Around an hour-and-a-half by train from Charing Cross (and a 20 minute taxi ride from Paddock Wood station) is Finchcocks, a large Georgian manor house in the village of Goudhurst in Kent, which houses 10 grand pianos pre-dating the 19th century.
Formerly a piano museum, Finchcocks came under new ownership in March 2018 and is now a retreat for pianists of all capabilities, offering weekend courses for people to hone their playing. As a novice player, I signed up for the beginner’s course. Upon arrival in the car park on a dark autumnal Friday evening, I was greeted warmly by Harriet, who co-runs the house, and led me into my room for the next couple of days. The room itself was the largest bedroom in the Coach House, the adjacent building to the Finchcocks House, with a lounge, en suite bathroom and a view of the front garden.
No less than 10 minutes later after unpacking my rucksack, I met the nine other guests in the living area, and we were then taken into the cellar where all the pianos are located. This was where we met our musical director, Dave Hall, considered to be among the top five organ players in the UK.
Our first lesson of the weekend was entitled ‘Hit The Road’ and for good reason – Dave taught us to play the intro to the Ray Charles classic, Hit The Road Jack. The following morning came the ‘Instant Success’ module, on how we were able to improve upon our basic piano capabilities with tips and tricks. After a quick tea and cake break, there was a free practice with all of us going our separate ways into different rooms with soundproofed doors – presumably so we could keep our noisy errors to ourselves.
After an intense day of practicing and playing Frère Jacques out of rhythm in front of the group, the evening brought about a treat in that our director Dave gave a solo recital in the front room of the Finchcocks house, playing pieces we selected from Grade 1 to 8 exam books (My choice was a Grade 4 piece entitled, Holidays In Paris).
As far as being looked after goes, it doesn’t stop with luxury rooms or being taught scales on grand pianos – fine dining is also part of the Finchcocks experience. On the Saturday evening we were served a three-course meal of smoked haddock croquettes for starters, guinea fowl and sweet potato as a main and meringue for dessert.
On a rainy Sunday morning, we were each given A4-sized boards for learning how to read music and memorise scales, octaves and chords, and how to tell the difference between them in a songbook. I was picked by Dave to demonstrate and, despite rising levels of anxiety, managed to get away with it without too many embarrassing errors.
Over the course of the weekend, what lit my creative spark was jazz styles, however complex the time signatures and chords, rather than the classical arrangements. It seems Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock do it for me more than Chopin and Mozart. Will my new calling as a jazz pianist lead me to fame and fortune? I know one thing; I’m not quitting the day job any time soon.