Dug Campbell

The Improved Life of Curious Cats

It’s all about curiosity.

When I was younger, so much younger than today, I started to learn the piano. It was a journey that was to last many years, just under a decade in fact, with daily practice being punctuated by the weekly ‘moment-of-truth’ at the piano teacher’s house. Whilst I can’t remember the precise age it started, I can certainly remember the stage in my life when I stopped. It was when I, like many other teenage boys the world over, discovered that  playing the drums and electric guitar brought the promise of hitherto unimaginable excitement into the realm of musical performance for the first time.

Now, by that stage I’d already done pretty much all of the exams that you could do (on piano and clarinet) without going down the realms of being seriously committed. I felt that I was at the stage that my qualifications were now starting to clearly exceed my level of talent – so it was time to move on. But as a result, for those who noticed, I was, in the eyes of others ‘musical ‘. Not in a talented or unusual way. Just in a ‘able to play music’ sort of way. And it’s fascinating to look back on some of those interactions because only afterwards did I see that they had built a lens through which others now viewed me. Which is a powerful form of self–reinforcing truth by itself. Like everything, it’s usually easier, if a few people think that you can do something, to convince yourself that at least one of them might be correct.

And yet, what happened? As soon as the certificate from the final exam had hit the postbox, the commitment faded into the rearview mirror. I promptly stopped playing the piano. And only today do I realise that I’d never really played it for fun. Not really. Because it turned out that fun was actually playing a guitar solo in a dingy pub before an (admittedly sparse but enthusiastic – occasionally) audience. Fun in my eyes at that stage couldn’t defined by playing music from hundreds of years before whilst sitting facing a wall…

So I stopped playing – completely. Sure, I would feel the occasional pangs of regret that I couldn’t now walk up to a piano on occasion and knock out any more than a couple of memorised tunes. To this day, I don’t know why those  two (incomplete) pieces in particular had lodged themselves in the depths of my memory for some reason, the connection between brain and fingers somehow delicately scarred into some part of my subconscious being. But I never thought I would go back.

Until this year when, all of a sudden, I did. I don’t know what triggered it. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was simply the fact that I started seeing pianos everywhere. Perhaps it was the travelling regularly through an increasing number of cold, draughty train stations across the country in which the recent trend has been to locate a public piano. Free to use, in the centre of cavernous buildings with amazing acoustics, I became fascinated with them and what they represent. Partly because the only hurdle for people to having a go appears to be one of ego – either they have too little to believe they have the right to command the centre of attention – or too much, which tends to lead to them making so many high-profile mistakes that it highlights a level of tone deafness in their lives that far exceeds the  sphere of musical pursuits…

One of the most significant things here in my view is something that I’ve written about before: that it’s only in very recent times that music has changed from being participatory to being a spectator sport for the majority of our civilisation. Public pianos are a small revolution against that societal misstep. I mean, take a look at this dude – who doesn’t want this happening?


Anyway, whatever the reason, I started again. Of course it became very clear very quickly precisely how much I could still do: very little. For all those years of sustained practice to hit Grade 8, my fingers now resent even vaguely being associated with a mind that paradoxically had lost none of its ability to still read music. And yet – it’s fun. In a way that it’s never been. With total freedom of what to do and when, I find myself chipping away like a beginner as and when I have a spare moment, for one reason – and one reason alone. Because it’s fun – and I’m intrigued to know what happens.

After all, how long does it take those neural pathways to rebuild? How many weeds have grown over those good old habits from the past? Has my mind simply steamrollered over all the musical signposts of the past  and cemented over the routes that out as the wildest country trails, gradually became busy thoroughfares and evolved by hard daily graft into motorways – before returning today to being invisible, impassable paths? I suspect so – but I’m curious to find out.

There are many things I can say about this experience. But as I approach the end of 2018, almost a year after I first picked it up (or more accurately, sat down) once again, there is one clear lesson that sticks in my mind from this ongoing experience.

Learning for the sake of passing exams is useful but dangerous.

But learning as a byproduct of a curiosity based on enjoyment is exponentially more powerful.

These aren’t groundbreaking notions. It’s the same theme I banged on about when I gave the speech at the awards ceremony for a local secondary school a couple of months ago (the closest that I will get to giving a commencement speech I suspect). But as I go through life, I can’t avoid becoming more and more convinced by fact that curiosity far from killed the cat. Quite the opposite. It gave it a reason to live.