photo copyright Lana Yanovska, used with permission.
Garreth was born in Hereford, UK, moved to Wales as a child, before going on to study music at the University of Oxford. He now teaches piano to a full studio of international students in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and releases original music for solo piano on 1631 Recordings using the pen-name Garreth Broke. His writing about suicide prevention has been published on Huffington Post UK.
Here’s his story …
Reflecting on mistakes
I’ve been teaching piano for a while now and, the more I do it, the more I realise that one of the most important parts of my job is to reflect on the mistakes I’ve made through my life, to try to learn from them, and to use that knowledge to try to guide my students through their own development.
So in the spirit of that, here is a (most definitely incomplete!) list of lessons I’ve made over the course of my life at the piano and what I’ve learned from them.
The first lesson the piano taught me is also the first vivid memory I have.
My family was not well off when I was growing up – I remember often being clothed in second hand clothing – so piano lessons were an expensive luxury. Being 6 or 7 years old when I began, I didn’t really understand this. Once the initial novelty of making the big box make pretty noises wore off, I did not want to practise.
Sooner or later the day of confrontation came. My mother sent me to the piano. I played a few notes then gave up. She took me back to the piano and told me if I wanted to continue having lessons then I needed to practise properly.
This combination of something I really desired and something I thought was too terrible to imagine was too much for my 6 or 7 year old brain to cope with and I burst into tears. My mother, having set the rules, left me to it. She knew that if I wanted it enough, I’d start practising.
Sure enough, after having my tantrum, I started playing. I can still remember the realisation “Oh, this isn’t so bad actually!”
And so I began learning the lesson that the best things in life are not given for free, but must be earned. (Full disclosure, I am still a long way from learning all the implications of this lesson!)
The second lesson actually has a lot to do with something Andrew wrote elsewhere on PIanodao, about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
I only truly became intrinsically motivated to play the piano once my teacher – a wonderful man named Matthew Clifford – taught me to play a piano arrangement of We’re Walking In The Air. After pointing out that the accompaniment in the left hand was formed of one pattern played in several different chords, he told me that now that I recognised the pattern I could make up my own.
This ability to create my own music was totally astonishing to me. I became obsessed with it. I wrote my own patterns and played them for hours on end. I probably drove my family crazy, but I was a teenager and I was in love, so what else would you expect?
And in doing so I learned the lesson that the act of creating something is full of joy, that it can lift you out of your day-to-day life and put you somewhere else, somewhere wonderful. It is transcendental.
That lesson has proved useful time and time again. Whenever life has been difficult, I have found myself turning to the piano for consolation. Music – that universal language without words – has a power to express things that are difficult to say, sometimes difficult even to think about.
When, in my teens, my mother suffered a severe bout of anxiety and depression that culminated in a suicide attempt and a long stay in hospital, I turned to the piano. I was lucky to have a wonderful music teacher at school, Phil Wilson, who allowed me to mess around in the practise rooms as much as I wanted, and lucky again that other teachers would occasionally let me skip a lesson to go make music (my PE teacher, Wyn Thomas, in particular).
The piano became a place of safety, a refuge, a warm, comforting place whose rules I understood and which was uniquely mine. I do not think I would have survived without it.
The third lesson I learned was a direct consequence of the second, and it was a hard one: just because you find something transcendental, doesn’t necessarily mean anybody else does.
I did fairly well at school and ended up studying music at Oxford University. Where school had been warm and supportive and I was the only serious pianist in my year, at Oxford I was surrounded by people who were not only better pianists than I was, but also better read, better travelled, better off, fluent in more languages, and often irritatingly able to play multiple instruments and sing beautifully.
This knocked my confidence totally, and I never dared perform my own music publicly as I believe it simply wasn’t good enough. This was in fact an accurate assessment, but looking back I realise that this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have tried to get better.
So I did not exactly thrive at Oxford – but I did survive, thanks mainly to a wonderful mentor, my tutor Dr Roger Allen, who guided me through it even more deftly than I realised at the time. He involved me in two college choirs, introduced me to wonderful pieces of music and to fascinating people who would deeply shape my thinking, in particular Professor Laurence Dreyfus.
But I was unsure what to do once I graduated and, lacking direction, I simply drifted.
I tried moving back to my parents farm, working on the land, believing that would help me find my centre, but I felt frustrated and lonely, and the piano couldn’t fix that.
I tried teaching piano, which I found I enjoyed but did not love enough to pursue.
I travelled, volunteering on organic farms in the States and Canada, having an amazing time but never feeling like it was a long term solution.
I worked for the Youth Hostels Association for several years, meeting some fascinating colleagues and living in some stunningly beautiful places (YHA Wye Valley for example, a former rectory on the banks of the River Wye, surrounded by wildlife) but it wasn’t enough: I wanted to feel fulfilled, but the job couldn’t give me that so without any real thought I simply threw myself harder and harder into it, working longer hours, taking it much more seriously than anyone wanted or needed me to, eventually finding I couldn’t sleep.
Playing the piano helped a little but it couldn’t fix the problem. Something had to change.
And Another Lesson…
Another lesson the piano has helped me learn is that if you repeatedly do the same thing and get unsatisfactory results, then you need to try doing it differently. That is as true of practising a few bars of a tricky piece as it is of anything in life. The piano has forced me to be more open-minded about how I approach it, and life has done the same.
When I decided to quit my job and move to a foreign country where I did not speak the language, to live with a woman I had known for only 6 months, I think some people believed I was having a breakdown.
In a way, they may have been right, but only in the sense that I knew that I needed to do something differently, but I couldn’t see any obvious solutions where I was. Moving to Frankfurt was exactly the change of perspective I needed. And here, to my surprise, I found my feet.
I began teaching piano and found that it was a delight, a pleasure, a privilege. I feel like I have found a not just a job but a vocation.
I also started releasing my music for the first time, collaborating with my wife, who is an artist, and crowdfunding an album of my compositions.
During the composition process, my mother – who had continued to suffer from anxiety and depression since my teens – finally succeeded in taking her own life. I poured my soul into the music and it helped me survive a terrible time.
With the support of my wife, friends and family, I started learning to manage my performance anxiety and grew in confidence, releasing a series of EPs with the record label 1631 Recordings over the course of 2016-17. Recently I’ve played concerts with people I really admire – like Berlin based piano and cello combination CEEYS and Swedish film composer Jakob Lindhagen.
I’m composing new material, improvising frequently, collaborating with other composers, learning new music, taking singing lessons. Life has meaning.