Your Stories No.14
June Armstrong is a piano teacher and composer of educational piano music which focusses on the promotion of technical development whilst engaging the imagination and encouraging the exploration of interpretation. She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Here’s her story…
My parents were not musical, but my paternal grandmother who had grandiose ideas, also had a Rogers baby grand piano, complete with shawl and salon! After afternoon tea, we would all retire to the salon and she would play Edwardian parlour music with titles such as Arietta and Romance.
As a little girl, I was fascinated by the action of the hammers inside the piano and the seemingly random actions of the keys with the surprising brown sides which were revealed whenever the keys were depressed. For some reason I associated these with the filter on my grandmother’s habitual cigarette, which would sit smouldering in a crystal ash tray on top of the piano while she played.
This same grandmother gave me a wooden toy piano. It was quite large, and painted pale gold, and the keys played little bells.
I loved it!
Learning and Discovery
Then when I was six, my parents decided that my brother and I should have piano lessons. A second hand Chappell piano was purchased from an antique shop for £25. It was selected by my aunt who was ‘musical’. This was the piano on which I would learn all the time whilst I was at school.
When I was 11, I started violin lessons and this lasted about three years and for some reason I gave it up. I was doing well at piano and no one seemed to notice. I liked playing the piano but I did not practise much.
When I was studying music for ‘O’ level, one of the set works was the chorus ‘Have Lightning and Thunder their Furies Forgotten’ from the St. Matthew Passion by J S Bach. I was instantly and inexplicably set alight. I had discovered Bach and also classical music.
At that time, the newly formed Ulster Orchestra came regularly to my home town to give concerts, and our lovely geography teacher held little after-school music appreciation sessions where she would tell us about the music to be played at each concert.
Soon Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak joined the exalted rank of Bach. I bought LPs – my most treasured being the beautiful Deutsche Grammophon St. Matthew Passion and the Brandenburg Concertos.
And I suddenly needed to play the violin again – urgently. I had already sat my Grade 8 piano at this time and, by borrowing miniature scores from the library, and playing along with my LPs, I took my violin playing from Grade 3 to Grade 8 in two years.
University and beyond
I went to Queen’s University in Belfast to study mathematics.
A wonderful lady, Heather Clarke, who accompanied me for a 1970 ATCL violin diploma, suggested that I should take music as a subsidiary subject along with maths, and combine them as an Arts degree. But six weeks into my first term at university, I knew that I had discovered the love of my life, and I was fortunate to be able to switch to a Bachelor of Music degree.
Five wonderful years followed, full of music making in so many diverse forms – orchestral, chamber and choral. I was never happier.
After graduating, I worked for three years as a peripatetic violin tutor before emigrating to the USA and Upstate New York, where I lived for 6 years. Whilst I enjoyed teaching the violin, I did not miss doing so in America.
It was after returning to Belfast and resuming some part time aural and theory teaching that I rediscovered the piano. I was obliged to play aural tests, and after a gap of 20 years, my piano playing was not good enough to avoid making mistakes, so I decided, from sheer embarrassment, that I needed a piano to practise on.
Whilst in the piano shop, I noticed a beginner piano tutor which I also purchased, as I thought I might as well try teaching my eldest son. I had absolutely no intention of becoming a piano teacher.
But that piano and the very tentative steps taken in introducing my son to it, were to take over my life from then on.
A long overdue reunion
Just as the Bach chorus from the St. Matthew Passion had set me alight, so did my long overdue reunion with the piano, and most surprisingly of all, a new source of wonderment – teaching the piano.
It was NOT like teaching the violin. It was a joyous voyage of discovery upon which I still travel.
Within a very short space of time, I started to teach the piano professionally. I also realised that my own piano skills were no better than when I was 16, and I decided to work for an LTCL which I gained in 1994. I have not stopped playing the piano since.
Because I dismissed the examination system very early on in my teaching, one of the chief joys that this freedom of choice of repertoire gave me, was discovering new and exciting music – most especially contemporary repertoire that had great potential for teaching, lifting performance to a high level.
Eventually I began to run out of composers that were new to me, and in the back of my mind, there was a little voice quietly saying ‘Maybe I should try writing something’. It was there for many years. And then I did write something. And like that wonderful chorus from the St. Matthew Passion, I discovered something else that was to set me alight – composition.
My unlikely musical journey to piano teacher and composer has been a story largely of chance and of taking unexpected directions.
I am so thankful that I have been able to spend the latter half of my life doing something which has given me so much pleasure and happiness – and doing something that I would never, ever have dreamt of.