Monday, November 7, 2011

Childhood memories of Waterview

In the dark lounge room of the Walker house at Waterview, there was an upright piano. I had started to take weekly piano lessons from an old lady named Maude McMenemy, whom we referred to as “Mrs Mack”. I recall waiting on her front verandah, listening to the end of an ongoing lesson and saying to myself that, if this were music, then I wanted no part of it. Maude Mack’s basic weakness was her own inability to play the piano skillfully and artistically. She would thump the keyboard angrily as if she were punishing the instrument for not producing beautiful sounds, and there was nothing in her teaching approach that might have inspired me to take an interest in learning music.

Once, in the middle of a lesson, there was an electricity blackout. Mrs Mack went into her kitchen and fetched a wax candle. No sooner had she lit it than the lights came back on, whereupon my teacher lamented: “Ah, I’ve wasted a match.” When my mother heard this anecdote, she was most amused. The exclamation about wasting a match became a permanent element of our Waterview repertory of humor.

At that time, at the South Grafton primary school, my schoolmates commonly assumed that I was enamored of a young lady named Nancy McDiarmid, who happened to be the daughter of the local Presbyterian clergyman. While it may have been the case that we were attracted to one another, I'm obliged to admit that I have no precise recollections of my yearning for her, or going out of my way to meet up with her. Be that as it may, we were suddenly thrown together through the piano, and the desire of Mrs Mack to have her pupils perform in public. It was decided that Nancy and I would combine our pianistic talents as duettists for a performance of a piece called Carnival of Venice at the forthcoming Jacaranda Festival in Grafton. I seem to recall that we practiced together once or twice at Nancy’s house up on the hill at South Grafton. For the actual performance—which went over quite well—Nancy looked cute in a pale mauve cotton frock (to match the color of our festival trees), while I sported a dark mauve necktie.

[Click to enlarge]

Meanwhile, I persevered with my scales and elementary pieces on the instrument at Grandma’s place. Obviously, for those within earshot—such as my uncles—the sounds I created were dull, if not unpleasant. One day, I discovered by chance that I could reproduce the melodies of songs I heard on the radio, and harmonize the music with my left hand using three chords: tonic, dominant and subdominant. Not surprisingly, the members of the Walker household found my improvisations slightly less monotonous than the scales. When I sensed that I was annoying my listeners less than before, this encouraged me to develop my skills in “playing by ear” (as this ability was described). From that point on, I lost interest in learning to read music and concentrated exclusively upon the art of inventing richer methods of improvisation. But I soon realized that I was clearly not marked out to become a competent pianist.

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