I Wish…… Part 2 of 2: I Wish I Could Play Boogie Woogie On The Piano
Hey there! How are you all? Well I hope and coping with whatever Covid restrictions you are enduring in your county or country.
After a break – please don’t thank me – of a few weeks this is my second post in three days. If you ploughed your way through the 2,600 words of I Wish I Was A Polyglot, I congratulate and admire you. You are well on your way to becoming an endurance athlete. Will this blog be any less verbose? Don’t be silly! Check the archive. I devoted a whole blog to brevity. Done with it now. I will just ramble on revealing more and more of my foible driven past and present life. It’s quite cathartic in some ways casting off the veneers. Well, mostly. Sometimes, I write something and immediately backtrack and delete very swiftly.
In Part 2 of I Wish…….. I am going to tell you all about my musical career (!) and how I wish I could play Boogie Woogie on the piano. Actually, anything on the piano but especially Boogie Woogie.
My musical career closely mirrors my football career, which ended crushingly when I realised aged about 13 that I was actually rubbish. Oh, I was enthusiastic. Yes, I was. I would run and run and run all day in pursuit of that illusive piece of leather. If they’d have had pedometers in those days I would have won a prize every day for ground covered but the dazzling skills I thought I possessed were, alas, a figment of my imagination. I never made the school football team but all that running paid off because I did make the cross-country and athletics team.
Unlike the cul-de-sac where my football ambitions ended up, over the years I have diligently pursued, or fruitlessly chased, depending how you view it, musical competence on a variety of instruments. If you measure success by desire alone then I am amazing. If it is by achievement then I have been found wanting – and I am still wanting.
Sadly singing was also a complete no no. My dad could hold a tune and, although I have yet to hear him, I understand my grown up son can too. It has skipped me by, though. I once knew a singing teacher who told me that very few people were actually tone deaf and that she could train someone to hold a tune. As it is widely known that I cannot sing, one day I would love to engage a teacher and secretly train my voice and then stun my family and friends at a party or karaoke night. I would choose Elvis, Tom Jones or Frank Sinatra and I would be incredible. Slightly concerned here that I am revealing a hitherto hidden exhibitionist streak.
But, back to the musical career I have chased over seven decades. Now, as I take you along the littered path of my failed attempts to learn a musical instrument, I see no reason why you shouldn’t suffer as I have so, take a seat , strap in and write off fifteen minutes of your lives.
In a few sentences this is a summary of the first five years of my life:- My parents both came from Camden in London, dad from Euston and mum from a short distance away in Mornington Crescent. They married in 1953 and lived with my nan for six months before moving into a brand new council house in what was then called Harlow New Town. When I was five years old we moved back to Camden, to Kentish Town, and my brother and I attended Torriano Junior school.
It’s still there, still a school. It looks Victorian but was built in 1910 and……. ‘Cliff, in the name of Sister Agnethia of The Immaculate Contraption, you’re doing it again. Stop meandering, you tangential tit. What has Torriano Junior School got to do with you failing to be a musician? Nobody cares.’ Alright, alright. Bit harsh, sit on the fence why don’t you! Actually Torriano did play a pivotal role in my pursuit of musical greatness. That’s where it all started. You see, Torriano had a school brass band.
Mr Woodage was the music teacher. He was a trumpeter, a brilliant one, and his real job was being a member of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. On a whim Clifford, aged about seven, decided he was going to join the school band, learn a brass instrument and also play in the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, probably before his eighth birthday!!
I went for an audition. Oh, I was so excited as Mr Woodage explained about the embouchure (the use of the lips, tongue and facial muscles when playing). Oh I was so excited when I was given an E-Flat Horn to hold. Oh I was so excited when the sound I was making changed from that of a lame goose farting in the fog (a Billy Connolly line) to an actual musical note.
Mr Woodage couldn’t fault my enthusiasm and welcomed me into the band. In hindsight he probably rued the day for I would haunt him for the next seven years as I beat the hell out of, firstly the Horn and then the Trombone. But I was in a band! The world was indeed my oyster! (see what I did there? No. Well that’s because you haven’t read I Wish….. Part 1!!).
I can still remember the joy of that moment when Mr Woodage said I could join the school band and I practically skipped home clutching the music case like a badge of honour. I burst into the flat (flat is a very relevant word in relation to me and music!) where we lived and told my mum that I was in the school band. As much as I can remember this is how the conversation went:
Me: “Mum, mum. I’m in the band.”
Mum: “What band?”
Me: “The band, mummy, the brass band at school and this is my E-Flat Horn and I am going to play in the BBC Philharmonic before I’m eight.”
Mum: “Why have you brought it home?”
Me: “I am going to practice in my bedroom and get really good and play in the Philharmonic.”
Mum: “But we live in a flat. We aren’t allowed pets or musical instruments.”
Now, this was a crushing blow. I knew about pets because my brother and me were still getting over not being allowed a dog. But instruments! Did she make that up?
Sensing my forlorn deflation, my mum relented and told me I could practice for half an hour as soon as I got home from school but, at the weekends, I would have to sit on our patch of garden out the back and practice.
One Saturday day mum and dad walked the 600metres or so to Kentish Town high street to a furniture store and bought a gate leg dining table. Anxious to save a buck, (he probably got a discount for cash too. “Always ask for a discount for cash, son!”), dad decided they would walk the table home and save on a delivery charge. They turned into the bottom of our road and this is the short conversation they had, related to me years later.
Dad: “Bet’ (mum was called Betty) what the hell is that racket?”
Mum: “I don’t know, but it sounds awful. Wait. Oh, my God! It’s Clifford practicing in the garden!”
Ever seen a gate leg table running of it’s own accord? No, me neither, but this one did as mum and dad legged it home as fast as they could. I was banned from practicing in the garden. Bit of a dilemma for my folks as they didn’t want to stamp on my parade. But they encouraged me and I persevered and actually learnt to read music – a bit. Forgotten it now though.
But after a while my enthusiasm for the E-Flat Horn waned. It wasn’t cool enough for me. The rounder French horn was much sexier but we didn’t have those. Also, a bit like my juggling, which I covered extensively in an earlier blog, I wanted instant gratification. I wanted to be a master of the instrument not slaughtering it into submission. But, as I learnt, perhaps too late in life, these things take dedication and hours and hours of patient practice before competency is achieved.
So I told the long-suffering Mr Woodage that I wanted to leave the band. In fairness, he didn’t do a cartwheel of joy. That I could have understood. But, rather than accept my resignation, he sent me to the headmistress, the formidable Mrs Strong. We called her Strongbo and her ivory tower was at the top of a spiral wooden staircase from where she had 360 vision of the whole school. Normally, if you were in her office it was either for a severe telling off or for an even more severe telling off.
Strongbo scared us proper. I bumbled my reasons for leaving – I wasn’t progressing, I thought I would be in the Philharmonic by now, I thought it was affecting my studies……. That last one was a laugh. Academically I was practically imbecilic! Strongbo gave me a withering look of contempt, roared her disapproval and threw me down the cylindrical staircase outside her office back into the band.
Mr Woodage decided a change of instrument would reignite and revive my musical ‘talent’ and promoted me to the trombone. And even though the trombone was indeed much cooler than the E-Flat Horn, that instrument subsequently led to me being kicked out of the band and on another ascent to the office of Strongbo.
In fairness it was just a small prank that backfired albeit spectacularly. I was probably nine or ten by then and, a few months after my promotion to the trombone, we were in the music room practicing with Mr Woodage conducting. We were all in a line and I was at the end, on the right, facing the front of the room. I thought it would be such a wheeze, and endear me to my fellow band mates, if I hooked the end of my trombone on full extension onto the bottom of the music stand and make it fall over. Everyone would laugh, I would apologise profusely and we would carry on playing.
Hmmm, if only that is how it panned out. Unfortunately, instead of the music stand falling harmlessly to the right, which was the aim, it fell to the left and dominoed the entire front row of around ten music stands. Music sheets and music stands all over the place. Chaos, complete uproar and pandemonium. Oh dear.
Understandably, Mr Woodage was far less than amused and threw me out of the band, like proper incensed he was. He theatrically extended his arm and pointed his finger. “Be gone with you, you despicable boy,” he probably said. “Go straight to the headmistress and tell her what you did.”
One by one, I slowly ascended the stairs to Strongbo’s office hoping she was out. She wasn’t. I stood in front of her and, such was her anger when I explained what had happened, I think I actually cried. Ooh, she didn’t half shout at me.
Didn’t tell my parents. Just told them I was leaving the band. Told them I wanted to concentrate on my studies!!! Mum was impressed; dad raised one eye and winked. He knew. It was a shame, as I actually liked the trombone but, with dreams of being the youngest member of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra dashed, I continued my junior education and then I moved up to senior school.
Imagine my surprise to find that Mr Woodage also taught the school band at my new school. Imagine his shock that the oik who wrecked the music room at Torriano was pleading to be allowed to join the new band. To his credit he forgave my earlier indiscretion and welcomed me back. Refraining from any more pranks, I played in the school band for three years before again leaving to, er, concentrate on my studies!!
And thus began a periodic obsession with learning an instrument. As I have suffered for my ‘art’ I again see no reason why you shouldn’t suffer too as I detail my musical adventures. It might weaken and drain you but sharing could help me immeasurably so, I thank you.
Since leaving school I have sashayed across a variety of musical genres. Over the years I have purchased, taken lessons in and utterly battered two guitars, a penny whistle, a saxophone and several harmonicas. But, not a piano. Not yet. I feel every disappointment has led to this point. I’m ready, I can do this. I can learn the piano and play Boogie Woogie. If I can endure probably 50+ 6 hour swims in Dover harbour over many years whilst training for Channel swims then surely, in the warmth of my living room, I can learn the piano.
Before I tell you my piano plan, let me take you on a short journey explaining my other attempts at learning an instrument. I’ll skip the first guitar and penny whistle as they were but a passing glimpse. My first proper purchase was a brand new, real (not the Korean or Japanese versions) sunburst Fender Stratocaster. Harrow Music -£525. Good enough for Eric ‘Slowhand” Clapton, good enough for Cliff ‘No Chance’ Golding.
I did take lessons and I could do a passable Smoke On The Water and a bit of Buddy Holly but the old instant gratification problem reared it’s head and my Fender soon became an ornament rather than an extension of my arm. I eventually sold it to my cousin, John, who collected guitars. I tried to buy it back years later but, by then, it was a prized possession.
Next it was the saxophone. The solo in Careless Whisper. That’s what did it and a really cool busker I used to see in Covent Garden in the early ‘80s. I definitely wanted to be that guy. I bought a tenor sax in one of the numerous music shops off Tottenham Court Road and took lessons. After a few months I still couldn’t play a damn note so that went the same way as the Fender.
I’ve always liked the harmonica. I love the neatness; that you can put it in your pocket, pull it out and produce such amazing sounds. If I could just play jazz or the blues on one, I think I would be in heaven. The late Larry Adler was a master. And check out Jean-Jacques Milteau. He is outstanding.
So I bought one and took some lessons. I’ve got five harmonicas now. Am, I brilliant? Can I play the blues and jazz and riff? If I busked at Covent Garden could I earn more than £4.50 by teatime? Well, what do you think?
Now, Boogie Woogie on the piano. That’s where it’s at. I love Boogie Woogie. In fact, Boogie Woogie and blues harmonica together. For me, that is the equivalent of Dawn French diving head first into a chocolate fountain on Vicar of Dibley! Have a look at Frankie Moreno on You Tube – Piano and Harp Jam. He is a true artist and master.
I’ve got half a dozen Jules Holland albums. His blues and Boogie Woogie playing is incredible. I don’t have it to hand but top of my head, tracks five, seven and eleven on his A-Z Geographers Guide to the Piano album are fantastic. How does he do it? How does he instinctively know which of the 88 weighted keys to play – without looking? How? How did Ray Charles do it, and Stevie Wonder? They couldn’t/can’t even see the keys. I’m not being flippant but if you sat Stevie at a keyboard and then moved it three inches to the left or right without telling him, what would happen? I’ll tell you what would happen, he would still know where the keys are. These are big, serious questions to me. I want to ‘get it’, I want to understand.
A friend of mine is called Neil Drinkwater. I have guided with him on SwimTrek trips. Very funny chap. He fronts a great band called The Red Stripe Band (Check out Red Stripe Boogie on You Tube.). Determined to never give up my dream of musical magnificence, I once asked Neil the following question: If I was a man of means (#i’mnot!) and engaged a piano teacher, who got me and understood that he or she would first have to deal with and curtail my desire for instant gratification, and had lessons for six hours a day solid for thirty days, would I be any good at the end?
Neil said probably not!! Or not as good as I wanted to be. I was seven years old again with my mum telling me I couldn’t practice in the flat. But, Neil immediately qualified his answer by saying that I would be able to play stuff but I’d probably be exhausted. Much better, he said, would be to have a couple of lessons a week and practice, practice, practice. At the end of thirty days I would be better than the first option and not so poor.
Well, there you have it. Almost three thousand words in and it comes down to one word – Practice. OK, another one – Desire. OK, one more – Perseverance.
Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a one off TV programme. Any commissioning editors out there? Take this multiple instrument failure and throw him to a piano teacher. Put a time limit on it and film his progress. It would be gripping TV!!! BAFTA award winning – guaranteed.
Yeah! Like, no chance! But, really, I’m right on this. It’s time. I’ll seek advice and then I will get a second hand 88 key weighted keyboard. I bloody will play Boogie Woogie, you see if I don’t!!
Post Note 1:
These two ‘I wish……’ blogs have been my longest blogs to date. I sort of splurged! Having re-read them (and now I feel your pain!) I am wondering what the conclusion is. I think I know? It doesn’t matter how many dead ends you encounter, how many cul-de-sacs, how many disappointments. You just have to laugh, pick yourself up, dust down and start again. Who gives a tomtit’s toenail if you fail. Doesn’t mean you didn’t learn anything, gain anything. Some journeys aren’t on a straight road that’s all. I absolutely will play Boogie Woogie on the piano. Who says I can’t? Watch this space. Er, keep watching. Yep, just keep watching.
Post Note 2:
Were you looking for me in the top photo? What a cheek, I’m not that old! This is of a brass band probably form the 1930s. The three boys in the centre of the second row are holding E-Flat Horns.