My name is Luke Freeman, 28 from Burntwood in Staffordshire: Piano improviser, composer and barbershop singer. I would like to share my reflections on past experiences, how they have shaped where I am today as a pianist.
It’s often said that we are the product of every choice we have ever made. But I would like to also put forward that we are the product of every choice we didn’t make. There will always be forces outside of our control and learning to accept that which we cannot control is as important as making the right choice when we can. This is the framework on which my story hangs.
It is easy to say at this point that I grew up in a non-musical family. But a family of non-musicians would be more accurate. My mother, had a good sense of melody and would sing to me as a child. My brother, a good sense of rhythm, was into pop music and DJing.
During primary school I had the opportunity to learn violin which was very short-lived. The trumpet had a little more appeal to me and I played for a couple of years in a marching band with the Boy’s Brigade.
I have my brother to thank for taking up interest in electronic keyboard though. Three years older than me, he had keyboard lessons at school and his lack of interest meant that the Yamaha PSR-73 our parents bought would have gone to waste, so I started lessons when I was in year 3 (7 years old).
Keyboard lessons were in groups of 2-3 with Peter Howard, a local keyboard teacher who had composed a lot of his own teaching materials. We would wear headphones while others were taught individually, then would take them off when we performed to each other and as a group.
It wasn’t long before I was ready to take LCM grades, would eventually reach Grade 7 (skipping grade 2 and 6), continuing with Gillian Eccles during sixth form (17-18yrs old) who taught me the importance of learning scales.
As a side note, I always had an aptitude for learning by ear and would mimic music that I’d heard on TV.
Though my interest in keyboard waned on a few occasions, coming very close to quitting all together, I was always persuaded/supported by my mother to keep going. I’m grateful for these experiences, keyboard playing instilled in me a sense of what chords were, common progressions and keys. Exposing me to the various instruments and styles that the electronic keyboard offered.
It was in high school where my attention turned to the piano though I’d regularly heard one at morning assembly in primary school.
The penny-dropping moment came hearing Mr Cottom, a gentleman who would regularly accompany students for exams, play Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag one break time. I was mesmerised by his hands. It wasn’t until a few years after that I’d find out the name of what he had played and try to emulate it myself.
The earliest pieces I remember playing on the piano were The Sims – Build 1 Theme and Einaudi’s Le Onde, though at the time, I didn’t have the focus to finish them to a reasonable standard. During Year 11 (16yrs) I asked Peter Howard for private piano lessons to work on reading the bass clef and giving my left hand more to do. These continued for a year until he retired from the profession.
Sixth form presented some fantastic performance opportunities when I was invited to join the school jazz band as the pianist. With numbers like Hello Dolly, Blueberry Hill and Tuxedo Junction we toured Belgium and Holland, and performed regularly at local events. I was also part of the band in school productions of The Wizard of Oz and Bugsy Malone.
I took an interest in Rachmaninov, particularly his Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 No2, various piano pieces from the Final Fantasy game series, Joe Hisaishi’s piano music, also Michael Nyman’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First from The Piano. I made some lasting friendships with a couple of other musical mis-fits from our year (you know who you are!).
I feel at this point it is important to mention, during year 11 and sixth form, I suffered bouts of anxiety and depression that would continue into university. A reluctance to go to school, falling behind on lessons made the situation worse. I wouldn’t talk about it, I’d fake being ill to get away from having to face up to the world and the monsters I thought were in it. Break and lunchtimes I’d isolate myself and play piano. Learning I could make music up, that I didn’t need to learn to play what was written. I’m not even sure I called it improvising then, it was that nameless something I thought only I could do. No right or wrong, just a sense of freedom and escape.
My music teachers, Michelle Hargrave and Esther Walker-Harris were so understanding and could see the troubles I was having. There were times in sixth form I was off weeks on end, but they were sensitive and supportive, that things would be ok even if I only attended jazz band that week. Despite this I managed get my act together, re-sit exams and successfully audition a short keyboard and piano piece to secure a place at studying music at Bath Spa University in 2008.
My time at university was a mixed bag. I took up the traditional classical and jazz piano lessons, dropping keyboard, though I still had one with me, a Yamaha Tyros 2, later part exchanged for a Yamaha U1 upright.
In classical piano I worked on Liu Yang River by Wang Jianzhong and Final Fantasy – Those Who Fight. In jazz piano, Autumn Leaves helped me to understand the fundamentals of jazz harmony and chord voicings.
Though excited to be among fellow musicians I had insecurities about my own abilities. Being the “best” in sixth form to being one of the “worst” at university.
I didn’t feel I was a real piano player (what is a real piano player anyway?) because I hadn’t taken any piano grades, and electronic keyboard as a serious instrument was falling out of fashion. I failed the first year, admitting that I hadn’t taken things seriously enough. Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew taking on both classical and jazz. Or just spent too much of my time around alcohol and nights out.
Given the opportunity to re-sit the first year again, I had developed some major social anxieties about going back a failure, having to make new friends and face the same teachers I felt I’d let down. Depressed, I slipped back into my old self and shut myself away. This culminated in a couple of trips to hospital, due to substance abuse.
The university was supportive during this time and helped me access the help I needed. Returning home to a loving family and girlfriend helped me stay on the straight and narrow.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though, I learned an important lesson… Never give up. I hadn’t lost my love for piano music even if I had lost love for myself. Throughout all of this, I never stopped playing.
If anything, it spurred me on to study independently once back home. I developed an understanding of harmony and theory via all the books I could afford on my minimum wage job. Books such as, Fux’s The Study of Counterpoint, Pratt’s The Dynamics of Harmony, Tymoczko’s A Geometry of Music, Gorow’s Hearing and Writing Music.
I bought a new Roland FP-7F digital piano on a credit card and started to record myself.
Having watched countless YouTube videos but not having the confidence just yet to video record myself, I stumbled across the online audio-sharing website Soundcloud in 2011. This was to be my main musical outlet for the next 3-4 years.
I uploaded improvisations, compositions, collaborated and performed repertoire pieces. I’ve made real life connections through the platform, that is what makes it so special.
The supportive environment cultivated a great sense of community and a willingness to help and be helped by like-minded musicians. This is how I met Andrew Eales, who arranged several meetups and performances encouraging my education further by suggesting that I work towards my Grade 8 piano.
In 2012 I sought after a piano teacher and found one in David Arthur, based at the Conservatoire in Birmingham.
His enthusiasm showed no bounds, and it was Summer 2013 when I passed my ABRSM Grade 5 Theory with distinction and Autumn 2013 my Grade 8 Piano with a merit. Following this we worked on my various repertoire pieces including Clair De Lune, introducing me to Bach and Beethoven, and really showed me how ragtime should be played!
On a quest to further my understanding of harmony it was around this time I had read somewhere that one of the best ways to enhance musical perception was to join a choir.
Following this did some Googling and found my nearest Barbershop Chorus – Anvil Chorus, the West Midlands Barbershop Harmony Club.
I’m still singing with them to this day, stepping into ever more active roles in the chorus and taking up opportunities to play piano in between sets at charity events. This has given me the confidence to sing in front of an audience. Which in turn allowed me to accompany myself singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and a Johnny Flynn song at a couple of open mic nights lately, something I couldn’t have even imagined myself doing.
Earlier this year I made the decision to go with my gut and have lessons with Andrew Eales which has been an enlightening journey so far. We are currently working towards an ARSM diploma, playing Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm, The Man I Love and Schubert’s little A Major Sonata (D.664), with a view to teaching piano professionally in the future.
Andrew’s holistic approach has supported my pursuit to take up meditation and yoga. These have been tremendously beneficial to my overall sense of wellbeing and helped calm my nerves on a day-to-day level. I find myself much more focused and relaxed when I sit down at the piano.
I have found within the past few years I have been working more on myself as a person, expanding and socialising, not contracting and isolating. I used to be under the impression that I would be nothing without piano. But only within the past few years has this switched around.
Because what is this huge, dense, lump of mechanical noise-making furniture without the living, breathing, organism operating it?
Luke is Freemondo on SoundCloud
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