“Would you like ballet lessons, Debbie?”
The question was thrown at my 7-year-old self, by my mother who stood chatting to a neighbour, in the street. I was playing hopscotch on the broad paving slabs that lay beyond our gate, at the time and stopped, wide eyed at the prospect set before me.
I had harboured dreams of becoming a ballerina, ever since reading “Laura of the ballet school.”
“Yes please!” I breathed.
They both laughed and turned away.
I threw the pebble with renewed vigour and practically pirouetted across the slabs. I was going to have ballet lessons! I was beyond excitement.
My mother, chatting away to her friend, had no idea of the depth of my desire of course.
I waited all afternoon for her to bring the subject up. She didn’t.
Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I ventured,
“When can I start ballet lessons?”
My mother looked up from whatever it was she had been doing, in surprise.
“Oh, we’ll see,” she replied.
I sensed my excitement had been a little premature.
For the next few days I waited, growing less certain by the minute. Had I misheard? Had she not asked me if I wanted ballet lessons?
My sisters were less than encouraging.
“Ballet? You?” they said, in sisterly amazement, “You’ll be lucky.”
I tried one more time that week. I waited until I thought my mother was in a reasonable mood. This often coincided with her singing in the kitchen (she was an accomplished soprano in her youth – could have gone professional had her mother let her – she was oft heard to say.)
“When can I go to ballet school?”
“Oh don’t be silly, you wouldn’t like it,” my mother told me.
I realised something then. Adults say things they don’t mean. At least, they say things that children can easily misunderstand, especially when talking to another adult.
Later, I realised that my mother and her friend had probably been discussing the cost of ballet lessons, or the fact that Mrs so-and-so up the road was taking her daughter. They had been discussing anything but the thought of me going to lessons. I liken it to me discussing someone climbing Everest and turning to one of my own children, when small, and asking them glibly, if they would like to do the same. It would have been a rhetorical question of course. I would not have meant it to be taken with any seriousness. I would have been most surprised had that child later turned up with an ice pick and demanded to be taken to Everest.
Alas, at that precise moment, the disappointment I felt when I realised the folly of my ways, was deep.
To be fair, my view of ballet was a little romanticised at the time, but it would have been nice to have a go.
By the age of seven and a half, I had turned my attentions to the piano.
The upright piano arrived and took up residence in the dining room where it squashed itself between the sideboard and the fireplace. Police houses were not large and I am surprised it fitted anywhere, looking back. I think it had come from my grandmother’s house but I can’t be sure.
My grandmother was an accomplished piano player. No one in our house played but my parents thought it might be good to have. We children were warned not to thump the keys but we were interested. My elder sister played Chop Sticks and I copied, dreaming of becoming a famous pianist for a while.
I’d recently read a book about a girl who had fought her way, Cinderella-like to the pinnacle of musical stardom.
I didn’t ask if any lessons were coming our way. I now knew better.
Some little time later, the piano disappeared to a Great Aunt’s house. Great Aunt Grace played beautifully. That summer, while staying with this Miss Haversham look-alike, I was treated to a few lessons from her and picked up the scales and the rudiments of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. She had had the piano tuned and it now sounded beautiful.
“Perhaps your parents will get you piano lessons at home,” she encouraged.
I smiled and said nothing. We didn’t even have a piano now.
Sadly, the lessons were sporadic given the distance between us and no more was said about taking lessons at home.
The violin entered my life when I was nine years old. The school had engaged a violin teacher, at great expense apparently, and I was offered the chance to go to his lessons. I was over the moon.
I was handed a violin in its leather case, which was to be mine for the duration. I had to clean it, nurture it and love it. I did all these things. I learnt to play it like a guitar, I mastered, F A C E and E G B D F. I rubbed resin on the bow and drew it across the strings, bringing forth recognisable nursery rhymes, including, Twinkle, Twinkle, little Star. I read music and played the instrument, tucked beneath my chin, with my fellow violinists, at school concerts.
I loved my violin at first but as we progressed, touching on Chopin and Bach, I struggled a little. After two and a half years, I suppose I had doubts about the suitability of this instrument. A natural musician I was not.
At first, I merely moaned about having to go to the lessons. By the age of ten, I was actively seeking to leave.
“I’m afraid she can’t stop the lessons,” my head master told my parents, “It will be good for her to continue,”
I have never liked being told I have to do something, especially when in my eyes, it is not essential.
I began leaving my violin at home.
“I can’t go to the lesson, I’m sorry, I forgot my violin,” I’d try.
I got away with it once or twice.
My parents got a letter home,
“Deborah must remember to bring her violin to lessons,”
I was not allowed to forget it again.
I took to accidentally, ‘losing’ the case on my way to school. I’d rest it by the canteen, half hidden in the long grass and wander, casually, into class. At lesson time, I’d explain that I had ‘lost’ my violin.
Now, although I, the child, thought this a plausible excuse, the adults in the room clearly did not. A search for the violin would always end the same way. It was found.
Sometimes, they didn’t even have to search, the violin would be handed in to my class, having been found somewhere in the playground. (I was not the master of hiding places). The fact that the instrument had my name clearly printed on its case, ensured that it was never lost for long.
It was no use, I would just have to make the best of things. I dragged my violin to all the lessons. I continued to polish it¬—we shared a love/hate relationship. I practised at home, much to the family’s distress, and I performed at school concerts. Although, I do remember, just pretending to play a particularly difficult piece of music at one concert, leaving the actual playing to my fellow violinists. I don’t know if anyone noticed. I was a good mimic. I did think it was lucky that not everyone took this approach.
I endured those lessons for the remainder of my time at Primary school. I don’t think my musical prowess improved much during this period, I suspect my ability had plateaued. Yes, my repertoire now ran far beyond Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I could read music but I lacked that essential spark.
Aged eleven, I passed the eleven plus and moved up to Grammar School. I was ecstatic, no violin. My violin had been handed back to my old school for the next, unsuspecting pupil. I was only a tiny bit sad to see it go.
My new music teacher asked if anyone had ever played an instrument, I hesitantly raised my hand.
“I used to play the violin,” I told him.
He was encouraged, I think, for a moment but I did not fall into the trap of offering to take up another instrument, I was too recently released from my last experience.
I was vaguely interested in the trumpet but thankfully, I refrained from joining that class, I was still too traumatised by my violin experience. Mr H did not press me.
For the first year, I was one of his star pupils. Several other children played instruments and read music and I easily kept up with them, using my previously learnt skills.
I performed so well in the end of year exams that I came close to the top of the class. My musical knowledge had really helped that year.
However, by the end of the second year, things had changed. My exam results were very different. Like I said, I am not a natural musician. I’d far rather listen o music than play it. The knowledge that had helped me through that first year, simply ran out. It was with some relief that I slipped into anonymity within music class.
Around that time, Great Aunt Grace, died. There were no more sporadic piano lessons. My musical career was finished before it had really got going.
Alas, I was destined never to dance in Swan Lake nor to play strings at the Albert Hall but I have no regrets. I don’t think the world is a poorer place for my failure to make the grade.
After all, I believe the pen is far mightier than the bow…
“Would you like ballet lessons, Debbie?”