My Musical Journey by Lawrence Estrey

Hi, welcome to my site.

About The Posts

The following posts tell the story of my musical experiences in strict chronological order – hence, the reverse publication dates of posts. Older posts mean more recent posts. At times, I include videos of my piano playing to enhance the storyline.

I hope you will enjoy the journey.

Additional Info

Please note that the chronological lists of events appear at the footer of this blog, along with the Search fuction.

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Beethoven 7, And A Special Needs School

​We spent Sundays hiking in the countryside. During the car ride, I always looked forward to the moment when the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony (the scherzo and trio) would burst out over the car speakers, the opening announcing itself like a fanfare, the rises and falls in the music matching the mounts and vales of the Lancashire/Yorkshire countryside.  

War memorials. Village church clocks. Quarries stretching out at the bottom of winding roads. Pieces of machinery humming over the stillness as we climbed hills. We walked in all weather conditions, our boots tramping in mud when it rained, our cagoules protecting us against Pennine winds. Often on a Sunday, we would walk about seven or eight miles, stopping for a sandwich lunch on the trail. 

The piano fascinated me from as far back as I can remember. I had a toy piano when I was small, but I didn’t know how to play. I loved the sounds the instrument made, the feeling of my fingers on the keys, the spread of the white and black keys, the shiny black cover made of plastic. 

I grew up in the North West of England, in an area that had a bad reputation. Boys from northern cities didn’t usually go to piano lessons unless they were posh –which we weren’t. My family couldn’t afford a piano or music lessons. In any case, they had more pressing concerns with me.

Developmental delay. 

I didn’t come across as a gifted child. I couldn’t read, and if someone provoked me, I’d react. Vocally, perhaps even physically. 

I had one asset though: a near photographic memory, crucial for musical performance. 

At the age of six or seven, I ended up at a Special Needs School. Each morning, I caught the “Number 2 Bus” with the other special needs kids, aware even then that I’d obtained a label that would mark me as different from others my age. We travelled up a winding industrial hill, to the school building in an area that had seen better days.  Mostly, I enjoyed my two and a half years there, although I have dim recollections of staff bullying pupils – pretty outrageous, given the vulnerability of most of the children there. 

At the Special Needs School, I developed a keen interest in reading. One activity at the school, though, fascinated me – singing practice, and in particular, the sound of the piano. During a particular singing practice, I made a promise to myself: one day, I would learn to play the piano. If necessary, I’d wait till adulthood and learn when I could afford an instrument. 

But I would learn the piano, whatever happened. I made a conscious decision.  

A choice. A prayer, perhaps. 

The Estate Near The Pennines, Royton

Two or three years passed. I turned nine.  Our financial circumstances took a dip, and we moved to an estate close to the Pennines. This meant changing schools, which was a good thing, as I felt particularly welcome at St Paul’s, the local C of E primary school.

The new school stood by a tall church at the top of an estate with a separate classroom on the other side of the lane. It was a typical turn of the century building, damp looking, with outside toilets in the playground and a bell rope situated halfway down a narrow flight of stairs in the main building that a pupil or member of staff would ring manually. The playground had the presence of a courtyard. To enter, you had to pass under an archway by the cloakroom.

Each day began with an assembly in the school hall. The hall had wooden beams on the ceiling and suspended lights, along with a black upright piano near the front. We would stand for about twenty minutes and sing hymns while a teacher accompanied us on the piano. Although I’d grown up in different religion, I’d taken part in Christian assemblies at the Special School and I loved hymns, particularly ones like Onward Christian Soldiers and Lord of the Dance.

School was good and I enjoyed living on the estate in Lancashire. The surrounding countryside full of old cotton mills. In the distance, the rugged outlines on the Pennines stretched along the skyline.

In the evenings, I played with the other kids on the estate. To the right was a square with a line of horizontal graves behind a row of benches. We would hang around there and make up scary stories about skeletons and old men, our imaginations fuelled by the evening light and the dark slab of a building at the other end of the yard that always appeared empty. A lawn stood in the centre surrounded by trees where dog walkers brought their dogs and an incline led up to the local parish church with hedges both side where we could throw soil around.  

Innocent days that would eventually turn, like a summer frost.

Chopin Nocturne No 10, Lawrence Estrey

Aged about ten, and still living in the estate in Lancashire, Royton.  At around this time, I would frequently listen to Chopin’s tenth nocturne. I loved the increasingly agitation, especially in the middle section.

One day, I, too, would learn to play this beautiful piano work.

The YouTube Video below captures me playing the tenth nocturne:

Descant Recorder, Royton

We couldn’t afford a piano, so I asked my parents for a recorder. I received the recorder shortly before Christmas, along with an instruction book.

The famous Dolmetsch make of recorders. Even now, the name evokes shivers of anticipation.

I was a quick learner, despite previous educational setbacks. Within an hour, I’d mastered the left hand notes and some of the right, as well as much of the musical notation.

However, keen to learn everything at once, I ended up confused and frustrated, and had to relearn the lot a week or so later.  It was worth it, though.

When I finally mastered recorder basics, news of my musical abilities spread through St Paul’s, generating interest. On Friday mornings, a teacher would set aside a short period for recorder ensemble practice.

Before class, I’d stand in the school playground, entertaining my peers with my playing, and they’d watch and make requests. I’d always enjoyed learning new things and I loved playing music. And now, for the first time in my life, I found I could impress others my age. The knowledge I could do something better than everyone else in my class proved important for me as I continued to overcome earlier educational and behavioural issues.

Despite the pleasure the recorder, it was not enough. I wanted to play the piano.

 

The Piano At School

The opportunity came one afternoon as I spoke to the teacher who played the piano during the school assemblies.

‘Which note do you learn first?’ I said. ‘The top or bottom one?’

‘Neither.  It’s not like the recorder. You start with middle C.’

We were standing just a few metres away from the upright piano in the school hall. She showed me where middle C and all the other C’s were situated, C being any key that sits at the bottom of two adjacent black notes.

‘So F comes whenever there’s three black notes,’ I said, looking up and down the keys. ‘Can I play something?’

‘You may.’

I placed my right hand on the keys and allowed my musical ear to guide me, playing a couple of phrases of a favourite hymn and making just one mistake. When I tried again, I got each note right.

‘You have a very musical ear,’ the teacher said.

I left the hall, brimming with joy, and even more determined now to learn the piano.

A New Start?  Social Isolation 

​Whenever I got to a piano, I played by ear. I used both hands, although I’d never had a lesson. I didn’t play often, as the piano at St Paul’s was out of bounds. To compensate, I practised the recorder regularly. I became fluent – a virtuoso, I suppose.

When I was eleven, I started secondary school in Manchester. It involved a long journey there and back and a different peer group, mostly affluent. They viewed me as being different, unlike the pupils had at St Paul’s. Any notion of community faded. Issues regarding Special Needs resurfaced, paving the way for a turbulent period in this new, often hostile, environment.

The animosity progressed slowly, like a steady drop in temperature before the big freeze. The odd contemptuous glances from other pupils. The new headmaster’s indifference each time he breezed past me, his long black gown rustling in impatience. A boy in my class smirking at me as I stood near the school store because he knew that I couldn’t afford sweets or crisps.

Whenever I could, I would sneak away to the piano in the school hall during the lunch break to wait my turn, playing my ear. People occasionally made positive comments, though not many. The music teacher, who also took us for history, gave basic encouragement. But the situation continued to spiral and I became increasingly isolated from my peers, unlike in Lancashire.

 

The New House

Our family moved house, closer to the school. A couple of streets away from the house stood the tallest factory chimney in Europe. Further on was a secluded muddy trail that weaved its way through playing fields, back onto the main road – ideal for walking the dog. The hill on the opposite side of the main road led up to a grass summat with a pylon visible from our backyard. In the other direction, a pathway rose up another hill with cottages set back from the lane, leading to several miles of fields and farms, hemmed in by the motorway.

The new house rarely had a calm atmosphere for long. There were always arguments brewing, always shouting matches filtering through the walls. Arguments about problems at school. Arguments about meals. Arguments about bedtimes.  Even the dog was not immune from the tension.  He took to biting without warning. On one occasion, he went for me while I made ice cream in the kitchen, letting out a growl before charging at me.

Out Of Control

​Temper. It happened slowly, like water in a boiling kettle waiting to spurt through the tiniest of holes. A newcomer had joined our year part of the way through term, popular right from the start. One morning, I caught sight of him talking to the girls in their cloakroom.  Charging into the cloakroom, I punched him in the head.

I turned twelve.  Over supper one evening, my parents told me that the headmaster had decided to send me away to a residential school for children with Special Needs. I got angry and upset, of course, but the decision had already been made.

The following lunchtime, I approached the headmaster in the dining hall. ‘How long will I have to go for?’

‘You’ll stay there until you can learn to behave,’ he snapped before hurrying away with his food tray.

His abrupt reply brought me to my senses. I’d been stupid, but I would change all that. From now on, I would behave impeccably at all times. I would do my homework to the best of my abilities. I would stay quiet, keep out of trouble. Surely, they wouldn’t really send me away.

My resolutions didn’t last long. During a special lesson in the main hall that afternoon, I got punished for some minor infraction in full view of my entire year. Totally humiliated, I freaked out and started hurling chairs around. Next thing, a swarm of teachers hurried towards me, bringing me to the ground, their anger and disgust clear for all to see.

I lay there, completely finished, knowing that my chances of remaining at secondary had gone. I would have to leave home now and go to the residential school for problem children.

Surprisingly, the headmaster let me stay. My music abilities played a role in his decision, probably. My recorder playing had improved substantially in the past year and the music teacher had described my end of year exam performance as excellent.

So I returned to school in September with the rest of my peers and took up the guitar – a sort of compromise, as I still couldn’t afford a piano and I wanted an instrument that produced harmony. I bought my first guitar from a shop in Rochdale and managed to break it on the same day, accidentally.  I went for a few lessons, provided free of charge, but eventually the guitar teacher had a disagreement with the school over something, and the lessons stopped. After that, my interest waned.

I got a piano then.

The Piano

I’d received some money shortly before my thirteenth birthday. One afternoon, during school holidays, I paid a casual visit to an antique shop in Salford. A bell tinkled when I opened the door. The shopkeeper looked in my direction, but my attention was already elsewhere.

A piano stood in a corner, complete with a couple of candlesticks attached to the wooden frame.

I looked at the price tag. Yes, I could just about afford it. ‘That piano,’ I said.  ‘Is it still available?’

The shopkeeper nodded.

‘I think I’d like to buy it. Can I try it?’

I went over, picked out a tune, and then arranged for one of my parents to conduct the transaction on my behalf.

The following Monday, a transport firm delivered the instrument to our home.  I must have spent about two hours playing the first night, scarcely able to believe that I owned this astonishing instrument.

From then on, I taught myself using books, as we couldn’t afford lessons. I played everything. Pieces by Bach and Mozart. Songs from the shows. Scott Joplin and The Entertainer. I was obsessed with Ragtime but not jazz. I loved composing and wanted to be a famous composer. I composed a number of works at the piano, including a complete sonata in three movements.

As for the guitar, that gathered dust. It had never really been my instrument.

I didn’t lose interest in the piano, though. It was always waiting for me when I came home from school, like an old loyal friend, whose only wish was for someone to run their fingers across the keys and create beautiful sounds.

A Disastrous Result, And A Scuffle In PE

​Several months after I got the piano.  A still calm fell over the class. The music teacher switched on the tape and spoke into the microphone.  She nodded to me. I made my way to the piano and placed the music book on the piano stand. I took a few seconds to compose myself and started to play.

I’d chosen the final movement of the well known Clementi Sonatina. The performance over, I returned to my seat, convinced that I would receive the highest mark in the class.

I could scarcely believe it when she announced the results.  Sixteen out of twenty.  I’d come third or fourth, not first.

‘I had no choice,’ the teacher said at the end of the class when I went over to question the mark.  ‘You’re relying too much on previous knowledge and not really paying attention to the piece. You could have done better today.’

For the remainder of the day, I wandered round subdued, barely able to concentrate during the afternoon exams. The last exam on the timetable was swimming, my least favourite of all.  I kept close to the shallow end of the water, not venturing far in case I sank, like I had some years ago during a swimming lesson in Lancashire. After what felt like ages, the PE teacher blew his whistle and instructed us to return to the changing rooms.

Halfway up the stairs, I felt a kick in my leg. One of the best fighters in our year stood behind me, smirking.  Under other circumstances, perhaps, I would have reacted differently – like shied away and hoped he didn’t do it again. But not this time.  I kicked him back. He kicked me again. I gave him another kick. Next thing, we were scuffling, pushing each other against the wall.

‘Hey, hey, hey,’ the PE teacher shouted. ‘Break it up.’

We glared at each other before going into the changing rooms.

Later, I cried. I stood at the back of the assembly hall, tears streaming down my face. The day had been a disaster. The fact that I’d stood up to the other boy didn’t register in my mind. Only that I’d messed up my music practical.