When I was seven, I sat in the window of the music store and had my very first piano lesson.
And the very first thing my teacher asked me was if I was ready to learn Italian, “because Italian is the language of music”. Just like that, fireworks fizzed and exploded in my head. Even at seven, I felt I was about to do something quite magical. It took six men to carry my Great Grandma Gray’s upright down the stairs of her Queenslander. And when the piano tuner came to give it the once over, he found arsenic and a bunch of plastic flowers inside. It was no prized antique, but it had a lovely mellow tone. When other kids would vent their frustrations kicking a ball against the wall, I’d set to work on a brow-furrowing Bach. And at my parents’ insistence, I’d even hammer out some Billy Joel while ‘Piano Man’ wailed on the record player. I snipped my fingernails down to the quick and played twice a day until they bled… trudging twice a week to my lessons. I got really good. Then I grew up. I left home for university and discovered boys and fizzy wine. Somehow, playing the piano in the basement of my dormitory – soundproof sheeting crashing onto my head – was the last thing I wanted to do. And just like that, the magic was gone. My love affair with the piano faded like an old yellowed score.
Twenty years on and I now only play carols at Christmas while my two rugrats thump the keys and leap from the stool. Like Russian actor Stanislavski said “talent is nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation”. The magic is still there, it just needs some tuning. Okay, a lot of tuning, but there’s no time for that now. For now, I want to instil that same love of music in my kids. They’re a little young to tickle the ivories, but fortunately there are a number of very special picture books that help spark an interest in music. Stories like our all-time favourite book, The Bear and the Piano, the symphonic Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, and the unmistakable beat of Dr Seuss in Hand Hand Fingers Thumb. Now we can happily add The Cranky Caterpillar to the collection.
This is Richard Graham’s debut book dedicated to the pianists of London’s St Pancras station who help themselves to the two street pianos that reside there. Richard’s workshop can also be found along the way, where he creates characters from everyday objects. The Cranky Caterpillar was born out of his sculpture from the insides of an old piano – in fact ol’ Cranky’s the very same colour as the felt that ran along the back of my piano’s keyboard.
The story begins with big-hearted Ezra who hears a melancholy sound.
“The noise was grim and gloomy – a sound that filled the room with blue.”
When she lifts the lid on her upright piano and peeks inside… Ezra discovers a caterpillar. A caterpillar who has “walked over five thousand miles in this piano… searching for a happy tune”. He really is a cheerless chap. I suppose you’d be gloomy too if you’d been playing the same sad tune for years, unable to play anything else. Here, lovely Ezra’s empathy kicks in and she sets to work figuring out a way to help the caterpillar change his tune.
“Bing!” Ezra has a really good idea to invite Pablo Tuba, Gary Gee-tar and Wassily the Violin to visit, who Richard acknowledges are his reinterpretation of Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’. The art influences continue over the next page, with a Kandinsky inspired spread bursting with greens, yellows and oranges as the band create “happy music!”
The Cranky Caterpillar is the perfect harmony of art and music woven into a story about kindness and friendship. Surely that’s just the sort of tune we should all be humming along to. And if you want to meet Cranky for yourself, then head down to Richard’s museum at St Pancras. He may even let you wear his hat 🙂