Revisiting my classical past

Before I [switched to jazz piano](, I was a classical pianist. My mother found me at the Yamaha organ, playing a song by ear. She said I was just 2 years old; I thought I was closer to 4 as I had to be big enough to climb up the seat. Whatever the case, my parents thought I was a genius, although at this point in time, a certain namesake of mine seems to be having more professional success with her violin 😉
My namesake, whom the world knows (her initials being VM-N), was born a few months after me; her mother apparently visited my mother and me in the maternity ward shortly after I was born, and asked what my English and Chinese names were – and voila! We so happen to share the same names!
Anyway, I began my journey of classical music on a positive note. I had a very encouraging teacher in Grade 1, and obtained a distinction. However, she migrated and I was given a very fierce teacher from Grades 3-7. I’ve never liked practicing much in the first place and it seemed that more hours were needed with each increase in grade. Especially during the years I was selected to perform in school concerts.
This teacher didn’t just knock my knuckles when I forgot to ‘curve my fingers’ – she grabbed my hands until my knuckles cracked, and pulled my hair and hit my head whenever I made a mistake. I hung on, getting Merits and another Distinction. But by the time I reached Grade 7, the unmentionable happened – I scraped through my exam with a pass.
Up to that point, my requests to change teachers went unheeded by my parents (Aside: I doubt the new generation of parents would allow their kids to be punished in such a way). I left that music school, VDMS – the very thought of which still sends a slight shiver down my spine – and never looked back. After several years of being abused, I was almost amazed to be with a teacher who did not hit me but spoke to me like an adult.
By this time, I was in JC1 (I had skipped piano exams during my O Levels) so things were saner. I took the Grade 8 exam and passed well.
After my A Levels, I started work on my Diploma in music. While still in Singapore, I moved to a more advanced teacher and completed 1 and a half pieces. Then I moved to Bristol for my undergraduate degree. But studying law and music at the same time was quite a daunting task. Plus, finding a good piano teacher in the South West of England when you don’t have a car, proved to be quite difficult. So I decided to forget all about it instead. I had had enough with classical piano and all the high expectations that went with it.
Instead, I developed my taste for jazz, with the help of a few discerning friends, and never looked back. Back in Singapore, I was introduced to VP, my jazz piano teacher and mentor for a few years. And I’m still lovin’ it. Jazz didn’t judge or ostracise you; it was what you wanted it to be. And if you didn’t like the original tune, you could change it and not get your head smacked in.
So in my case, pain is associated with classical music, and musical emancipation with jazz (which is rather fitting, seeing how the blues/jazz evolved from slavery).
But it isn’t necessarily logical that I should view it that way, is it? The self-motivation books I’m reading now are asking me to challenge my perceptions and associations.
So I dug up my old piano exam pieces just now and played through them. Funny how easy they are, after not playing them for so many years.
Feeling braver, I played Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 2. I last performed this at the ballroom of the Swallow Royal Hotel in Bristol in 1997. It brought back good memories. While it was harder than my earlier pieces, I started to remember my fingering and the melody. It came back to life for me and now I want to get it up to performance standard again.
More challenging pieces I’ve played, are about Turkish rondos: For classical music, it’s Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, for the speed and intensity – the feeling that all the fingers in my hands have to be banging on a different key at breakneck speed. That was one of my Diploma pieces. For jazz, it’s Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turc, which I [performed in concert]( in 2005.
Eventually I’d like to relive the moments I played difficult pieces such as these and stretched myself.
At the very least, I’m starting to enjoy classical music again.