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Any self-published autobiography could too quickly be written off as a vanity project; Howard Smith’s newly available Note for Note offers a strong rebuttal of any such inclination, delivering a rich banquet that could both inspire the “returning adults” of the amateur piano world and inform those of us who teach them.
We are told at the start of the book that,
“The events narrated in this book took place between Friday, February 14, 2014 and New Year’s Day 2018”.
With equal precision, Smith lays out the story of his piano journey, self-described as “climbing onto an escalator”, and in so doing achieves much more than a simple memoir. As we accompany the author on his journey, we learn a mix of theory and practice at his side, set in the context of his ‘late returning adult’ story.
Before I read the book, its author self-effacingly warned me,
“The text is as much a moral tale of how not to go about learning to play the piano, as it is a set of pointers to a more enlightened and effective approach.”
Having now read Smith’s “musical fable” from cover to cover, here are my personal thoughts on his success, together with some suggestions as to why I think the book is a truly essential read…
A few words about the book
Note for Note is a chunky affair. Not only is the book around 340 pages long, Smith has opted for high-quality off-white paper and given the text a generous spaciousness throughout. Concerning the actual type used, the author notes,
“Fonts contribute hugely to the pleasure of a book.”
Quite! And Smith’s choice of Adobe Caslon for the main text, Waverly CF for titles and Isabel for quotations, lyrics and poetry certainly enhances the sense of high quality here, as does the beautifully designed soft cover:
In addition to the core text, Smith offers a chapter for The Returning Adult, in which he offers a 42-point checklist of advice to those on a similar journey to his, and a succinct and helpful essay on Conquering Anxiety. There’s a detailed list of Further Reading suggestions too, and (finally) a few pages of blank music manuscript, perhaps included in case the reader wishes to explore some of the theory concepts discussed in the text.
Movingly, we are told at the start that the book is,
“Dedicated to all those who bring the joy of music to their pupils and audiences, whose lives, livelihoods and passion have been disrupted by Covid-19.”
At the start of Note for Note, we find Smith as a successful technologist and consultant, able to look back on four decades of professional accomplishment.
But we are told,
“Approaching retirement, and facing an intractable problem at the office, he discovers the one thing that has been missing all along: a piano. Regretful of not having had the discipline to persevere with lessons as a child, the author embarks upon an urgent quest: to lead a new creative life and to achieve this in just three years.”
Whether Smith had self-discipline or otherwise as a child is soon revealed to be a moot point: he has few happy memories of his childhood lessons, rejecting the dry notation-learning and repetitive “rote learning” that would seem to have been the most striking hallmarks of his early music education.
Instead, the teenage Howard becomes captivated by the photos of wide-eyed, beaming boys and girls staring at bundles of wires and components on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine, and sets off to the shops to spend his pocket money on switches, resistors, transistors and integrated circuits.
His vestigial interest in the piano develops into a fascination for the science of sound, and in turn it is no surprise to find Howard exploring analogue synthesis, messing about with patch cables to create new otherworldly timbres.
Never entirely dormant, Smith’s musical interest bubbles beneath the surface through successive decades of his adult life, guitars strewn around his family home, his son and daughter learning the drums and cello respectively.
And so we find Smith in February 2014 entering a music shop “on the wrong side of town”. Clearly, he believes his interest is not in the conventional piano tuition of his childhood; how fortuitous then that the store fixes him up with a jazz theorist, composer and bassist for lessons!
Over the course of the next two years, Smith’s lessons with the unnamed teacher are anything but conventional.
It is clear that the teacher quickly ascertains that ongoing musical curiosity, an enlivened intellect and analytical streak have quietly brought Smith a long way over the years. Even so, teachers may be surprised to read that after the first lesson, Smith is asked as homework to write out by hand all the common triads in each of the 12 major keys, followed by all the seventh chords, all correctly named.
This essentially sets the scene for the bulk of the narrative which follows, each chapter taking Smith deeper into the world of jazz music theory, harmony and eventually songwriting.
As he explores new concepts, from intervallic relationships to writing and playing from “lead sheets”, and from the II-V-I cadence to modes, the reader is treated to detailed and for the most part clear explanations of all these theoretical constructs, generally framed as conversations between the author and his ever-supportive pen-friend.
These chapters will likely prove illuminating for adult learners following a parallel path to Smith’s, and perhaps equally enlightening for many of the more experienced musicians and teachers reading Note for Note.
There are as many detours along the way as there are highs and lows. Smith eloquently and honestly captures in compelling prose the learning adventure that unfolds over the next three years. From biting critique of his progress to unsentimental recognition of his disappointments, Smith leaves no stone unturned.
Smith’s teachers, mentors, companions and family remain unnamed for almost the whole book, as do most of the organisations he has dealings with: Howard Smith and his musical journey remain the focal characters throughout the narrative, falling in and occasionally out of love.
Indeed, it is only in the second half of the book that we learn much about Smith’s personal life at all. I’ll avoid several spoilers here, but suffice to say my pace reading the book quickened! A creative relationship with a singer-songwriter spills over into real life and, via a series of coincidences, leads inexorably to the heart of Smith’s message: what it means to be a musician and to affect the lives of others.
Howard Smith tells us,
“This is the story of how, in later life, I learnt to play the piano and became a musician, of sorts. Three years were spent in the glorious effort. While I did not achieve all I had hoped, I was, nevertheless, pleased with my modest progress.”
Note for Note is an uplifting and inspiring tale, and offers an insight into a highly personalised approach to learning that is likely to give teachers pause for thought.
In recent years I have taught a number of adults who, I suspect, would quickly identify with Smith’s journey. Interestingly, several have been software engineers, mathematicians and analysts with the same obsessively enquiring mind and keen intellect. Learning to work with such students has become a fascinating and wonderful journey in its own right, and reading Smith’s perspective on his own adventure provided some absorbing and revelatory insights which I hope will improve my own teaching.
For others, some of the content of Smith’s account may take longer to settle. As the author explains,
“I recognise that for some readers my book contains controversial views about teaching methods. Avoidance of premature rote, obsessive unblocking, imaginary pianos, mental performance, visualisation, out-of-body introspection… not everyone will agree. I hope however to have been respectful to all who bring the joy of music to their pupils. There are many ways to learn to play a musical instrument. This has been my story, nothing more, nothing less.”
Howard Smith’s Note for Note is essential reading.
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