Your Stories No.2
Jenny Walker is a pianist, teacher and composer based in Grantham, Lincolnshire UK. Here’s her story…
My Musical Journey
My musical journey has been, and still is, a voyage of self-discovery.
I was not born into what most people think of as a “musical” family, but I did have one that supported whatever I chose to do. My mother was from Northern Ireland and sang as a child. Her sister played the mandolin, and my grandmother played Irish tunes, though nobody, as far as I knew, actually read music. At that time I didn’t realise how much my visits to the province, with its beautiful scenery and “Irishness” would influence me in the future.
As a small child growing up in England, there was an old upright in our dining room. When I started school I would tap out songs we had learnt in the classroom.
It was a visit from an aunt that changed everything, when she suggested I have piano lessons. I ‘went through’ four teachers until I found a Mrs Tomlinson who had a gorgeous Bechstein above her flower shop.
I played in the Southampton Music Festival for many years, local concerts and a master class whilst going through the Guildhall grades, up to and including a performance diploma, winning two exhibitions on the way.
My lessons were full of encouragement and I remember playing duets with Mrs T, including arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies and Dvorak Dances. I was encouraged to play duets with another student of the same age, and we became, and still are, good friends. We played pieces such as arrangements of the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka by Strauss and Qui Vive by Ganz, and won several festival classes.
To this day, I love duets, and encourage my own students to play them whenever I can.
Although my parents weren’t instrumentalists, they did listen to classical works and I grew up listening to 100 Best Tunes vinyls and lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. I then discovered music I liked, such as The Planets and more Romantic styles, and would play them on my mono record player.
I studied Music at Bangor University, joined the choir, two orchestras and gave recitals. I loved my three years there, and was told that composition was one of my strong points. I was exposed to traditional Welsh music, the diverse compositions of others (including my tutor, William Mathias), the sheer pleasure of playing and singing in large orchestras and choirs, and the beautiful mountain scenery.
A life in music
After a few years of moving around with my husband’s work I have settled in Lincolnshire and have never been busier.
Grantham is a surprisingly musical town with a lovely theatre, superb cathedral-sized parish church and a second, equally concert-friendly Christchurch, both with good grand pianos. I have played at other venues nearby: Harlaxton Manor with its Bösendorfer grand in the Great Hall, Belvoir Castle, Stoke Rochford Hall and Belton House.
I began my Lincolnshire life as a full-time teacher of ICT and teaching music part-time; I am now a more-or-less full-time teacher of piano at a secondary school, teaching ICT part-time, a complete turnaround.
I have a rather wide range in my repertoire, depending on the occasion. Recently, on a cruise I was asked to play on the stage and I played a couple of ragtime pieces (The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag) which I felt would have appeal to the audience. For weddings, I make sure I include special requests, which can encompass arrangements of popular songs and jazz. For more serious concerts I tend to choose pieces from different musical eras (for example, baroque, classical and contemporary).
For pleasure, I am first and foremost, a classical pianist. I love Beethoven, particularly his sonatas, Debussy, Chopin and Satie. Future projects include Brazilian music and a piano arrangement of The Planets Suite (Holst).
After making music my main career, I spread my wings, daring to enter a composition competition with EPTA and coming first in my category with The Stream, now known as Mourne Passage.
This became an incentive for me to write more pieces and I have now finally become a recognised composer, with music published online at Piano Pronto. I am now part of their Composers Community, and can ask for advice and exchange views with others. I get great satisfaction from creating pieces for others (and me) to play.
My musical life has been rich so far, and I hope that will continue. I am much in demand as a ‘pit’ pianist for the theatre, a jazz/blues keyboardist and choir accompanist. I’ve also branched out into musical directing and continue to play for a male voice choir.
My main role, I feel, is to encourage others to love playing the piano as much as I do. Not everyone will want to be a concert pianist or study music. Many people want to play the piano for pleasure.
Based on my experience, I feel I can offer the following threads of advice:
Keep musically active … we move house, have families, change jobs, have crises, and it can be easy to abandon hobbies and activities. How often have I heard people say “I wish I’d not given up the piano” (or indeed “I wish I could play the piano”). Only recently have I made music my main career but it was always a huge part of my life.
Mix … as a pianist, you are often an independent performer but make sure you don’t become isolated. I’ve always made a point of joining choirs and taking part in as many concerts as possible I’ve also “spread my wings” as a tap dancer, stage singer and conductor. I absolutely believe that as a pianist, even if you are primarily a soloist, you should seek to collaborate with others.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing with so many enthusiastic youngsters and adults, and meeting so many people from different walks of life.
Remain flexible … if you do have ‘another string to your bow’ use it. I’m a fiddler in a ceilidh band, something that appeals to my Celtic heritage and something that is fun. My wide range of musical genres has enabled me to be on constant call for work, and I find myself always busy, which I enjoy.
Have goals …. Even if you feel you’re at “the top of your game” there is always room for improvement. In my case, this is to play more from memory and also accomplish a couple of difficult pieces. As a teacher, whenever appropriate I point out my own shortcomings and this has a positive effect on most students as they realise that you’re not perfect.
Teach by example …. I believe in demonstrating to students how you would approach a piece of music. We also compare and discuss YouTube performances. My students enjoy listening to me play and we talk about any improvements I could make. I also show them my own compositions and encourage them to come and watch me, and others, play.
I’ve been a royalties assistant, legal cashier, computer programmer, and an ICT teacher but I’ve now returned “to my roots” and never looked back.
One word sums my career up … passion.
Teaching others to take a similar path is so rewarding and my career has a longevity so lacking in others. I love composing, hoping to leave a small but meaningful legacy.
The one phrase I hear often is “I wish I could do that”, to which I reply, “You can!”
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