About me:

I've been a fully professional musician since 1988. My life in music has taken me around the world, playing keyboards with many wonderful artists, including Annie Lennox, Take That, Gary Barlow and, most recently, Jeff Lynne's ELO.

For the longer version of my musical journey, please read on.

My musical journey:
I started to play piano 'by ear' at the age of 5, picking out tunes I heard on the radio with one finger. After (I realize now!) rather bashing out these tunes for maybe a year, I discovered the marvelous (and still fascinating to me) world of chords. I found that some chords sounded 'right' when played with the tunes I was playing and others decidedly 'wrong'. Back then, this seemed like magic (it IS magic!) and I was hooked.

Over the next few years I was always at the piano and I gradually learnt to recognise more and more 'sounds' (chord progressions etc.). By the time I was maybe 8 or 9, I could play the melody plus chords of most songs I heard on the radio. I still remember the exact steps I naturally took during this learning process and can recognise now that my musical evolution had a beautiful inner logic to it. I have since 'mapped' the route I took and I now use it in my teaching to help students play by ear.

Piano lessons...

For all my ability to play by ear, I had no technical skills. I was using all the wrong fingers and constantly tripping over myself while playing! That all changed when I started piano lessons with a truly world class piano teacher, Madame McConnell. This inspiring lady must have been getting on for 90 when I first walked through her door but she still exuded much youthful exuberance and clearly had a laser-sharp mind. She'd been a professor of music at the Royal Academy and just happened to live around the corner.

 

She quickly got to work on my technique and also taught me how to read music. I recognise, looking back, the very great expertise she brought to those weekly half-hour lessons. I was lucky indeed to have such a teacher.

I went through all the grades with her, won a classical piano competition and learnt much. Eventually, old age caught up with her and she had to stop teaching. Luckily another great piano teacher was waiting in the wings, one Betty McConnell, niece of Madame McConnell.

Miss McConnell, as she was known to me then, was head of music at Chigwell School and a very fine pianist indeed. She was able to teach classical piano to the very highest level. I was by then playing some advanced classical pieces and my new teacher was able to present and break down the various hurdles of such pieces in a way that made them achievable challenges rather than impossible mountains to climb. Just about anything can be taught (or learnt) if it's approached in small, manageable 'chunks', I realised then.

 

After a couple of years, Miss McConnell moved to another part of the country, so at the age of 15 (or was it 16) I was without a piano teacher. But by then I had learnt how to learn! And I continued learning.

From pianist to keyboard player
While my classical piano studies had been progressing, I'd been living a double life! At the age of 13 I'd had a kind of epiphany. Suddenly, in a moment I cannot forget, I KNEW without any doubt that music was to be my life. And for me, at the time, that meant being a keyboard player in a band! So I badgered my poor father endlessly until he eventually (quite amazingly!) bought me an electric piano and an ARP synthesizer.

I could play piano reasonably well but, really, knew nothing about playing keyboards with a band (that's a very different skill set, actually). Still, I went ahead and somewhat naively advertised in the 'musicians available' section of the music paper 'Melody Maker'. That set in motion events that resulted, a year later, in my starting to play keyboards live with local bands.

As my abilities developed I got to play with some rather fine musicians and bands, in many different genres of music. All the time I was learning more songs, more styles, more chords, more ways of playing; learning anything I could from records, from my peers... Music was my life!

In 1985 I got a job selling hi-tech musical equipment (ie. synthesizers, recording gear) in a music shop. My time there was an important part of my musical education as I was then in the perfect position to learn everything I could about music technology! But after three years in the shop I knew it was time to leave and become a fully fledged professional musician.

Teaching
After leaving the shop, I played for a while with various cover bands. A little later, I began to teach piano privately. My own teachers had provided me excellent examples to follow, but with experience I found my own 'voice' as a teacher. Later still, I realized it was possible to teach how to play by ear. This is now an important element of my teaching.

Take That!
To jump forward a few years... In 1995, I very unexpectedly landed the job of playing keyboards with Take That on their Nobody Else tour. I have to admit I found the whole thing absolutely terrifying! For one thing, it was my first time playing to those huge audiences! But what an incredible experience it was!

I went on to tour with a great many name artists, enjoying many magical musical times, while getting to travel the world to boot! Highlights for me have been tours with Des'ree, Annie Lennox, Take That, Gary Barlow and, most recently, Jeff Lynne's ELO.​


And Now?
I've recently decided to 'hang up my touring boots'. This means I can now focus on composing my own music and...  teaching piano!

“Music was my first love, and it will be my last.” ― John Miles

Bernie Smith