‘Can I touch the harp?’

The old man took my harp and accurately picked out a piece by ear. Then he started talking about instruments and music he’d played. I’d gone with our harp group to Boarbank Hall Nursing Home near Grange-over-Sands, where we play twice a year. Moments like this, when the residents chat with us after we’ve played, are the most rewarding part of the experience. When people talk about their past, everyone has something to say about music. Often, sadly, there’s a regret about opportunities not taken or instruments abandoned.


As I grow older, I recognise that the investment my parents made in piano lessons was a truly valuable one. When I was nine, they asked for a recommendation of a good local piano teacher, and so I found myself in the sitting room of Miss Dorothy Gouk at 97 High Street, Montrose, playing a piece called ‘Hello Middle C’. Miss Gouk was recognised as an excellent teacher. She was in her sixties then and still teaching. I do not think she ever stopped until, sadly, she died of a stroke in 1972. She smoked the occasional Rizla roll-up, and I’d watch fascinated as she’d demonstrate a piece and smoke at the same time, the drooping cigarette held tightly in her lips. The cigarettes were always tinged with pink lipstick. Her black spaniel, Biddy, gnawed at a chewstick in the corner, not necessarily in time to the music.

I had a weekly practical lesson of half an hour and a Saturday morning theory class which extended to a full hour. She evidently considered the theory important, and she was right. We worked in a group of six and learned about everything from key signatures to cadences. She had some silent rubber keyboards, just over an octave in length; we each had one to help us count out the intervals silently and jot our answers down in the workbook. I think they were called ‘dummy keyboards’. My extensive googling on the topic has yielded no evidence of their existence today. We actually found their silence quite boring, but they were pleasantly squishy and gathered the odd bit of graffiti on the back as they were quite receptive to the point of a pencil.

Over the years I progressed from ‘Hello Middle C’ to Grade 8, which I took in my penultimate year at school. The results were always published in a small corner of the local paper. This was a more modest age, and my parents would have certainly disliked the current vogue for announcing results to the world on social media. Praise in a Sixties Scottish household was limited to the odd nod or remark that it was ‘nice’; we were never encouraged to show off. Playing in our sitting room, I was in direct competition with my father, who thundered on a manual typewriter in the room above me. Sometimes he stopped, because he did quite like the Mozart sonatas. Back then, piano lessons were seen as a useful accomplishment which might enable me to stand in occasionally for the church organist or play ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ and other favourites for the Sunday School Party, both of which I did. Quite nicely.

I thought I had taken my last music exam in 1969, but I was wrong. After taking up the lever harp in 2008 I did Grades 3 – 6, and I have just taken my Grade 6 singing exam. I found the exams more nerve-wracking than I did in the Sixties, but I recognise that they have really helped me focus my learning. I am particularly grateful for the hours at the dummy keyboard in the theory class which meant I had Grade 5 theory in the bag; without this qualification I couldn’t have done my Grade Sixes in harp and singing. So I advise anyone to stick at it through Grade 5 theory if possible. I advise you to stick at it, full stop – even if you don’t do exams.

Because exams aren’t everything.  Some of my best musical times have been singing songs learned by ear in a community choir or trying to play my harp in a ‘session’.  Music will provide you with a link with others all through your life. I have always sung in choirs and have met so many people through making music. At the end of June our harp group played in a community concert for the Silverdale and Arnside Arts Trail, where everyone from schoolchildren to more senior citizens played their part, finishing up with a rousing rendition of ‘Thank you for the Music’. It’s all about the harmony.

Music has provided me with a major ‘retirement interest’. But what I really notice is that musicians don’t retire.