Tuesday, 29 May 2012


When I was a child, my parents acquired a beautiful old piano and arranged for a musical friend of my mum's to teach me how to play it. I was never much good. Constantly moving house and changing teachers didn't help but basically my excuses are of the usual type. I didn't practise enough.

These days I can just about get by picking out a tune. I can play some bits and pieces and my scales by relying on spookily effective muscle memory and, if I worked at it, I could probably work myself up a little portfolio of polished pieces. If I practised.

But even though my own musical career has hardly been sparkling, I fervently believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn how to play something. There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as making music in the company of others but you need at least some of the basics in order to make that happen.

A while ago I was hunting around for a new piano teacher for child number 2 and so I did what you usually do in these circumstances - I asked in the playground.

"We've got a great teacher,' said one mum. "He comes to the house. He's really enthusiastic and the kids love him." That ticked all my boxes. I probably should have been more interested in qualifications and whatnot but stumbling across a child friendly teacher was such a boon that I fixed up a lesson and hoped for the best.

We have never looked back.  Each week he turns up and my children torture him with bad jokes, their own compositions and occasional gentle violence. All kinds of sounds emanate from the room during the course of the hour. Scales of course and set pieces to varying degrees of proficiency but also unusual rhythms and unfamiliar chords. Recently he taught one of them how to play a discordant version of that old taunt ner ner ne ner ner with which they have constantly goaded each other ever since. And there's laughter.... lots of laughter.

When I took lessons, as one used to say, I sat at the piano, played dreadful arrangements of classical pieces with the constant beat of a metronome ticking away in the background like a bomb. I spent most of the lesson frightened or bored or both and the result it what you see. An incompetent pianist. My children's teacher is showing them how to use what they learn to make music. He instills in them the confidence to experiment, to leave behind the printed notes and discover how to make the rules work for them.

I don't know whether they will carry what they learn forward into their adult lives but the mere fact that they don't see playing as a chore gives me confidence that perhaps they will. One of my favourite things is to hear a child, any child, sitting at the piano and tinkering, picking out a familiar tune or experimenting with pitch or key signatures. Even making the instrument reflect a mood when there is no discernible tune at all is music to my ears.

It's as I always say - a good teacher is good but a great teacher is so much more than the some of their parts and what they teach you stays with you for life. I only really had one of those teachers in my life but he too, coincidentally, taught music. And now my children also have a fantastic woodwind tutor who brings a similar excitement and sense of adventure to his lessons. I hope that they don't look back on their musical tuition with a sense of missed opportunity like I do but with fondness at the fun that they had on a Tuesday afternoon. And hopefully they may make a little music too.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Sixty is the new forty we're told. Women are no longer shackled by clothing conventions of the past and can get away with whatever they fancy wearing. It seems that anything goes. My hairdresser tells me that she recently dyed her mother's hair pink and I smile wryly as I try to imagine my own mother suggesting that to my grandmother. We are now, we're told, allowed to wander around Top Shop without pretending that we are buying for our daughters or going to a fancy dress party. We too are welcome and our browsing is just as legitimate as those thirty years younger.

I'm not sure I believe it. I have undoubtedly reached a stage when I see things I would once have loved but now leave on the rack untried. And I'm not talking about the obvious stuff. My days of hot pants and cropped tops left me in my teens and I shudder at anything that leaves more leg on show than not. But there are other, less obvious no go areas. I could wear super-skinnys but I won't. Ditsy floral tops are no longer for me and Peter Pan collars make me feel like Grayson Perry.

I do know the new party line. I've watched Mary Portas. I can wear whatever I like as well as its well cut. So what's holding me back? Mutton dressed as lamb. I remember first hearing the expression when I was a young child and it fired my imagination. I pictured a sheep in sheep's clothing and wondered what on earth it had to do with the woman in the leopard print cat suit to whom it was being applied.

We are all judged by our appearance within seconds if the statistics are to be believed. I was only too aware of this when my entire wardrobe, barring the clothes I stood up, in was stolen from the car on my first day at University. There I was, 19 years old leaving home to live with a bunch of girls I'd never met in a new city and without a stitch to wear. All the things that I had carefully built up through out my teenage years together with some choice vintage pieces of my mum's all gone. Divested of my image, I had to begin university without one, gradually piecing myself back together as money allowed. So the impact that I hoped to make on my fellow students was lost. Looking back I'm not sure I ever really recovered my sense of self until I was able to start again somewhere new.

So, whilst I generally don't give a hoot what people think of me, when it comes to what I wear it's important. I have a favourite shop and I buy almost everything I have there. It suits what I like to think of as my style and it's firmly marketed at women my age, as the 80's soundtrack will attest to. I'd struggle to make a mistake in there and whilst it may seem a bit dull, it suits me for the time being whilst I work out how I want to dress in the second half of my life.

I'm sure my ideas will change over time - they generally do. What I consider to be a no-no now may well be gracing my wardrobe next year. I suppose having teenage daughters with their brutal honesty will keep me in line. After all, standing next to them can shatter one's self confidence if you're not very careful! Maybe I should wait until I'm in my 80s and then I can wear purple and dye my hair blue and not give a fig about age appropriate clothing. Until then, I'll just have to continue to feel my way and hope for the best!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


Who'd be the First Born?

Well, me actually. I came first with all my parents' hopes, fears and aspirations clinging to my back like the proverbial monkey. I blazed those trails. I battled for privileges that my younger brother, following comfortably in my wake, simply took as read. But it wasn't all bad. My birth position carries distinct advantages. I had no one to live up to.  Everything I did was seen for the first time and consequently was charming and appreciated. And all the photos are of me. Looking back it doesn't seem that being the elder child was too much of a disadvantage. I seem to have survived relatively unscathed.

My own First Born does not appear to share my view. She is certain that she gets the sticky end of the stick. Following careful consideration by her and her friends, it has been decided that she only has it so hard because she is the eldest and that by the time her little brother comes through we parents will have abandoned our frankly silly rules about what is and isn't acceptable. She truly believes that for every battle she fights, her sister a mere school year behind her, gains all the advantage.

And she's right of course, to a degree. Being the First Born does carry with it inherent problems. We all know that children don't come with a manual. We all make it up as we go along. Parenting is a combination of what you hear, what you see, what was done to you as a child and a healthy dollop of gut instinct. Therefore, if fate decides that you will pop out first then you simply have to deal with your parents feeling their way along. You are their great experiment. Such is your lot in life.

I do have a degree of sympathy for her stance. Things that seemed of monumental importance first time round are eclipsed by other issues when they come up for the fourth time. Problems that gave me angst filled days and sleepless nights when I first encountered them become just another complication with subsequent children. Her younger siblings get away with things that were totally forbidden when she was their age. The issue hasn't changed - it's just that I have a different perspective on it. I know things now that I didn't then. I am starting to work out which battles to fight and which ones to ignore.

But what my eldest probably won't understand until she has children of her own, is that some things are non negotiable no matter when you were born. I am certain that there are some issues where I will come down just as hard on her little brother as I am doing on her. And they are nothing to do with parenting styles, experience or losing the will to fight. Those things are all about the values that we, as her parents, believe in. They are strong and true and unshakeable and will always remain just as important to us no matter how often we have to explain them. And that, I'm afraid, is just life.