Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Musical Interlude for My Piano Teachers

In praise of my own piano teachers and piano teachers everywhere, and to my sister (please stop lurking and comment about your effusive love for Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin!) The painting below is Renoir's "Jeunes filles au piano", 1892, and clearly is not my sister and I.

Piano teachers, I realize now, have it really rough in some ways. Over and over again, they have to start at the beginning, teaching kids the very basics of playing the piano: how to hold wrists, curve fingers over the keys and keep your back straight (below are the great Rachmaninoff's hands), how keys in front of them match up to notes on the page and how to “play” those strange symbols, time signatures, scales, chords, the circle of fifths, all those Italian words that indicate speed and dynamics….They have to deal with kids who are only taking lessons because their parents make them, kids who are not prodigies, kids who are never going to grow up to be virtuosos, and yet they must show the patience of Job, trying to instill whatever the kid can learn. They take the time to pick out pieces that will challenge and match likes and abilities, only to have kids not practice – I was one of these kids, although now I have no idea what made me so busy in the afternoons that I didn’t feel I had time to practice. And they have to deal with kids stumbling through and mutilating some of the most beautiful music ever written.

It was my sister, inspired after hearing Natalie Cole’s Our Love, who wanted to learn to tickle and caress the ebonies and ivories herself. After showing sufficient dedication to asking my parents for piano lessons, she got them, and my family got a piano. Thus my fate was sealed: I too was going to have piano lessons one day. I may have wanted them initially, but by the time I started, around the age of 7, I wasn’t as enthused. But my mom never let me quit, partially because we had a piano and someone had to play it, and she was convinced that it would make us better at math. Ha! (My mom gets the last laugh – both my sister and I excel at math and have engineering degrees.)

I took piano lessons for 11 years, reaching the level of beginner’s advanced or so – I had enough knowledge of technique to play any piece of music, but still had lots of work to do on certain skills. But besides exposing me to beautiful music, my piano teachers accomplished something greater. They exposed me to the beauty of the Western classical tradition. They ended any intimidation I felt about classical art, any insecurity that such wasn’t “my heritage.” Indeed, it is probably largely through their indirect efforts that I’m able to speak fairly confidently about all sorts of art and my opinions of it. When you’re looking at music for the first time and picking your way through a Beethoven sonata, Mozart sonatina, or a Bach fugue, you see the bones of a piece and how a composer chose to add the flesh and blood, the dynamics, and as you can see the patterns for each composer, the process of art becomes a little less intimidating. No less remarkable a gift of the composer, you become tied to them in some ways – “Come on Chopin, let’s hold hands and you help me get through this Etude.” See, you can communicate with dead white males. Learning to play the piano was one of the most important experiences of my life.

Thank you, Mrs. Cherry and Mrs. Seagrave, for your dedication.

Now some highlights and lowlights:

I was never comfortable playing very fast – I wish all the pieces I played had been allegro or slower - andante was perfect, but nothing as slow as Satie’s ridiculous numbered Gymnopedie. I spent a year playing the Czerny (Czerny taught Liszt!) etudes, those awful torture devices that make a student work on articulation and fingering to increase speed and require proper placement and use of fingers, wrist, shoulder, and back. But I was never comfortable when the really fast parts came, and this included the ornamentation that composers decide to stick in here and there.

Thus, I hate you Chopin’s Minute Waltz! (Think about playing the above in an interval of about a second.) It was a year of exquisite torture to learn to play you with modest success, and my dear piano teacher would clock the time it took me to play you. To this day, I can’t hear you on the radio without my right hand starting to tremor from all the “rotate your forearm and loosen your wrist to play the trills, don’t try to do it from your fingers!”

I hate every last one of your silly sonatas, Scarlatti!

I love you Mozart, but I could never love playing your works for piano. I spent four months learning your Turkish March, and almost a year learning your twelves variations of "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," ("Twinkle, Twinkle) and though I love these pieces when I hear them, you and I are of such different temperaments that I could never really get into interpreting them. Mea culpa.

I love you with a love that’s pure and true, Debussy’s Le fille aux cheveux de lin. I loved mastering your chromatics and playing all the black keys. I also loved your dynamics: playing you was like taking a beautiful stroll in the afternoon of a dream world.

I love you, Bach’s Prelude No. 1 (from the Well-Tempered Clavier). Used in Gounod’s Ave Maria, you are like a lullaby and you were my own favorite to end my practicing sessions. And for your Preludes, Mr. J.S. Bach, I forgive you all your Inventions, played with speed and deliberation in all sorts of keys. I'll even forgive your son.

You and I have a love-hate relationship, Mr. Chopin. I never enjoyed playing any of your Preludes or Polonaises, but I do love your Nocturnes (even though my sister way overplayed Op 37 No 1 and Op 55 No 2). Slightly melancholy, even at their greatest difficulty I felt the caress of a great pianist. I especially loved Nocturne in E minor, Op 72 No 1, with its 12/8 time in the left hand and 4/4 in the right, and none of your typical flourishes. Just beats within beats, like lovers who are parting. I always looked forward to meeting you again.

I’m sorry we didn’t get more time together, Mr. Liszt. I do love your Hungarian Rhapsodies, though I was intimidated beyond belief when learning how to play one. You’re bombastic and proud and showy, and I wish we’d had enough time together for you to bring those qualities out of me. Maybe we’ll date again in the future.

I must also give a shout out to Gershwin, Bartok, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, and other composers whose work I may have slaughtered, though I loved them. I see you trying to sneak in, Mr. Scarlatti. Go sit in the corner!


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

How delightful!

AG said...

Thank you, pseudo-iamblichus.

For my sister, who is concerned that I am portraying her as unstable and filled with phobias and meanness towards me:

Even though you pulled my baby teeth and bruised me (and contributed to an infamous burn), you also let me listen to all your tapes and cds, drink all the sports drink at your house every time I came over, and always got my cool gifts. I wouldn't have loved the piano without you, or astronomy, or Encyclopedia Brown, or tennis, or basketball and college football. I wouldn't even get on the schoolbus without you with me. There's no one else who could ever be the Michael Jackson to my Paul McCartney. You're the best-est sister in the world, and there's no one else I want by my side more when I'm screaming my head off traveling 140 mph when 420 feet in the air. (We need to hit Cedar Point again soon and check out Six Flags - New Jersey.)

cg said...

OK, ag, here I am leaving comments for you... And I'll dispense with the scathing comments I was going to leave after reading your really sweet comments about me! :)

I must agree with you about piano teachers and what I got out of learning to play and playing the piano. Through the process of having taken about 13 years of piano (remember I took 2 more as an adult), I gained an appreciation for music that I wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. I also gained such immense admiration for good musicianship. Seeing someone apply his musical craft well, truly amazes me. I am moved (sometimes to tears) by good musicianship. I believe this is why you and I both have such varied music collections - from country to salsa to R&B to classical to heavy metal to jazz to Indian to rap (and yes I still want a copy of your Death Row Greatest Hits CD that I'm sure you're ashamed to admit you own!). One of the things I love about living in New Orleans is having the opportunity to see such wonderful musicians who have totally mastered their craft (Jazz Fest is coming up and the musician line-up was just announced - looks like it'll be great!).

As for your baby teeth...they had to come out, so it just as well have been by my hand! And you know that burn was ALL YOUR FAULT!! But anyway, I must say you're the best sister in the world (though you're correct, I am the best-est)! You are the Diana Ross to my Lionel Richie and always will be.

AG said...

Thank you, cg.

I have no shame admitting I go from listening to Mahler's "St. Anthony and the Fishes" to "Gin & Juice." Snoop Dogg "put some bubbles in the tub so I can take a bubble bath;
Clean, dry, was my body and hair,
I threw on my brand new Doggy underwear" just for you.

cg said...

fo shizel!