Most of you know me as a conductor. Someone who waves my arms around in unusual patterns and in return, I usually get paid in pounds; unless I'm working in the desert where they offer me a couple of camels instead. Conducting however has been a minor part of my life compared to what I always wanted to be; a pianist. But how did I choose a musical instrument?
Tinkling the ivories was supposed to be my career, so what happened? To get to that, I need to take you on a journey to 1990, when I was seven. This was when Top of the Pops was still on the box. My favourite hobby was to listen to the song that reached number one and then dash to the family heirloom that was an out of tune, ivory keyed piano, and figure out how to play the piece. This all happened long before I had lessons, and in fact, this was the catalyst for my Mother to contact the local teacher down the road.
The old setup I had at my childhood home
An old piano, very old two manual organ and a new keyboard (plus two dogs, Rebel and Beau)
Every Wednesday for a year I walked 5 minutes to the teacher's house. Every Wednesday I manipulated the teacher to play the piece for me that she wanted me to learn, and every Wednesday I'd then memorise what she performed and could pretty much play it straight away. People thought I was a wunderkind; I wasn't - it's just that I could copy and mimic well. As a child, I wasn't doing this deliberately to fool everyone into thinking I could read music - I just found copying a quicker and more direct way to learn the piano. It wasn't until my Mother placed some sheet music in front of me that I openly admitted I couldn't understand what all the squashed flies on the page were.
From that moment on I was sent to Margaret Toon, a teacher who was a 15 minutes drive away and was the equivalent of a hard-working, reliable, sturdy Volvo compared to the previous Lada. In two and a half years, Mrs Toon taught me to read music and took me from grade one to seven (out of eight). In the blink of an eye, I could play the piano. But did you know I was also playing the cello and clarinet?
No. Of course you didn't. Imagine a bat who has lost its voice and can't produce the sonar echolocation sound it needs to. Now imagine the result when heading towards that rather large brick wall; a cartoon-like 'SPLAT' and a speech bubble 'OUCH'. That is my cello playing. The clarinet was far worse. And here lies the most significant misconception amongst parents when it comes to music tuition. If little Jonny is so atrocious at the violin you banish his Psycho screeching to the attic, not only will he feel unenthused that his parents want him as far away as possible, but he will feel like the mouse in the trap; cheesed-off. Did it ever occur to Mr and Mrs Big Jonny that perhaps the violin was not the right instrument for him?
If your child doesn't like learning the instrument they are playing, there are only three possible reasons why:
1. They have a lousy, tedious, insipid teacher
2. They have an excellent teacher, but the instrument isn't right for them
3. See number one or two
That's it. No other options are available; so stop trying to complicate matters.
I genuinely believe that every child has the capacity to love playing an instrument. I suspect if you put that child in a room with all the instruments ever invented, and the most fantastic teacher for each instrument, they would pick one that they want to play, and they would lap it up like a cat drinking its lactose-free milk.
For four years I played my instrument every evening. I had one lesson a week. I played in the school assemblies. I played for the school concerts and theatrical productions (knowing what I know now, I'm not sure if you could call them 'theatrical' - but I'll let fond memories take precedence). I had a weekly general music lesson at school where I could bang a tambourine and call it music. I played for the school choir. I played background music for the school open days. If you didn't realise by now, I played all the time. And aside from my private music lessons, my music teacher at St Michael's primary school, Mrs June Davenhill, was the gift that keeps giving. She gave me an all-around musical education and the opportunity to play at all those events listed above, and more. I had the support and slight pushiness from my parents, from my private piano teacher, and the school. I had a twenty-four hour, fifteen tog duvet of music wrapped around me; to which there was no escape. Looking back, I would have had to try really hard not to become a musician.
All of this was due to my interest in the piano which the adults responded in kind. Almost everyone I've ever met thinks I was born to play music. But if I chose the clarinet as my first instrument, I think my blog would be called 'Robert Emery proves that Search Engine Optimisation can be fun' and I would have coding as a hobby. The fifteen tog duvet would be a summer four point five, and I would have had to try really hard to become a musician.
After my generous primary school experience, at the age of nine I was sent to the newly opened Birmingham Conservatoire Junior School (I was literally the first pupil to be signed up) and for six out of those eight years, I upgraded from the excellent Volvo to the inspiring Rolls-Royce that was Heather Slade-Lipkin. The BCJS operated every Saturday, and the inspirations of Mrs Toon and Mrs Davenhill combined to make the power-house that was Mrs Slade-Lipkin.
The Only Photo
Ever Took Of Me Playing A Cello -
And For Good Reason!
Believe it or not, for the first few months I continued to study cello and clarinet alongside the piano. Perhaps my most significant luck in life so far was figuring out I could enjoy and play the piano BEFORE I even thought about trying other instruments. So when my failure on the two C's was more prominent than the mess that is Brexit, it didn't matter. I just dropped them with no repercussions.
Under the leadership of Heather, the BCJS gave me lessons in aural, theory, general musicianship, piano, organ, composition, improvisation, choir, orchestra - and the method of teaching meant I never felt like I was learning. At this age, I was doing the most important thing; having fun with my friends and being a grotty teenager. But crucially, I was enveloped with music. It was everywhere, so much so it formed part of my DNA. This didn't happen by accident. My parents and teachers carefully curated it. By this time I had stopped experimenting with other instruments and settled on the piano. Yes, I played the organ, but I was told from a young age that one could earn a fast buck or two playing down the local church, so I figured it would be a sensible back-stop if my piano career didn't take off. The massive shortage of organists in the UK meant I had more work than I could cope with, and at thirteen, I was earning on average £30 a week - which for a teenager growing up on the outskirts of Birmingham in a little village meant I felt like 'Del-Boy'; this time next year...
After Heather thrust me into competitions such as the BBC Young Musician of the Year, she steered my playing so that I would become one of two pianists accepted from the UK at the Royal College of Music. It was finally time to flee the nest and move to London. And for me, this was where I became an adult. It was now my responsibility to wrap myself in that duvet of music, and for a couple of years, I failed dismally. I was interested in making money, and that came at the expense of my playing. Becoming 'a concert pianist' was harder work than I thought. I needed to use my skills as an organist to tie me over. The job notice board at the RCM clearly said 'DO NOT REMOVE THESE NOTICES', so when I found an organist ad for the perfect church in the perfect location, I immediately ripped it from its pin and put it in my pocket. I persuaded St Paul's in Chiswick to give me a job, and the duvet of music was slowly coming back to me. I had chosen the organ as an instrument when I was eleven, but it wasn't until eighteen that I started conducting. I thought it looked a lot of fun, but due to my studies at the RCM I was trying to become a serious pianist for serious people; this meant pausing anything that had the word 'fun' associated with it and replacing it with 'practice'.
An Early Piano Shot
At the Royal College of Music
You can imagine my reaction when after a Sunday morning service, a professional conductor offered me some work as his assistant. This meant I had to conduct, which to me was breaking the rules and having fun again, and so like a duck to water, I quacked. Waving my arms was exciting, and as the number of camels for payment seemed to be higher than playing the piano, I thought I'd stick with it; pardon the pun. The rest, as they say, is history.
If there is one thing to learn from this miniaturised path of my life, it should be that like everything else; music is a journey. It doesn't start or stop with the first pluck of that string. Inspire your child by getting them to practice in the room you are in, and if squawking on a saxophone doesn't empower them as Pelé with that ball, change the sport, and see if hitting a drum will make them feel like Björn Borg with a bat. So finally you ask 'How do you choose a musical instrument?' The answer: You don't; it'll choose you.
Book recommendations discussing Music Lessons
Music Lessons: The Collège de France Lectures - Boulez book publishing his extraordinary Collège de France lectures
THE Music Lesson - From Grammy-winning musical icon and legendary bassist Victor L. Wooten comes The Music Lesson, the story of a struggling young musician who wanted music to be his life, and who wanted his life to be great.
How to Play the Piano despite Years of Lessons: What Music is and How to Make it at Home - an adults guide to learning music
I Wish I Didn't Quit: Music Lessons - A great little book helping you to inspire your child with tips from world-class musicians
Help Your Kids With Music: A unique step-by-step visual guide - Are your children struggling with music theory? This book by Carol Vorderman might be just what the need. Newly released in 2019.
A Child's Introduction to the Orchestra (Revised): Listen While You Learn About the Instruments, the Music and the Composers Who Wrote the Music! - an interactive, bestselling introduction to the world of classical music.