Your Story: Rachel Rowles

Your Stories  No.9

I live in Devon and teach piano alongside a career in the NHS. I am currently a student on the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, so have been reflecting a lot on my piano journey this far, and on what comes next! Here’s my story…

Beginnings

To be perfectly honest it was probably luck which led me to the piano …. or more accurately, that led the piano to me.

I can’t remember exactly when the piano appeared, but family legend has it that it had been evacuated from a local youth club, which had been forced to close after someone tried to set fire to it. With such a traumatic history it could be forgiven for having a top F which sounded like someone throwing plates at a wall, and I was young enough to regard it as a special feature rather than a defect.

After several years of me improvising my parents decided it would be better for all of us if I had some proper lessons (maybe learnt something in G so I could replace the clanking F with a reasonable F#). So I started formal lessons.

Of all the opportunities I had as a child, the opportunity to learn a musical instrument has been the one I am most grateful for.

It has been a challenge when that was what I needed, and a diversion when I need to unwind. It is a skill which brings enjoyment to me, and one I can share with others. It is a source of pleasure which has stayed with me for the last 40 years.

The original piano sadly is long gone. It was donated to the church after my great aunt gave me another piano, but had to be rehoused again after someone objected to it not being an organ. The church in question was quite traditional and several people almost needed resuscitating after someone tried to smuggle a guitar in. Its new owners treated it better than I did. They called in a piano tuner, who discovered that the keys lay on a thick bed of cigarette ash which had probably been there since the late 60s.

It was, in a lot of ways, not a ‘good’ piano – but I loved it.

Progress

That piano and its successor – which had no cigarette ash but did have brackets for candle holders and different notes which sounded like cracked crockery – took me all the way to grade 5. I enjoyed learning but found exams and any kind of performing in public very stressful.

I had a brief spell playing the organ in church when I was about 13 – which should have been a great opportunity to improve my sight reading, build my confidence and enable me to blossom as a pianist (it seems to have worked that way for most people) – but I found it complete torture. I must have played a reasonable number of right notes, but I only remembered the wrong ones.

The upside of being the vicar’s daughter was that we lived in a gorgeous and massive rectory in the middle of its own large garden (they hadn’t always been that good!). With no neighbours to annoy, and a very basic cassette recorder, my brother and I would make up silly songs, record stories and generally make a bit of a racket. The piano came into its own here – but mainly using the duff notes as sound effects rather than anything overtly musical!

My parents had never had formal music lessons but loved music. There was often music playing.

They both played the guitar, my dad also played the banjo, and there was a lot of folk music around. I would play through these books and try to accompany myself singing. I found reading two lines of music and the words too hard, so was delighted when I realised I could cheat by just using the chords!

I never related any of this to what I was learning in my lessons however. This was just ‘messing about’. I never made the connection between how the chords worked in the folk songs and how they worked in the ‘proper pieces’ I was learning. I never related chords to keys. I never realised that there was a logic to harmonising a melody. I never understood how to manipulate chords and scales so that I could make up my own music or play the songs I loved by ear. I assumed that only ‘gifted’ and ‘musical’ people could do this – and I wasn’t musical, I was just a bit of a swot who liked passing exams!

Hiatus

My dad had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 37, and in the summer that I turned 16 he died. This meant that my mum, my brother and I had to move out of the rectory into a house in the town.

The old piano was changed for a smaller, modern, new piano whose notes all played exactly at the pitch they were meant to. We had adjoining neighbours and the house was much smaller – so I stopped experimenting for a while.

Two years later I went to college in London to train as a physiotherapist. I did continue to play in the holidays, but for several years while I was flat sharing and working in London I didn’t have much opportunity for playing.

I got married and moved to Devon. We bought a house, and just before our first Christmas in it, the doorbell rang.

As I came out of the kitchen I was surprised to see 2 men carrying a piano in to the sitting room – it was my Christmas present. My husband had set himself a very high bar for all our subsequent Christmases!

New Beginnings

I started playing regularly again, but working and having children meant that getting lessons and making progress was pushed lower and lower on the agenda.

In 2006 when my children were 8 and 5 years old and I was 37, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It all turned out alright in the end, I am still here, but I needed a goal which would be challenging enough to keep me away from ‘Dr Google’ while I was still wondering whether or not I would be a 5 or 10 year disease-free survival statistic – grade 8 was just the thing! So, I found a local teacher and got started.

Before thinking about grade 8 of course I had to pass grade 5 theory – and this was the point when I really became passionate about music – unlikely but true!

Suddenly all those chords the folk songs used fell into a logical pattern. I realised there was a reason why music ‘worked’ the way it did. I understood how to write my own music, and that playing by ear wasn’t something that only geniuses could do – I could too!

Teaching

I had always secretly wanted to teach piano, but never thought I would be good enough.

After taking grade 8 I started thinking seriously about it.  I started teaching one pupil, and then tried to do the ABRSM teaching diploma.

I failed – partly nerves, but mainly because I was not good enough to pass at that time. It really knocked my confidence and I nearly gave up, but felt a responsibility to my pupil to keep going.

At the time my daughter was having a mental health issue, so I felt I should be a role model for how to deal with setbacks, failure and rejection (always look on the bright side…..)! I kept going, but put the diploma on the ‘back burner’ for a while.

My pupil continued to make progress and I picked up a couple more. I realised how much I love teaching, but I wanted to do it better and be the best teacher I could for my pupils. I discovered the ‘Curious Piano Teachers’ community and joined that, through which I heard very good reports of the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, which I am currently enrolled on.

It is challenging, but in all the right ways!

I love playing and teaching the piano. I want my pupils to enjoy creating on the piano as well as playing pieces other people have written.

I believe music has something to offer everyone – it can be a lifelong source of pleasure. It has been for me and I want to share that with others – that’s the reason I teach.

Rachel Rowles

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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