My passion for music manifested when I was very young and the piano was my world. I loved patterns and shapes like so many kids, and of course, I loved stories. With the encouragement of my music-loving grandma, as a 4-year-old child, I would improvise music on the keys in a very simple way. But I discovered basic harmonic combinations of keys and played them with an innocent sense of storytelling or poetry. This sense of unfolding story is the essence of rhythm or groove. So although very simple, my improvisations sounded good.

The influence of two very different teachers

My first teacher, Ella Pounder encouraged this playful exploration. She recognised my passion and talent but refused to put pressure on me to make fast progress. I was no child prodigy but she recognised how much music meant to me and believed that my musicianship would grow naturally. My parents had other ideas for me and when I was 9 years old, they sent me to another teacher whose highly pressurised, technique- and theory-based approach very quickly blocked my natural way of doing music. I suspect this is a common experience for many children.

One day, with the defiant spirit that Ella my previous teacher gave me, I went to the piano determined to recover my old playful ways. I deliberately ignored what I was being taught, shook it out of myself somehow, and instinctively entered a kind of trance state so that I could play the simple patterns and make up musical stories, as I had always done.

Then, with even more defiance, I asked myself to try to understand consciously what I was doing. To my delight, I could see that when I played like this, the keyboard appeared to have a different structure from the linear one that is conventionally taught. I understood in an instant that scales and chords are linear constructs that block this nonlinear map of the keyboard with its beautiful symmetry. I also grasped the structure of the storytelling, rhythmic groove and realised that I didn’t play note values but flowing rhythmic gestures that I “said” with my fingers on the keys, as naturally as people say words.

I decided at that moment that I would devote myself to developing this understanding of musical patterns in direct disagreement with my teacher. Normally a very compliant child, this autonomous, self-directed action was significant and powerful. My musical skills developed exponentially. Even outside the walls of my training – my private oasis of wonder and musical storytelling – my playing improved tremendously, ironically keeping my very demanding teacher happy – for the most part.

Becoming fluent gave me amazing musical skills

After 2 years or so, my fluent understanding of musical language reached a critical mass, so that any music I wanted to study fell within the walls of my playful practice. This was pure magic! I learned to play loads of difficult classical piano music that I liked – Chopin Ballades, Rachmaninov Preludes – and at 12, I performed the solo part of Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto with an orchestra. This was crazy! I never intended for my playful practice to give me anything other than the childlike delight that I had felt making up musical stories with my Grandma. Now it was enabling me to be a virtuoso classical pianist, winning loads of competitions.

But in reality, that was never MY dream! I love music because it enables me to express my inner feelings, to find solace, catharsis and joy, the deepest truth. Playing music fluently is a kind of meditation for me, a glimpse into the infinite. Competitive reasons for doing music result in a kind of jaded, cynical attitude that is so far removed from the sense of wonder that it can bring when we do for ourselves, for pleasure in the purest sense. Music is the language of the soul. When we can “speak” that language fluently, we can access our inner experience in ways that are extraordinarily vivid and real.