANTINE-DYKES AND LIZ WARDE
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I started piano when I was about 5. When I went to senior school, I had a really good teacher. She took me up to Grade 8 at 16 and then, after that, for the next two years, I didn’t really do anything. She had left so I was sort of passed around people, and I didn’t know what to do next. Then I left school and I didn’t play for twenty-five years.
I brought up a family and then, of course, when the children started piano lessons, I managed to play the odd, you know . . . but I forgot more and more and more. By the time I got back to wanting to play again, I had to go right back to scratch.
I’m 52 now. So it must be ten years ago that I started . . . I went with one of the kids’ piano teachers, I found out he did lessons with adults, as a group, so I went with a friend for a bit of a laugh. That seemed less self- indulgent really. We did Sticky Toffee and silly little pieces. I got better quite quickly. When I caught up to where I had been I didn’t want to share a lesson any more. It became the one thing I could do which wasn’t for anybody else, a guilty pleasure.
When I decided to go for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Diploma it was about confidence really. The teacher suddenly made me think it wasn’t out of my reach and then it became a wonderful focus because it meant I had to practise, so it sort of gained its own status in my life. It meant I could do it without feeling that I shouldn’t be playing the piano.
I did the diploma, in 2003. I think I had been playing again for about four years. You have to play a complete programme as if you are giving a performance. And you have to dress as if you’re giving a performance. It was much more scary than childbirth, but not as painful!
Then you have to do a twenty-minute viva on your music and you have to do programme notes and really research the background and then you have this bloody sight-reading. I don’t know whether they were being kind to me but they gave me a waltz and there’s something about a waltz that you know you can just keep it going. I think I’m prouder of that than most things I’ve done in my adult life. In the run-up I was probably practising an hour and a half a day. In the evening, late, after the children were in bed . . . with a job as a counsellor, kids, family, playing, usually between ten and eleven at night. It’s still what I do.
I had a sort of crisis a couple of years ago and thought I don’t know why I do this, it’s too much time, and I’m not getting any better, I’m still terrified of playing, so what’s the point? Then the thought of giving it up felt like a bereavement, I felt really, really sad. So that gave me a new impetus and I tried to think about it differently. It doesn’t really matter if I never reach anybody’s standard, but I still want to be good.
Music has definitely been an emotional prop. And it de-stresses as well. I’m in a nicer mood if I get my piano practice in. I think it’s a physical thing as well as an emotional thing. There’s something very soothing about . . . Do you ever have moods when you think, ‘It’s got to be Bach,’ or something?
I used to belong to a piano group which met once a month and I did a masterclass when one or two Lot regulars were in the audience. One of them got hold of me afterwards and said was I interested in joining this course and I was amazed. It’s been far more than I ever imagined because it’s become the important focus for music, thinking about what you’re going to play, hearing other people playing, widening your repertoire, extending your ambi- tion for what you might be able to manage, and then having the best teaching you’d ever dreamed of.
Liz Warde combined teaching and nursing with bringing up five children in a pretty tough part of Manchester while still playing the piano every night.
I have five children, three girls, two boys. When I first met you I had two jobs, I did three and a half days’ nursing and I did two days’ teaching. I was going from night duty to school without a break, when a concert was on. It just got a bit much.
I was brought up in Hampshire but we moved further and further north. My dad, he was a maths teacher. I was about 9, I think, or maybe 10 when we moved to Manchester. I started piano at nearly 14, and then I did Grade 4 and Grade 7 and in less than three years. I was really interested and I just played all the time, but after that I didn’t do that much. Yeah, I got interested in going out. I continued doing scales which is really odd. I sort of quite like scales, I didn’t play pieces. Then I got married, at the age of 21 and, then, at 22, had a child, and I didn’t touch a piano for about . . . I had fifteen years of having children.
I don’t know if you know Wilmslow? Well, I’ve been there for thirty years. I started teaching about 1990, I think, for real. I did that and then did nursing and, when I qualified, that’s how I met Anne [Brain] – the surgeon who started the Lot music courses
The hospital was called Christie’s. Anne was operating. She was digging out this massive tumour, and music came up and then, I think a question was asked, it must have been the twelve-note system or something and I said something and Anne just looked at me. She just carried on with the oper- ation and at the end she called me into the back room, and said, ‘Come and see my tumour,’ you know, that she had just dug out, and then she was firing questions. About music. So she told me about this place. And I said I couldn’t possibly because I wouldn’t be up to standard, and she said, ‘Oh no you sound right.’
I only really started properly practising when I came here. I did musicals for school and, when I did that, I had to practise a hell of a lot for a week to learn something. But, since I met Anne, I’ve been seriously practising, first of all without a teacher, and now with a teacher. I’ve had him for about four years now. He was mad keen on exercises, which suits me.
Well, when I was on nights, you couldn’t actually practise, but, and it’s partly why, you know, partly why I did give up nursing and stuck to one job, it was either the nursing or teaching. All the time, it was always after midnight. I got a digital piano because of that so that I can do it at one o’clock, two o’clock, in the morning, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t mind doing performances for kids, you know, I’ll play for kids. And I don’t mind doing it for parents but to play for anyone who actually knows what it’s all about, it’s terrifying, I just won’t do it. Yeah! So much so that when you look at the keyboard you don’t even recognise it, and you think, ‘Where the hell is C?’
The most frightening situation I’ve been in was, I think, in hospital. There have been a couple of times when things have gone wrong and you look and you think you’ve got to do something immediately, like a resus or something, but I can’t remember ever being scared at school.
Why do I like playing? I enjoy sitting down, getting prepared, doing the exercises, and doing the piano piece. I enjoy every single bit of it and it’s a problem when I have to get up each time. I don’t play for anybody, there’s no reason to do it, except here, so this is like a motivation but I don’t even need this motivation to go and play really because I absolutely love it.
I can practise for about one and a half hours and I might actually do that about four, maybe even five times a week. But I enjoy it. It’s not like wasted, I just love doing it. Probably do it all wrong.
This course means everything to me; it’s inspiration isn’t it? I always take home things that I actually use, even if it’s a really very practical thing. I keep meaning to do what I hear from William – chop some inches off the piano stool. Everybody has different things, so I think it’s so practical, you always take something back, and it influences you for the rest of the year, well years, actually.