Alan Attwood learns to play Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata on the piano at 57

Alan Attwood learns to play Beethoven's Moonlight sonata on the piano at 57

Piano for Beginners. Lesson three. Our teacher, Ysolde, compares learning piano to driving lessons: playing different things with each hand is like working the clutch and accelerator using two feet. It’s a good analogy. This is an adult-education class: most of us learnt to drive in manual cars. Ysolde is brutally candid. “If you want instant gratification, eat chocolate. Don’t take up a musical instrument.”

There are eight of us: five women, three men. We are training our brains, Ysolde says. Then, without introduction or explanation, she sits at the classroom piano and starts playing. Just a few bars, but instantly familiar. The opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2. The “Moonlight” sonata.

Ysolde stops. Continues the lesson. But I’m not concentrating. Suddenly I have a goal. That’s what I want to do. Never mind the homework pieces – Cockles and Mussels, Twinkle, Twinkle – I’m aiming higher. By the end of the following year I will play the first movement of this sonata. It seems ambitious, but not absurd. My target is 22 months away.

That was more than five years ago. I still haven’t satisfactorily made it to the moon and back.

To put this in perspective, between 1800 and 1805, which includes the composition of “Moonlight” (1801), Beethoven also created three symphonies, six violin sonatas, another 10 piano sonatas plus the first version of his opera Fidelio. And more. Meanwhile, I’ve been toiling on one sonata – with added urgency this year because his 250th birthday looms in December.

I might have done better had I begun earlier. Not when closing in on 58. Most musicians start young: Beethoven played in public when he was seven. But I was a smart-arse at school, determined to be kicked out of all music lessons. Recorder lessons – out; trumpet lessons – out. I once halted a school assembly when the singing teacher saw I was belting out the second verse of Good Morning Starshine while everyone else was on the first.

Later, my great regret was having never mastered a musical instrument. Then again, I’ve lost count of people who’ve told me they played something as kids, even reached advanced levels, then stopped. Music became a chore. Now they don’t play at all. Which seems sad.

School got its revenge a few years ago. Invited back as a guest speaker at assembly (the Starshine incident clearly forgotten), I sat through a musical interlude: 13-year-old Sanjay playing, yes, the first movement of “Moonlight”. I told him he’d just done what I aspired to do myself. He shrugged. No big deal.

Yet I don’t want to emulate Sanjay. I learnt early on that I melt when playing for others. I would work diligently on, say, Cockles … at home. Manage okay. Then fall apart in class. My hands shook, I stopped breathing. This was unexpected. Public speaking? No problem. Piano in public? Forget it. I asked Ysolde about my performance anxiety. Not uncommon, she said. But I needed to get over it. I wasn’t so sure …

I was fascinated by a scene in A Most Wanted Man, one of the final films by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His character, a German intelligence officer, soothes himself after everything’s gone wrong by sitting alone at a piano and playing something by Bach. I saw this and thought: yes. No concert hall; no certificates. Just the ability to play music I like. Hence the “Moonlight” mission.


I started lessons because I’ve always loved music. Even when being evicted from recorder class, I spent nights listening to LPs: Moody Blues; Mike Oldfield; Jeannie Lewis. Yet I couldn’t play a note. And we had a piano at home: Darth Vader black; silent since our musical daughter, Lucy, moved out. Lucy encouraged me to become a late learner. But she soon noticed my cavalier approach to homework. Progress, she insisted, meant applying myself to scales. “You can’t just try to play pretty things,” she said. Why not?

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Ysolde’s lessons helped me read music. I got better at assigning squiggles on a page to piano keys. First the white notes; then (more daunting) the black ones, sharps and flats. “Moonlight”, god help me, has four sharps: C, D, F and G. In the opening bar there is only one note – E – not played on black. Yet, like someone trying to read Le Monde using a French dictionary, word by word, I couldn’t resist translating the first bar. Then the second, just one note different to the first: a pair of Bs with the left hand instead of Cs.

There was a breakthrough one night when my older son and his girlfriend came home while I was picking out those two bars. “Ah,” said Lizzie, “Moonlight!” I didn’t reveal I hadn’t reached the third bar. By the end of my first year I had got to it. But no further. In January 2016 I noted: “Into the fourth bar. Fifth bar looks daunting.” My original target already seemed optimistic. There are, after all, 69 bars.

Why was progress so slow? Life stuff. Also the set pieces: March of the Trolls, Polly Wolly Doodle (Really?). These were not Beethoven. I hung in there with lessons, but said nothing about “Moonlight”. I was taking woodwork classes while building an ark at home. Early in 2016 I hit a hurdle. Ysolde’s classes were cancelled: insufficient students. No drama. I had workbooks. Then I recalled I’d written down a phone number from a notice board: an Olga offering piano lessons.

The first time I rang, I hung up. Her accent was intimidating. After castigating myself for cowardice, I tried again and set a time to see her. She lived nearby. This was good. It was also good she was Russian. Shouldn’t every pianist have a Russian teacher? Lucy was sceptical. Had I forgotten that her Russian teacher made her cry? I had. But I soon understood why. Lessons with Olga started well – she declared I had a “nice touch” – but ended in tears.

I liked Olga. She was chatty. (Perhaps too chatty, conducting a phone conversation in Russian while I trampled on English Rose Gardens.) She had a bust of Beethoven on her piano, but preferred Tchaikovsky. She coaxed me through Saint-Saëns’ lovely The Swan. Then wanted to push on.

This was our problem: timing. My swan was sick. But Olga insisted I should leap into Dvorak’s “New World” symphony. Then berated me if my tempo was wrong. One and two and three! This left me flustered. When I asked if I could play something very slowly, she replied, “No!” As if I’d suggested that Rimsky-Korsakov was overrated.

So we broke up. I arrived for a lesson and told Olga I needed time out. Left her money atop the piano, under a framed Moscow street scene, then bolted. She sent texts asking when I might return. I never replied. And still feel guilty passing her place.

But it was good to be single again. I could progress at my own speed, and in my own way. Like Bob Dylan, who started noodling on a piano at 10. After one lesson with a cousin he declared: “I’m going to play piano the way I want to.” I’m with you, Bob. Maybe even a step ahead: he never learnt to read music. Nor did Aristotle Onassis.

In Arianna Huffington’s biography of Maria Callas, I learnt that the Greek shipping tycoon once “persuaded the Norwegian shipping heiress with whom he was living to teach him to play some Bach on the piano … He practised the same piece for six months, until a few years later he could astonish [Polish virtuoso] Artur Rubinstein and everybody else at a Hollywood party by playing it effortlessly and with much feeling.” Way to go, Ari.

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Tackling “Moonlight” was a twist on my 1996 decision to run a marathon to see what it was like. It helped that we were living in New York: my marathon would be a biggie. I did reach the finish line. Just. And I had one overwhelming thought: never again. Twenty years on, the “Moonlight” mission has been more mental than physical. But not dissimilar: 69 bars instead of 42.2 kilometres; advancing step by laborious step. And there are many people like me, of a similar vintage, learning to play instruments or tackling puzzles to exercise our brains.

There are many people like me, of a similar vintage, learning to play instruments or tackling puzzles to exercise our brains.

There are many people like me, of a similar vintage, learning to play instruments or tackling puzzles to exercise our brains.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

My father was musical. Banged away on a piano: jaunty tunes like Riding Down From Bangor. I recall him playing Für Elise, but not “Moonlight”. The tune he chose for my mother’s funeral came from Beethoven’s Triple Concerto; the music I associate with his own final illness, after a decline into dementia, is Beethoven’s Third Symphony. I kept some of his music stuff: a handful of recordings, also a four-cassette collection of talks by John Champ called The Way of Music, from the late 1970s.

Analysing “Moonlight”, he describes the need to “get under the notes to find out what they’re all about”. After calling it “one of the most lovely things ever written”, he addresses its popularity, which bemused Beethoven. Champ has a message for snobs who dismiss it as a musical cliché: “They’re missing a hell of a lot.”


“Moonlight”, he suggests, is a deceptively simple piece. There’s much to savour. So it shouldn’t be played too quickly. As Olga learnt, I like taking things slowly. And occasionally I consult experts – listening to a recording while following the score. Something bugged me about the one I had on an iPod. It seemed too fast. But what would I know?

That version, by Jenö Jandó, clocks in at 5:16. I checked out others. One I liked most, by Daniel Barenboim, is much slower: 6:35. Wilhelm Kempff’s version, on one of the first classical LPs I bought, is 6:00. Adagio Sostenuto, Beethoven wrote. Slow. Sustained.

I’ve found unlikely allies. Bob. Ari. Also musician Benny Andersson (yes, Benny from ABBA) in a newspaper interview: “If you spend time on something you enjoy, you become good at it.” That’s encouraging. But what about the idea of needing 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise in anything? I did some sums based on estimated time spent at my piano. Conclusion: I needed another 60 years. Less encouraging.

My five pages of music are like a map for this journey. I now understand something Ysolde said in her first piano lesson: “Music is very visual.” I am familiar with the topography of the movement, its patterns and subtle variations. The first notes played by the right hand are G, C and E.

Meanwhile, the left hand has a pair of Cs. At the end, the left hand returns to those same notes, plus a G in between, while the right hand holds a chord with G, C and E. That symmetry appeals to me. Closing the circle.

Had I been even more ambitious (or silly), I might have tackled the slow movement from Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor”) – music that stunned me when I first heard it in Peter Weir’s 1975 movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. Single high notes fall like iridescent raindrops. Pure and simple. “Ah,” said Lucy, “but listen to what the left hand is doing.”

“Moonlight” is more manageable. The first movement, that is; the frenetic third challenges accomplished pianists. Paul Mac, Australian musician and producer, has described it as “amazingly emo but relatively easy to play”. Easy for him, perhaps; he learnt as a kid.

And when things go right, even just one chord hit true, it sounds wonderful. My god, I tell myself, Ludwig knew what he was doing.

My slow progress has been measured in pages. Early in 2017 I was still on Page 1. By October I had reached Page 4; before 2017 was over I had stumbled to the end. The conclusion is glorious, soft and sonorous. But when I returned to the start, which I thought I’d conquered, I’d lost my way again.

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Since then, I have felt like a Sydney Harbour Bridge painter, constantly returning to old work. Transitions from one page to another were messy. So I tried memorising them. Which led, early this year, to a new challenge – playing “Moonlight” from memory.

I have always been astounded by the ability of concert pianists to play without sheet music. Like Rudolf Buchbinder, in a televised recital of the entire 14th sonata at the 2017 Salzburg Festival I recorded and revisit occasionally. Like Kristian Bezuidenhout, whom I saw perform Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos in March, before the COVID-19 shutdown. Like Roger Woodward, whom I interviewed decades ago when he had the sheet music for a Brahms piece taped to walls all around him, like an actor learning his lines.

Memorising has helped. I am learning to trust my fingers. Sometimes they find the appropriate keys by themselves. Dud notes, even half a tone apart, are unmistakable. And when things go right, even just one chord hit true, it sounds wonderful. My god, I tell myself, Ludwig knew what he was doing. There’s another positive to memorising: it helps my head.

A while back I saw a neurologist. He surprised me in his waiting room with a newspaper, pencil in hand. Crossword? No, I replied: Sudoku; keeping my brain active. Doesn’t help, he said. Then added: You know what does? Learning to play music.

Now for the happy ending. In which I play the entire movement flawlessly. Or secretly record myself and replay it later to applause. Or invite people around to listen while I channel Buchbinder. The bit that prompts comparisons with Alan Rusbridger, the distinguished British journalist who wrote a book about the year he learnt to play Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G Minor Opus 23.

A colleague gave me his book, Play It Again. It nearly caused me to quit. If Benny from ABBA encouraged me, Rusbridger squashed me like a bug. His target was “arguably one of the most difficult Romantic compositions”; mine something young Sanjay nailed in assembly. He took one year, not five. I listened to Barenboim; Rusbridger visited Barenboim for tips. Besides, he had a head start. He excelled in school classes when I was being evicted.


So there’s no happy ending just yet. No recital scheduled, although an old friend insisted recently “there MUST be a performance.” I feel like Neil Armstrong in the lunar module, close enough to the moon’s surface to see boulders ahead. Did I mention that Armstrong played the piano? Serenaded his wife at his 80th birthday party. My own wife, meanwhile, must be so sick of my inexpert playing. The same thing again and again.

I am Don Quixote of the keyboard. The quest continues. Getting from go to whoa is one thing. Making it sound musical is another. I now wonder if I even want to reach my destination. Where would I go next?

I have lived with this music for so long. A piece the unlucky-in-love Beethoven, then nearing his 31st birthday, dedicated to a 16-year-old piano pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. A piece he published under the title Sonata quasi una fantasia – sonata in the manner of a fantasy.

Musicologists debate what he meant by that. All I know is that to play it all the way through without stumbling; to play it with heart and feeling; to play it for just one friendly person and hold those lovely last notes very softly, well, that would be … fantastic.

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About the Author: Will Smith

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