Monday, 20 December 2010

The significance of distress in signs

Signs can be so significant, can’t they?

A hospital I visited recently has a café area in which there stands a quarter-grand piano. And on it is a sign inviting staff to play it, as long as ‘they do not distress other café users.’

Interesting that only staff are trusted to play without causing distress. Visitors are presumably suspect types to be handled with courtesy but scepticism.

In any case, it’s the word ‘distress’ that struck me as significant. The problem isn’t one of disturbing people, or even irritating them, but of causing them far worse discomfort still.

As it happens, the distress caused by piano playing is something with which I’m well acquainted. I played the piano for 30 years. Gosh, I was assiduous. At certain times anyway. At several stages of my life, I would frequently practice for an hour or more four or five days a week. In my late thirties, I even signed up for lessons. All to absolutely no avail. By the time I reached my forties, I was still struggling to master pieces that I’d begun to work on in my teens.

I had a limited but excitingly varied repertoire. Some Beethoven sonatas, a little Bach, bits of Scott Joplin (yes, yes, The Entertainer, of course), a little Satie, some Chopin waltzes, odd bits of Schubert. When I started playing, people were generally charmed. But after about half an hour, they were beginning to think ‘don’t you know anything else?’ If I persisted, they’d actually say it.

The worst of it was that I always made pretty much the same number of errors, just not in the same places. I couldn’t get them out of my playing however hard I tried. I’d faultlessly negotiate a bar that had always proved tricky in the past, only to make a mess of the next one that had never previously presented any kind of problem. I knew the notes, I could picture them in my mind, I just couldn’t get my fingers to go to them reliably.

Then came the day when my sons started playing the same pieces as I did. And my struggle to keep believing in myself, in the face of pretty damning evidence, was finally and definitively overthrown. In three weeks, they’d master music that had kept me defeated for decades.

Ah, well. Remember that great line from Chariots of Fire? ‘I can’t put in what God left out.’ When they were handing out the gift of enthusiasm for the piano, I was obviously way up there near the front with the greats of the concert halls down the ages; but when it came to distributing the talent to go with it, I must have got stuck in the kitchen with the curvaceous maid and the bottle of wine.

So I gave up the piano to concentrate on things I do better. Who knows? I may be able to indulge in them without causing too much distress.


Mark Reynolds said...

Perhaps I'm too mercenary, but if you already have the wine and the curvaceous maid, for what, exactly, do you need the talent?

Danielle said...

I miss your piano playing! :(((

David Beeson said...

Quite right, Mark - what other use does talent have?

Thanks Danielle for the support - I miss the playing too - it's just the output that was pretty dismal