There’s barely a melody Gilly Bean can’t play on her piano – all the more impressive considering she’s partially deaf.
With a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs, Gilly’s ability to master her instrument entirely by ear defies the senses.
“Imagine that you always have clogged ears or you’re on an airplane,” she said. “That’s the little world I’m in.”
This hasn’t stopped Gilly from becoming a professional pianist. Her repertoire ranges across all genres, and she can learn a melody after hearing it only once – “once it’s in, it’s in,” she said.
She keeps busy playing gigs at the Soho Piano Bar in London and is a resident performer in the Joe Allen restaurant in Covent Garden.
Gilly, who gets her stage name from her jolly personality and trademark beanie, is also frequently booked for weddings, funerals and parties.
She’s even a regular at the annual Healing Field festival in Glastonbury.
All the venues have their vibes, she said, but she enjoys the different levels of energy and doesn’t have a favourite place where she likes to perform.
In addition to playing live, she also gives piano lessons on the internet and coaches a monthly meditation piano group called InSense.
The 50-year-old was born in the Midlands into a highly musical family. Growing up, her home was filled with the sounds of Mozart, Beethovenf and Vivaldi.
She first laid eyes on a piano at the age of five after her grandfather, who was a keen pianist, left money for an instrument in his will.
From the moment she sat down at the piano, which his savings paid for, she started to play scales and hasn’t stopped since.
“The bass clef for the left hand I simply don’t understand.”
Her mother got her a book of nursery rhymes to practise, with colour codes for the keys. After a few weeks, Gilly would play her what she’d learned.
Her musical talent quickly shone as she was able to play with her left hand too, the rules for which weren’t explained in the book. She had figured it out entirely on her own.
At the age of 12, Gilly’s parents enrolled her in piano lessons, believing that a proper pianist ought to have proper training. She lasted six months.
“I didn’t like it. I couldn’t connect with the piano that way and had trouble reading notes. I still do,” she said.
“I can read the treble clef, which is the top line for the right hand, but I can’t do it brilliantly. The bass clef for the left hand I simply don’t understand.”
Despite the lack of training, her career took off quickly, and she had her first gig, aged 16, playing in a hotel near where her parents lived. On the same day she sat her last school exam.
She came to London in 1993, intrigued by the many opportunities that the capital offered.
Here she would meet high-calibre musicians, such as pianist J.P. Newton, and gain inspiration from them.
“Imagine that you always have clogged ears or you’re on an airplane. That’s the little world I’m in.”
Her children have inherited her talents – both are budding musicians. Gilly’s daughter is a singer and her son is a guitarist.
“It was up to them whether they wanted to make music or take on a different course,” she said.
“I just got on with what I did, which was creating and producing music.” Her children simply followed along.
As for the future, she wants to spend more time on her project, InSense. She’s passionate about providing the service.
“If I’ve left the room knowing that there is more happiness in it than there was before then I’ve done my job,” she said.
All photos by Veronika Lukashevich