I used to say that that I had no regrets. But as I grow older, some events of my past really stick out as big mistakes. And carrying on playing musical instruments until about ten years after I had stopped enjoying it is definitely one of them.

I was taught the piano for about twelve years and percussion instruments for almost five years. How could I have carried on for so long? But I can’t actually play piano. If you sat me at a drum kit it would be as though I never had a lesson. It’s terrible. All those years; all that money that my parents spent, and the result is that I can’t stand the sight of any musical instruments. Plop me at a piano and I’ll just mash my hands up and down it like a three-year-old would (I’m not joking either). Ask me to play something and I’ll cry.

At the time I carried on because I liked my piano teacher, and I knew that music was one of the few hobbies that I had. In fifth year at school my guidance teacher asked me what my hobbies were, for some kind of CV exercise or something. I actually could not think of anything. She said she thought I went to chess club.* I informed her that I used to, but now I had to spend my lunchtimes in the music department practicing. “That’s a hobby!” she said. “No it’s not,” I thought, “it’s more bloody work.”

And, you know, after ten years I would say, “well after ten years I really ought to be able to play something, so I’ll carry on until I can.” And I never did. It’s not that I was bad — I was actually quite good and I passed Grade 5 piano. But in a way that was the very problem — music was not a leisure activity. It was more bloody work, and more fucking exams. And before you knew it, there’s another bloody exam you had to do.

Everything in between the exams began to feel like assignments aswell — not anything that I wanted to play, but something that I had to get out of the way and have under my belt, so to speak. As a result, I have no favourite party pieces, nothing that I can play just to enjoy myself. Sometimes I get a real urge to play, but when I get to the piano I remember that I don’t actually have anything that I can play.

This is a great post: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music – putting children off for over 100 years. It explains very well why I finally gave up playing the piano last year.

Even my piano teacher thought that ABRSM was a bunch of guff. Could anybody ever explain why I should need to learn 78 different scales, arpeggios, broken chords and bumholioholios? One or two, I could see the point of that — but 78? Why? And sight reading — for what possible reason would you need to learn how to play any piece of purposely obscure music in 30 seconds? Just why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they’re a bunch of pretentious arseholes.

For my theory test I was advised to buy a bloody expensive ABRSM book. It was a big scam. And the CDs that you had to pay through the nose for in order to hear how those exams pieces should be played were awful. They sounded so flat and lifeless and were played clumsily, no doubt by somebody who thinks he is so much better than an ABRSM CD and that nobody understands his talent. These people were telling me how to play music?!

And here is something else I hated: The Fife Festival of Music. Every year I would be entered into some obscure percussion competition that had about five other entrants. I just couldn’t be arsed with it all. One year there was a photographer from The Fife Free Press who wanted me to pose playing the drumkit. I could not bear to be in some cheesy photo in the local paper. Thankfully, I think I didn’t end up in the paper, probably because I refused to smile.

One time I stupidly agreed to play timpani at an FFOM competition. I only practiced the pieces about twice, and when I got to the venue I discovered that there was only one other entrant — and she was actually very good. So there I was on the stage having to basically sight read these timpani pieces. And that sounds pretty lame — timpani are meant to make immensely loud sounds, and there was me just sort of timidly placing the sticks on top. It was obvious to the fifty-or-so in the audience that I did not have a fucking clue what I was doing and I don’t think anybody knew when I was finished. That’s because I didn’t know when I was finished either. They still applauded. Lying bastards. I didn’t win.

I came away from the whole thing with the firm belief that nobody should be taught how to be creative. Nobody should be taught how to play a musical instrument, or how to paint a picture, or write a novel. Because all of that should come from inside you, and not from a bunch of rules imposed upon you by some anonymous person in an ivory tower. I honestly don’t know how people can do subjects like art and English. Good luck to them.

Maybe the whole key is just to dispense with all the exam nonsense and just get on with enjoying it. Too late for that now…

* I now can’t play chess to save myself either.


  1. I knew that if I went down the route of, you know, actually learning the thing ‘properly’ it would never figure in my life and my friends would miss out on the best performances of “Wish you were here” they were ever likely to hear. In my kitchen. This

  2. Agreed! I took up playing guitar at school as it was, and still is, a skill I greatly admire. However, the pressure of having to learn and perform songs even infront of our small group was too much. The teacher concentrated on the 3 or 4 guys who were naturally gifted and just left the rest to waste their lunch-hours. I don’t know if it’s him I blame or just the general set up of school music tuition. Ah well…maybe one day I’ll have a proper go again!

  3. I was going to mention guitars in my post. Because so many people play the guitar. I get the impression that most kids learn the guitar in their bedrooms — my brother’s doing that at the moment — and not with some officious authority breathing down their neck.

  4. I was offered tuition due to that Primiary School test we did, reacting to different sounds etc. It hasn’t soured me for life I think/hope.

  5. Hmm. I think the whole grades/ABRSM stuff took the fun out of things, though the FFoM seemed more to the whole *point* of playing, having an audience, and getting some reception to bothering to learn the pieces, rather than Mr. Snooty-Examiner being… snooty.

  6. …the FFoM seemed more to the whole *point* of playing, having an audience, and getting some reception to bothering to learn the pieces…

    Hmm, maybe. But I dunno. Whenever I played solo at FFoM the audience, as far as I could tell, consisted of the other entrants and their parents.

  7. Whenever I played solo at FFoM the audience, as far as I could tell, consisted of the other entrants and their parents.

    Still lightyears ahead of that examiner! It’d’ve been good had it not been in school hours, but there were waaaay too many classes to get through.