Laurie at the piano by Martin RowsonMy psychotherapist looked worried.“Stop looking worried,” I said, pouring tea. “You’re my psychotherapist. You’re not supposed to look worried.”

She helped herself to milk. “I’m not your psychotherapist,” she said. “You don’t pay.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But if I hadn’t explained Lacan you’d never have passed your exams and never become a psychotherapist in the first place. So you owe me the odd freebie.”

“Well, I’ll tell you why I’m looking worried,” she said, spearing crumbs of meringue with her little finger. “I’m looking worried because you’re not looking worried. Because you never look properly worried. Because you are absurdly self-satisfied. You don’t just rest on your laurels. You fall asleep on them.”

I argued with her analysis. Told her over a second pot and more cakes about some of my deep down anxieties, my intrinsic lack of confidence, my essential feeling of worthlessness. But she was unmoved. Had heard it all before. “Get yourself a new challenge before you’re dead,” she said “Or someone’s going to scrawl ‘complacent’ on your tombstone.”

When I got back home, I took out a sheet of paper, wrote “Possible Challenges” across the top in capital letters and began a list. Learn French properly. Join gym and build upper body strength. Read Heidegger. Listen to Lady Gaga. What else?

It was then I heard the sound from the neighbouring flat. Somebody playing scales. Of course. What better challenge than learning to play the piano? After all, apart from the one-fingered version of “Old Black Joe” which I’d mastered at the age of nine, I’d really no more idea how to summon a tune from a keyboard than extract a boson from a collider.

Within days I’d found a place where I could rent an electric piano. Within weeks I’d had it delivered to my flat. Within hours of its installation I was down at Chappell’s in Wardour Street buying a copy of The Complete Piano Player which boasted that its “easy-to-follow text and clear demonstration diagrams enable you to progress in the shortest possible time to advanced playing.”

And it lived up to its promise. It took only a couple of days before I could knock out a one-handed version of “Love Me Tender” which sounded so like the original that it seemed only a matter of weeks before I’d be able to move on to the Thelonious Monk coursebook I’d spotted in the neighbouring rack at Chappell’s.

Once I’d successfully mastered “Rivers of Babylon” and “This Ole House” and “White Rose of Athens”, I began to plan the moment when I’d invite my psychotherapist round, sit her down on the sofa with a cup of tea, and then sneakily make my way to the piano stool and completely blow her away with my freshly improvised version of “Blue Monk”. “Have I stopped you looking worried?” I’d shout above the clang of the final chords.
And then came “Danny Boy”. A quick glance at this tune on Page 12 of Book Two of The Complete Piano Player doesn’t suggest any particular difficulties. There are the new A, B, and C notes for the right hand and the extra E for the left. But I’d learned these on earlier pages when I’d been putting the finishing touches to “Sailing” and “My Own True Love”.

So off I went. “Oh, Dan-ny Boy” – BCDE. Very straightforward. “The pipes, the pipes are call – ing.” DEAGEEDCA. Still fine. But then on the opposite page came the obstruction, the barrier, the fatal obstacle. “But come you back when sum-mer’s in the mea –dow” go the words. And on the keyboard all I had to do was play GABCBBAGAAEC with the right hand accompanied by GEFB with the left.

Couldn’t do it. Simply couldn’t do it. Although I sat there positively willing the fingers of my right hand to stretch out and hit the ABCBBAAE notes in the proper order, they simply refused to follow my mental demands. They wouldn’t do what they were told.

I tried playing it very very slowly. “But…come…you ...back….when …sum…mer’s… in…the ... mea…dow.” No good. I tried speeding up in the hope that it might dispose of any self-consciousness that was getting between my mind and my fingertips. “Butcomeyoubackwhensummersinthemeadow.” No good. No good at all. I switched the digital piano to harpsichord mode and then to organ and then to strings in the hope that I’d somehow fool it into compliance with my fingers. I changed from Light Touch to Heavy Touch. Added in Reverb. Raised and lowered volume. But all in vain. “Danny Boy” simply refused to come back to the sunlit meadow.

The piano goes back the week after next. With a bit of luck I should be able to help the removal man get it down the stairs. For even though I’m only a fortnight into my new course at the Wellbody Gym, when I listened carefully this morning I could just about detect the faint ripple of my new upper body muscles.