Have you seen the film Sliding Doors?

It’s two versions of a story. In the first version Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow gets fired and catches the train home only to find her husband is being unfaithul to her. In the second version she just misses the train by a whisker and an alternative story unravels.

I find it fascinating to think of all the tiny moments like this in our lives. Where something happens by accident that changes the course of our lives.

This week I am going to continue telling my musical backstory – the choices that I made and the inspirational encounters that happened as a result


I can remember making the decision in my teens not to try and become a solo concert pianist. Being quite a sociable person the hours and hours and hours of piano practice that would have been required just wasn’t appealing. I loved being a musician in a broader sense, which meant leaving enough time to play in an orchestra and sing in a choir as well as having a life!

So I chose not to study at one of the big London colleges but instead headed off to the Colchester Institute. At the time it was one of the very few places where you could develop both your academic and practical skills side by side. There I was fortunate to encounter some fabulous teachers; the likes of Alan Bullard taught me all I know about harmony (thanks Alan!) whilst my piano playing was utterly transformed by Mr Harold Parker.

Some highlights of my time there included being a member of the orchestra accompanying John Lill playing Rach. 2, continuing to sing as a member of the College Chamber Choir and playing the piano in the stage band for Menotti’s The Telephone. And the crowning glory came when I won the annual solo piano competition, despite not being on the performer’s course!


From quite an early age I had mapped out my life until the point of leaving college. After graduating though there had always been a large black hole in my thinking. I had the opportunity to train as a class music teacher but somehow that wasn’t appealing enough for me to choose that route. In fact a very well-meaning teacher had said to me when I was 17, ‘Sally you would make a lovely primary-school teacher’ which of course put me right off the idea. It’s interesting how such small, casual comments really go quite deep and have long-lasting impact. It took me at least 15 years to realise that they had been right.

I was certain however that the piano would continue to be an important part of my life and that I wanted to live in London. So that’s where I headed and soon I had my very first piano pupils – more on that choice next week! In the meantime I got involved in as much music-making as I possibly could. I played lots of chamber music with friends, joined a symphony orchestra, and became a member of the London Symphony Chorus (LSC).

Looking back I can recognise that this particular choice was so important to my continuing musical development. As a member of the LSC I was being exposed to the musical ideas and disciplines of the world’s top conductors; Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas to name just a few. The experience both expanded and refined me as a musician and was highly inspirational!


We’d love to hear about the choices that you made when you finished school.

  1. What did you choose to study and why?
  2. Did you have any inspirational musical encounters?
  3. Were there any chance meetings with individuals that proved pivotal?

Tell us your stories below.

To read more musical backstories we recommend Chances and Choices: exploring the impact of music education by Stephanie Pitts. CLICK HERE

What’s more you could add your story to the growing database CLICK HERE

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers


  1. Kris W

    (Sorry in advance, this came out a bit long)

    I’ve been so fortunate to have inspirational teachers, and the most important names in my life are teachers who I’m still in touch with to thank, which is really nice.

    It started a bit late for me. Most of my teens were spent in a haze of being washed up and lost, but I played pop and rock music a lot at school – my first exposure to classical music was a chance encounter at the age of 15 with an LP of Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven sonatas, and I was hooked. Since then, Beethoven’s music has been a big theme in my life.

    I did quite badly at school – I’m quite severely dyslexic but wasn’t diagnosed at the time, so I just thought I was stupid, and sadly so did my teachers. I get a deep sense of smugness now from the fact that I’ve spent much of my career working as a university lecturer in universities that turned me away as a student on the basis of my poor school results.

    Upon leaving high school, I switched piano teachers and started studying with the teacher at my 6th Form College. Her name was Mary Hoult – she had a phenomenal musical ear, and taught me deep listening skills, which developed my musicianship a great deal. My knowledge of harmony from all that pop and rock music meant that I could learn and memorise new repertoire very quickly and very deeply, and Mary arranged for me to play a Beethoven piano concerto with a local youth orchestra.
    Unlike universities, music colleges gave unconditional offers for entrance based on audition, and I was much more cut out for this, and went to Birmingham Conservatoire.

    My teachers were Mark Racz and Malcolm Wilson, the head of department. With them, music became a full-body experience, and it also took over my whole mind. I was at concerts most nights (they were free for students or very inexpensive), I was at the theatre regularly, and the art gallery most days. I fell in love with reading for the first time, and was a regular visitor to the university’s various department libraries, every department – I read a huge amount from random books on any subject. I was now in love with knowledge and with learning like never before. Reading was so much easier now I was working for my own interest, rather than for some teacher constantly breathing down my neck, who I knew I would never be able to please.

    At Birmingham, I also study Kodaly musicianship for four year with David Vinden – David was a huge inspiration, and motivated me so much in making musicianship central to all of my (and I now work alongside him teaching musicianship at one of the London colleges).

    I graduated with a prize for achievement in my year (unthinkable four years previously – I simply wasn’t that sort of student), and got a scholarship to Manchester University to do a Masters and PhD (they had also turned me away four years previously). My subject was Beethoven again, and I was excited to be working alongside Barry Cooper who was working on his edition of the Sonatas for ABRSM at the time – he really taught me to think with enormous concentration and in great detail (my wife will never forgive him this!). I started teaching and lecturing at the RNCM, eventually going full time, but the dyslexia caught up with me and there was no way I could sustain the workload. That was a very difficult time, but I learnt a lot from the experience.

    I now teach at three conservatoires and three days a week at home which much more manageable (comparatively very little admin!) and I love it. I work a great deal with pianists on their performance projects, but more widely do classes in advanced harmony and aural, as well as history and performance studies with undergraduate and postgraduate students. It also means I work quite flexibly so I have time to play piano and stay at home with my family.

    It’s strange looking back how all these different strands have come together – at the age of 17, I wanted nothing more than to leave education. Now, I’m happy to say, I’m not sure I ever could.


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