In today’s instalment of Millers Music matters, we’re speaking to advanced amateur pianist and writer/blogger Frances Wilson, otherwise known online as ‘The Cross Eyed Pianist’. Frances has a wealth of both teaching knowledge and sheer passion for the piano.
We wanted to get to know Frances' story, why she loves the piano so much and to tell us a little more about the incredible community associated with this beautiful instrument.
“Online I’m known as the cross eyed pianist and I’ve been blogging under that title for around 10 and a half years now. I actually began learning the piano when I was about 5, I went through all of the grades and I wanted to go to music college but was discouraged from doing so, and so I took a different
path at 18 and studied Anglo-Saxon English at university instead.
I actually gave up playing the piano for a good 20 years and it was my mother who one day said I should start playing again, so she brought me a digital piano just before I turned 40 and that was what got me going again! I started practising seriously again and pretty soon actually began teaching piano despite having no real teaching qualifications other than having already been taught myself so I learnt along with my students in a way. I then took two professional performance diplomas which I passed with distinction in my mid-40s.
Since then, piano is kind of my life - and my work too. My blog has led to other writing opportunities, and I also do some publicity/PR work for musicians and music organisations. And I owe it all to the piano!”
Fran’s story is not uncommon, we hear it all the time where students have either been discouraged by a teacher, or their priorities change and music becomes more of a background hobby or they stop playing altogether. What is fantastic however is that triumphant feeling of return and so we asked Frances what it was like coming back to that feeling and what made her fall in love with playing again?
“In a way it was a form of escapism. I had quite a young son at the time and the piano was just a place I could go to that was fully mine. Piano was my ‘me’ time, but I’ve always had this desire to learn and teach myself a skill. The idea that one is always on a constant learning journey is incredibly interesting to me and that really has fuelled my wish to continue to improve my playing. It’s less about the end result of an exam, but the journey and the important steps we take along the way.
When I started having regular lessons again, I began to meet other adult pianists people on similar journeys to me, who had returned to piano for one reason or another. I felt very much that I was lacking "piano friends", which when it comes to music I think is so important. As pianists, we’re quite unique because we spend a lot of time on our own with the instrument. Equally, we need to communicate with others for support, inspiration and encouragement.
When I started having regular lessons again, I began to meet other adult pianists and met other people in similar journeys as me and had returned to piano for one reason or another. I felt very much that I was lacking ‘piano friends’, which when it comes to music I think is so important. As pianists, we’re quite unique because we spend a lot of time on our own with the instrument. Equally, we need to communicate with others for a support network, inspiration and encouragement.
Through another friend of mine, we then set up the London Piano Meetup Group, which will be celebrating it’s 8th birthday this year. Through that, I have met so many incredible people and made some really good "piano friends". Although I now live in Dorset and am no longer involved in organising the group's activities, it’s still important to me to try to keep in touch with them and go to meetings where I can. For us amateurs, we love getting together in non-judgmental atmospheres, we have complete beginners playing alongside professionally trained conservatoire pianists, the meetups are a wonderful celebration of the piano, it’s literature but above all, this is something we all get at every single meetup, we just love the instrument.
The great thing about amateur piano players is that we know it’s hard and yet still rise to the challenge it presents - but we absolutely love it. If you listen in to any of our conversations, you hear this amazing enthusiasm and passion for the piano.”
Frances’ sense of camaraderie surrounding the piano got us so inspired that we wanted to expand out this feeling into what she feels learning the piano, whether someone is 6 years old or 60 years old can bring.
“I suppose firstly, there’s the satisfaction of acquiring a skill and learning any instrument is an immense skill that takes a lot of dedication and hard work. Something that often gets overlooked though is that that the hard work need not be unenjoyable. When I was teaching, my attitude was very much that students should always enjoy the music they're learning. But I think it’s bigger than that, there’s an great deal of satisfaction to be gained from playing the piano and I just think the challenge is that much greater because you’ve got so many more notes to deal with and process. The ability to process that information and present it to others in a performance is a wonderful thing. That sense of satisfaction is definitely what draws many to the piano, it does give this wonderful sense of personal fulfilment and that drives the desire to improve.
In terms of escapism, it’s been incredibly important for people over the past year, when we’ve been dominated with often very unsettling or disturbing news, for a lot of people the only way they have managed to escape is via the piano or music. I know that even though I’ve been incredibly busy but I’ve been playing more but far more than I expected to!”
The first thing I’d say is that it’s never too late, whatever age you are it’s always there. I have a friend who took up piano when she retired from work and she loves it, she plays at an intermediate level. Research shows that if we learn a new skill such as a musical instrument in later life, it helps keep the brain active and functioning. The other thing which is more a practical tip is to getting an acoustic or digital instrument with a proper weighted action and full-size keyboard. That can make a big difference to your playing and you can be held back by a bad instrument.
Finally I think the support of a teacher is really important, but it’s about finding the right one for you. Some teachers are very talented at teaching younger students, but others specialise in working with adults. I found that when I restarted playing in my 40s that I had issues with confidence and had a teacher who was very good at making me feel more confident. Lots of adults can feel very very nervous. There’s a whole thing about playing and doing something and making mistakes, but a sympathetic teacher who understands that can make a really big difference.
You don’t have to be playing the core pieces to enjoy piano, there’s such a wealth of music written for the piano, so make your own journey and play what you like!”
What a story! We hope you’re feeling just as inspired as we are and are either heading to pick up your first piano or return to your own instrument now! We’d absolutely love to thank Frances for her time to answer these questions and hope you’ve found them as enthralling as we have! If you are just beginning your piano journey and would like further advice, contact our piano team today, or for fantastic tips, information and advice to improve your playing or to learn more about the classical music scene, visit Frances’ blog here.
Pianist magazine even featured Frances on a series of video tips to improve your piano playing!