The Pianist Who Couldn’t Play

Musician and Guinness World Record Flautist

The Pianist Who Couldn’t Play

I have been involved with music for as long as I can remember. I began piano lessons at the age of 8, but I had loved my music lessons at school long before that. Morning from Peer Gynt by Grieg is one of the first pieces of music I remember, and that is because Mrs. Mein played it in class way back when I was at first school. 

I am not an extrovert. If anything, I am a shy performer, despite being a World Record Holding flautist. I am certainly not a flamboyant performer.  I can play a piece expressively without lying all over the piano or flinging my flute about. That is not a criticism of those more extrovert performers. Many of them have had far greater success than me, and their flamboyance is part of the performance, but I know that my character is more reserved.

March 2020 was a difficult time for all performers.  It was the month that live music across the globe stopped. Theatres, concert halls and music venues fell silent.  I was looking forward to spending my lockdown practicing. Life is so hectic most of the time and it can be a challenge fitting the necessary practice in on the flute and piano (and occasionally the clarinet too).  Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be, and it was very hard to deal with. 

Back in March 2020 I had a terrible reaction to hand gel. It didn’t matter how much I moisturised, my hands would scale up and split.  I have been under the doctor for the condition since July 2020 and am now under a consultant at the hospital.  They are trying to get to the bottom of why my reaction is so severe.  This has meant that practice on any instrument has been limited.  My left hand in particular can hurt a great deal when I am playing.  The movement of the fingers causes the skin to crack and split.  On one occasion I was trying to do some piano practice, and after only 15 minutes of playing a finger tip on my left hand had split open and there was blood all over the keys. I was mortified!  I was advised to wear white cotton gloves to help to protect my hands, which I am continuing to do.  I have even been known to play the piano and flute in my gloves. Although not easy, and certainly not ideal, it has meant that some playing has been possible, although holding a slippy flute while wearing gloves has been a challenge.

Because I wasn’t in a position to practice my performance skills as I would have wished I turned to composition.  I love composing, and it is something I haven’t been able to do a great deal of for a number of years. It was my daughter, Bethany, who inspired me to compose the first piano piece. I desperately needed a creative outlet. I found that if I was careful, I could sit at the piano and compose as I could avoid using the damaged fingers on my left hand especially.  After writing that first piece I knew I needed to write more and the Moments album was born.

I am so immensely proud of the album.  All original piano music, composed by me.  I sat and worked out every note, every chord, every slur, pedal point, and dynamic at the piano. BUT I couldn’t play them.  My hands were a mess.  If I tried to do anything; clean, wash my daughter’s hair, cook, bake, play the piano they would split (and still do).  I managed to play one of the pieces in December, ‘Elegy (for Lorna)’, as part of an online concert in aid of Cancer Research UK, but this meant playing nothing and doing nothing with my hands that might cause injury for over a week before hand, to give my hands time to heal a little, and even then the top of my left hand index finger split, so I played through the pain.

I really wanted to share Moments with everyone. I was so proud of the music I had created.  It is a very personal album about people, places and moments in the past year that have been important to me.  But how could I do it? I couldn’t play all the pieces.  Due to my hand I still can’t. And that is where technology was my saviour.

Back in April 2020 I received a Covid grant from The Arts Council.  It enabled me to buy a new laptop, Cubasse, a midi interface and other music software.  I was able to input every note, chord, dynamic and expression marking into the music, creating a piano score through Sibelius (which I already owned), and then converting that into a Midi file, which I inputted into Cubase.  A Midi file can sound very metronomic and lacks expression.  I went through every piece, increasing and decreasing notes velocity to emulate what I would play if performing it live. No performer plays as if playing along with a metronome. Expressive playing leads to an increase and decrease in tempo at expressive points in the music.  I added this too.  All of a sudden, the pianist who couldn’t play was creating a recording of the pieces exactly as she had heard them in her head. 

As a self-publishing composer every aspect of the process had to be done by me.  This also meant mixing the sound and producing the finished product.  I was advised by a friend of mine, who is also a composer, to use the sounds from at least three pianos, mixed together, to create the finished piano sound on the album.  Each piano sound had its own unique features – more sustain, a brighter tone etc. The levels these pianos were mixed at were set and I was so incredibly please with the sound they produced.  

Compression is something else many don’t consider.  Classical music in particular has extremes of sound; PP (very quiet) to FF (very loud).  This can cause problems when listening to recordings if compression isn’t used, and so, again my friend advised on how to compress the sound and create a good recording.  I would then send each recording to another friend, who would listen through his super duper hi-fi system, and would highlight any issues he thought might be there.

And so Moments was born, out of lockdown, by a pianist who couldn’t play, and I am so proud of it.  I have had a number of people tell me how beautifully I have played the pieces, and they are astonished when I tell them I haven’t ‘played’ but inputted each note.

And so my secret is out! I hope, in the future, that my hands will begin to heal sufficiently that I will be able to practice each piece to perform them for an audience.  That time might be some way away for the moment.  In the meantime, I will continue to practice when I can, when my hands are well enough.

 I have already begun the next album.  I also wrote a number of flute pieces during the past year, but I would want to perform the flute tracks myself when these are recorded.  I have also begun writing some more piano pieces.  I only write when I feel inspired, and I hope that the inspiration will continue over the coming months and years.

Please have a listen to Moments.  It is available to stream on all media platforms, as well as to download.  I don’t have a favourite track from the album.  That would be like choosing a favourite child.  However, I would be interested to hear which pieces you connect with, and whether you listen differently now my secret is out.

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