Long After Piano Lessons


Why take piano lessons? Because one afternoon thirty-five years later, you will be sitting at your desk with your two monitors, analyzing inventory turns while Pandora plays in the background. And within four notes of a Chopin nocturne, you will be transported to an era you had all but forgotten.

You will look at your coworker, eyes wide. This, um, this piece, you will whisper, I played this for a recital…a lifetime ago. This. is. Chopin. You will be thinking: own this nocturne

Your thumb and finger will reach out to the volume knob of the speakers, intending to increase the volume, barely perceptibly. Then you will throw off tacit office etiquette and crank it up. Mercifully, no one is on the phone.

You will mumble, Please excuse my humming. But you will think I am one with this, how could I not hum it?  Your index finger will conduct the pianist playing through your computer.

Your hand will return to the mouse, and you will pretend to get back to the business at hand. You will abandon pretense, incapable of any action but soaking up the fragile beauty. Your coworker, younger by four decades, will pause and then stop what she is doing. She will listen to the delicate melody in G minor.

As the final notes linger in the air you will recognize that at this great distance from the discipline of daily practice, playing Chopin is beyond you. But you will make a note to find the music when you get home.

And you will remember the time when you practiced Opus 37, No. 1 until it was woven into the double helix of your DNA, when you could play this flawlessly, when your playing was capable of breaking even your own heart.


What’s on Your Nightstand, March 24

DSC_3970Although I love the concept of What’s on Your Nightstand, a monthly overview of one’s reading, I have only participated a few times. In a rare and wonderful synchronicity, I  deep cleaned my nightstand area yesterday.

My husband had surgery two weeks ago (he’s fine, thank you) that allowed me seven hours of reading in the waiting room. There was a huge flat-screen TV that looped through Travels in Europe with Rick Steves for 4.5 hours. Eventually, a penguin documentary came on. Occasionally I glanced up, but it wasn’t bad background sound.

Keeping my mind occupied was A Pianist’s Landscape, a book of essays about playing, learning, performing and teaching the piano. This was a book sale find. The cover and title drew me in. Carol Montparker is a Steinway Artist; her essays have been in the New York Times. Delightful!

I’m working on consistently reading poetry. It’s one of those things that takes an effort, but offers rich rewards. I found Wis£awa Szymborska (w sounds like /v/, £ sounds like /w/; thus, Vees WAH vah shin BORE skuh) funny, dark, random, full of irony, beauty and profundity. Many poems didn’t strike a chord in me. But some did. When asked why she didn’t write more poems, her answer was “because I have a trash can at home.” I kept forgetting that these poems had been translated from Polish. The translations are magnificent!

“Disappointing” — two historical novels. Widow of the South centers on the Carnton Plantation near Franklin, TN. I didn’t like that a major part of the plot centered on a contrived and fictitious relationship between Carrie McGavock and one soldier/patient. It was a weird Jayber Crow-ish intimacy.

A Separate Country tells the story of defeated Confederate General John Bell Hood’s life after the war in New Orleans. He marries Anna Maria Hennen, a young society belle, and they have 11 children in 10 years, including three sets of twins. The author uses a scaffolding of facts but most of the story is fanciful. The tone and language is a bit salty for my taste.

I made small progress on my goal to read through Shakespeare’s canon with Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Before I read these, I had thought Falstaff was witty and clever. No, sirrah! His self-aggrandizing, manipulative, lying behavior erased any gladsome thoughts of this main Shakespearean character.

My Kindle read – did you know if you have Amazon Prime you can borrow a book a month on your Kindle? I’m a junkie for books on how to write. To say I have dozens would be only a minor stretch. I love to read them, to re-read them, and to promise myself that someday I will do what they say.

I was reminded to slash away at adverbs and adjectives. Yes. But I really enjoyed Rosenblatt’s comments on education: “Teaching takes a lot of wheedling and grappling but basically it is the art of seduction. Observing a teacher who is lost in the mystery of the material can be oddly seductive.”

Audiobook  This long audio book was mostly tedious, but I was so glad I finished this life of Anna Leonowens. I was reminded how powerful a teacher can be. Prince Chulalongkorn attributed to Anna the decision he made to abolish slavery (without war!) in Siam (Thailand).

For Fun   I love Jane Austen, but I don’t consider myself a Janeite. Among the Janeites was an entertaining read. What struck me was how many ways there are to read Austen. People see virtue, wisdom, feminism, eroticism, autism, therapy, and more in her books.

DSC_3968Reading in preparation for Easter: Silence, by Shushaku Endo and Nikki Grime’s At Jerusalem’s Gate, Poems of Easter.

Remembering Glenn Gould


My new latest ‘thing’ is Glenn Gould. My friend Terri recommended A Romance on Three Legs, I watched this video of the author discussing it, and my mind told myself, “Let the fascination begin!”

I’ve watched videos, listened to CDs, read Hafner’s book and I continue to be mesmerized. The best film so far has been the 2010 documentary, Genius Within . Gould’s music accompanies me while I chop veggies, sweep the floor, write blog posts.

Who was Glenn Gould? He was a Canadian pianist whose ability, style, precision, musicality, phrasing, was simply in a galaxy all his own. Many stories have been told about folks who, having never once listened to classical music, were stunned and converted by some piece they inadvertently listened to on the radio. His playing grabs you.

“You are one of the few authentic geniuses recording today. If you wanted to record the complete works of Alban Berg on a kazoo, I’d gladly do it.”  RCA executive to GG

Katie Hafner’s book focuses on the piano that Glenn Gould played, a Steinway CD 318. It’s a great introduction to Gould, but also a great introduction to Verne Edquist, the blind man who was Gould’s principal tuner. In the video linked above, someone has a question, Hafner can’t answer. She calls Edquist in the middle of Q and A and finds out. The Steinways, a German family who emigrated to America to build pianos, provide an engaging back story.

Gould had many eccentricities, and his life story is ultimately a sad one, leading me to the question, “Is there such a thing as a balanced genius?” He died days after his 50th birthday from a stroke. One ‘tic’ he had was humming whenever he played the piano. I remember attending a concert in 1989 with a pianist who shared this quirk. At the social hour afterwards, I remarked to some bystander what a shame it was that someone in the audience insisted on humming along. “Oh, my dear,” the lady said, “That was our own dear [insert pianist’s name]. She can’t help herself.”

I suppose it can be said that I’m an absent-minded driver. It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion, but on the other hand I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones but have never gotten credit for it.  — Glenn Gould

Once in a while I try to figure out why Glenn Gould fascinates me. What keeps me looking for more to read, more to watch, more to listen? He is an enigma – charming, yet reclusive, gifted but abhorred performing, confident but lost.  I haven’t come up with an answer yet. But I know I’m not alone. His magnetic pull continues thirty-two years after his death.

The critic Tim Page said that in his last decade, Gould was “no longer just an arrogant, albeit sweet-tempered genius. He became a sweet-tempered melancholy genius.” Today, September 25th, is the anniversary of his birth. Give yourself a gift by listening to Glenn Gould. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a good place to start.


Music in the Morning

For the virtuoso, musical works are in fact nothing but tragic and moving materializations of his emotions: he is called upon to make them speak, weep, sing and sigh; to recreate them in accordance with his own consciousness.  In this way he, like the composer, is a creator, for he must have within himself those passions that he wishes to bring so intensely to life.               ~ Franz Liszt

You see, playing the piano is a combination of Brain, Heart and Means.  And all three should be even.  If one falls short of the others, the music suffers.  Without Brains, you are a fiasco.  Without Means, you are an amateur.  Without Heart, you are a machine.  It has its dangers, this occupation.    ~Vladimir Horowitz

After we have completed our morning routine of Psalm, prayer, poetry, and catechism, we listen to music that can accompany our educational pursuits. Music with lyrics competes with the studies, so it is not part of our morning repertoire.  My son leans towards Lord of the Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks and often pops one in the CD player.  However, we both enjoy Bach, George Winston, Phil Coulter, Yo-Yo Ma, Celtic anything, etc.  The Adagio series are also lovely soundtracks for study.

The Great Synthesis:  After reading My Life with the Great Pianists by Franz Mohr, I began collecting music by some of the great pianists referenced in the book.  Saturday, this peaceful, contemplative Horowitz CD arrived in the mail.  As I type this I’m listening to Robert Schumann’s Träumerei, the piece that Noah Adams wrote about playing in his book Piano Lessons, a journal of his year of piano lessons begun at age 51.  Horowitz plays to perfection Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, a lovely adagio one of my piano students is beginning.

There you have it – music for both my vocation and avocation.  Vita é bella!

Songs of Childhood

                        Charles Curran, Songs of Childhood

My beloved Latin teacher introduced me to Charles Curran several years ago.  I can relate to the little girl leaning on the piano.  She’s getting a happy earful, don’t you think?  Likewise, I used to drape myself over the side of an upright piano and listen to my piano mentor, Audrey St. Marie.  Whenever she played and I was in the room I just had to be as close to the piano as possible.  But I had to be able to see her hands on the keys. 

Songs are as potent as smells in evoking childhood memories.  There have been times when my sister was visiting and we broke into a camp song we hadn’t sung in twenty years much to my husband’s astonishment.  At my in-law’s 50th anniversary party, just for fun, my husband and his sister sang “Haggalina Baggalina,” a song they sang repeatedly as children on cross-country car trips.

What songs do you remember from your childhood? 

What Next?

Last night Curt and I went to a faculty recital of the piano professor at the university in town.  He was INCREDIBLE!  Mozart, Schubert and Rachmaninoff.  1 1/2 hours of music performed from memory!!  His touch is so light and sure and musical.  His hands crossed over so many times and yet the music flowed so seamlessly.  Matt Cooper makes playing the piano look effortless. It seemed almost anachronistic to sit in an auditorium full of people just…..listening. 

Well the thoughts are a swirling in my head.  I have cherished a dream of studying the piano with Matt Cooper for about 8 years.  It seems arrogant to even consider it (I’ve only had 6 years of piano lessons in my life).  The thing I’m feeling the most is fear.  Do I have what it takes to practice two hours a day, to put in the work it would require? 

I want to get Collin graduated from homeschool (3 more years) before I take on a new pursuit.  I’m thinking of getting an appointment with Matt and asking how I can prepare now so that I could possibly study with him in three years.  My husband, ever the guardian of my sanity, wants to know what I would cut in my schedule to start preparing. 

I’ve been very interested in the transition that takes place when your children leave home and are grown.  Suddenly many vistas seem open and available.  Which path will you choose?  The hard thing is that you are not choosing between good and evil; it’s more like good and very good.   


Taking Risks

I am a cautious person.  I always scope the situation and imagine the worst outcome. Spinning cookies in a totally empty parking lot is over the top for me.  So how did I end up with a child who clocks his speed snowboarding at 73 mph, who imitates Evel Knievel on his motorcycle?  Changing the pronouns in the poem Father’s Song by Gregory Orr,

                        Round and Round; bow and kiss

                        I try to teach him caution;

                        He tries to teach me risk.

I do take some risks. 

I can get pretty risky when I’m playing the piano for a church prelude.  I play by ear, moving from song to song, from key to key.  I try to practice and map out a strategy beforehand. 

I enjoy playing musical chiasms:

song a, song b, song c, song b, song a,

weaving their themes together.  To my shame, because I can “get away” with not practicing, I find myself playing what comes into my head.  (I believe worship is our highest priority and I want to give appropriate time for preparation.)

Occasionally as I’m playing and modulating into a different key, I suddenly realize that I’m in unfamiliar territory.  There’s nothing to do but play it out and that’s the thrill of danger in my sheltered life.   Some day I’ll have worked through my scales and chord progressions in every key so well that I won’t be fazed at playing in F# minor.  

But I’m not taking up snowboarding anytime soon!