As well as a professor of physics Paul Barnes is a self-taught pianist and composer. He did start with some introductory piano lessons, somewhere between the age of 7 and 9 years.
Every Friday evening a larger than life ex-opera singer, who had to be addressed as “Madame Doreena”, gave the children in his street 15 minutes of hell, otherwise known as a piano lesson. This situation didn’t last long as the Barnes Family moved from London W10 to South Wales, returning to his mother’s roots where there seemed to be a clear shortage of piano teachers. For all her fearsome presence, Madame Doreena did light some musical spark in PB, but it was not to be the standard progression. On his first lesson, PB was shown the C-major scale which he was told to practice up to the next lesson. PB became quickly bored with this and instead spent all his time trying to put the C-scale to various combinations of harmony. His parents were totally unaware of this switch and the element of deception it entailed. And so it continued: a week of experimenting with harmony then a mad rush to get in 5-10 minutes practice on scales or simple pieces just before Mdme Doreena would arrive. PB became infatuated with the piano, and after his move to Wales he found that life without Mdme Doreena gave him more time to do his own thing.
Progression on the piano now proceeded by random events, such as seeing a pianist perform on TV and then trying to copy him/her. Other children complained they couldn’t get on the piano to practice as PB would already be there claiming squatters’ rights – PB suspected anyway they were secretly glad of the excuse to get out of practiscing. Other complaints alluded to PB’s coninuous piano-playing into the small hours, depriving them of their full sleep. However as some compensation, the “Wales period” had one great musical advantage for someone like PB – there was always plenty of singing everywhere, particularly in school Eisteddfords and in church where PB became the resident pianist/organist.
The local church also had a resident poet (Tom Burns who claimed to be distantly related to Robert Burns) who struck up a working relationship with PB, writing lyrics which PB would set to music and then perform with the church choir. Although limited to church music, this became a useful developmental period for PB; a kind of “learning basics on the job”. At University things changed. Upto this point most of PB’s piano accompaniments and solo playing consisted of playing by ear and improvisations. But at University PB joined a record library and quickly realised there was so much music out there he knew nothing about, and eventually he was goaded by student friends into trying Chopin’s Opus 25 Studies. At first this almost back-fired disasterously, for the first Chopin study PB tried, No.11 “Winter Wind”, proved to be a struggle, so much so that PB almost quit thinking that he was obviously not cut out for this kind of repertoire. It was sometime later that PB discovered that Winter Wind was one of the most difficult of Chopin pieces and could be a struggle for even the accomplished pianist.
With confidence restored, PB resumed building up his repertoire, and with it the continuation of his belated musical education. The next turning point was much later, involving 3 connected events: PB’s daughter, Rebecca, learned to play the violin (under the distingished BBCSO violinist, Richard Aylwin) followed by PB himself at the ripe age of 62 (also under Richard Aylwin) for the simple reason that he didn’t want to pass this world by without having ever sampled the experience of playing in an orchestra – a goal he then achieved with the Learning Orchestras at the age of 65. The value of these events, however, turned out to be far more than just the experience; they furthered yet more his belated musical education and opened up new doors, one of which is today’s recital and the premiere of “Layers of Life”.
ANY REGRETS? Like Edith Piaf, PB will say that he doesn’t believe in regrets; but should he be permitted just one, it would be that he should have managed his life differently so that, like the great Alexander Borodin, he could have fully lived his two lives, one in science and one in music.