Getting Started at the Piano

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Mark Simon and his brother Fred, at the piano

My brother Fred is six years older than me. He had a gift for music that was obvious from an early age. About the time that I was six years of age, 12-year old Fred would not only thoroughly practice his piano lesson, he would also play original compositions and improvisations. Even at this early age, Fred’s music had intent and a decisive direction.

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My Big Brother, Fred

Fred was not allowed to practice the piano until homework and chores were completed. I, being only six, was carted off to bed just about the same time my brother started practicing and playing. My folks were serious about bedtime, so they would come back to my room about 20 minutes after tucking me in to confirm that I was sleeping. It is quite a simple matter for a kid to make his parents think he is asleep! As long as Fred was playing the piano, I was not going to sleep. Even when he was done practicing, I would turn on the transistor radio beneath my pillow and listen to more music, or perhaps a Cubs, Bulls or Blackhawks game (depending on the time of year).

When Fred played his compositions and improvised during the daytime, I would stand behind him and study his fingers. He did not enjoy that, probably because he felt it would be better for me to make my own discoveries at the keyboard. So my solution was to hide around the corner, stick out my head and sneak a peek at his fingers on the keyboard. That way I could associate what I was hearing with how my hands should look on the keyboard. When Fred would leave the house, I would mimic what I heard and saw my older brother do. This led to me finding my very own compositions and improvisations.

At the age of seven, I had a friend who showed me some basic melodies on the piano. I could play the six or seven simple tunes he showed me; however, it was Fred who set the musical and pianistic standard for me to attempt to uphold. So I was playing, composing and improvising at the age of eight, eighteen months before my first piano lesson.

My parents felt that children were not mature enough to take full advantage of piano instruction until they were 10 years old. My brother Fred started lessons at 10. My dear, departed sister Deb started her lessons at 10. I instigated negotiations with my parents a little before my ninth birthday. They were serious about not letting me start until 10, but I offered to do extra chores around the house in exchange for an early start at the piano. (Perhaps I missed my calling – my parents felt I would make a fine lawyer based on this experience.) They agreed to my proposition, and after six months of doing extra chores, I started lessons at the age of nine and a half.

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