Paul Harris is one of the world’s most respected music educationalists. His compositions have delighted players and audiences around the world, and he has over 500 publications to his name. Paul is in great demand as a workshop and seminar leader in the UK, USA and the Far East.
Here he shares the story of how he discovered the piano as a child …
My first encounter with the piano happened when I was about 5. It turned out to be both a catastrophic and life changing experience.
Music hadn’t really entered my life yet, but I suddenly found myself sharing my small bedroom with a very large piano. Of course it seemed very large to me – actually I think it was probably the smallest sized grand piano available, and my parents had recently inherited it – I’ve never known from whom. My bedroom was the only space in which it would fit.
I didn’t really know music then but I loved this wonderful new toy on which I was able to make all sorts of wonderfully exciting sounds and go on all kinds of exotic sonic journeys.
Time went by, I began school and I continued making up all kinds of music on my lovely instrument. And then something nothing short of shocking happened.
I came home from school one day, to find my precious piano in the garden being chopped up for firewood. I can’t actually remember but I imagine my reaction was fairly extreme.
My parents clearly had wished to reclaim the space and had, without any prior warning to me, organized this appalling devastation.
The result of my protestations, however, was a gleaming new, small, electric organ. I guess it was about 3 octaves – it couldn’t compete with the sound world of the piano but at least it was something.
And there was something else it came with that had an enormous effect on my future. It came with a book of pieces. I’d never seen music notation before and was intrigued. I set about trying to work it out. I don’t think I really grasped the rhythmic aspect at all, but I certainly twigged the pitch side of things.
I began writing my own little pieces. I still have that book of pieces. Written in red ink and all the note durations were the same. But there was melody and I clearly had a rhythmic system of my own. My very first piece was called Aribics in Arabia (sic) and this was clearly closely followed by Springtime.
There was nothing remotely Mozartian about any of this. These pieces were very rudimentary! But I had started my career as a keyboard player and composer.
When I was about ten my parents bought a proper piano. A big chunky upright that was installed in a kind general room where the ironing was done. I played it a lot and the room became my music room.
I made up more pieces and tried to play all sorts – piano pieces that a teacher would never have let me anywhere near.
It wasn’t until I was about sixteen that I finally took official piano lessons. I had been playing the clarinet since nine by that time. Mr Smith was my teacher – a lovely and kind old fashioned teacher who looked about a hundred (I’m sure he wasn’t!) and had a quiet gentleness about him. He was the perfect teacher for me at the time, allowing me to play all sorts of pieces and not being too concerned about technique!
When I went to the Royal Academy of Music I had the amazing good fortune of having Graeme Humphrey as my piano teacher. We’ve remained firm friends ever since, and Graeme introduced me to all kinds of fascinating repertoire that made a strong impact on my musical thinking. The Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, Beethoven and Schubert Sonatas, and music by Kabalevsky and Dohnányi for example.
I’ve never considered myself as a proper pianist but I can accompany my pupils in all sorts of repertoire – can just about manage the Brahms Sonatas! – but playing the piano has added an extraordinary dimension to my life.
What an extraordinary instrument it is.