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Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

Music has saved my life. Not just listening, but the act of playing, the intimacy of running fingers over polished keys. Whatever concerns I bring to the piano vanish as I lose myself in the stormy contrasts of a Beethoven sonata, the exuberance of a Chopin mazurka, the lighthearted skipping of a Bach bourrée. For me, the piano has been many things—a solace in time of loss, a playground for improvisation, a prelude to a state of grace.

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The author with her 1927 Chickering parlor grand

As soon as I could crawl, I teethed on the legs of our old upright. Once I climbed onto the bench, I began to make up melodies.  I’d take my turtles out of their tank, place them on the music stand, and tell them stories, creating imaginary soundtracks to Jack and the Beanstalk or Beauty and the Beast. (The upper octaves were reserved for the clear voice of the hero or the heroine, the lower range for sorcerers and ogres.)

I began my lessons at the age of five, and one of my first pieces was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Lost Chord.   When I came to the end, I felt a ray of purple light move through me, as though I’d been taken up to Heaven to find that missing piece of divine harmony.

That year, we inherited a Sohmer concert grand so large it was delivered through the large dining room window by a crane.  This great feral beast consoled me on long winter nights as I waited for my parents to come home from work.  Afraid of the dark, I lit the house up like a bonfire, turning on all the lamps.  Yet as soon as I sat down at the keyboard, I felt safe.

My first job, if one can count childhood past-times, was as an accompanist. My father was a singer at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a repertory theatre in Millburn, New Jersey that produced operettas like “The Merry Widow” and “The Student Prince.” After the Sohmer arrived, he’d beckon me into the living room to play for his old cronies on Sunday nights. I’d sit on the piano stool in my Doctor Dentons—those old flannel pajamas with the feet in them—running through The Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook, playing tunes from “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “South Pacific,” then moving on to the lush romantic melodies of Franz Lehar and Sigmund Romberg. I can still hear Dad’s sweet baritone: “Overhead the moon is beaming, white as blossoms on the bough. Nothing is heard but the song of the bird, filling all the air with dreaming…..”

My mother had made our house into a stage set from “The Flower Drum Song,” with Chinese wallpaper and an entire wall painted in bright red.  The sofa was lime green and ultra-modern; on the table was a glass ashtray that also doubled as a sculpture..  I recall the tinkling of the highball glasses, the smell of cigarettes, and strong perfume.

A natural performer, my father couldn’t walk down the street without bursting into song. But when my mother urged him to get a real job,  he gave up show business for the shoe business—and at first, all the matinee matrons followed him to the new boutique to have their glass slippers put on by the handsome prince.

My piano lessons stopped five years after my father opened his emporium. Money was tight so we moved into a small apartment, and replaced the seven-foot Sohmer with a Wurlitzer console.   On this paltry instrument, I prepared “Rhapsody in Blue” for my 8th-grade talent show, pounding the keys in pure frustration, for this instrument had no soul.  As the business failed, our home life fell apart and I was sent to live with my aunt Geri who had played a showy piano solo called “The Burning of Rome” on the radio at age 14, then had given up her music to take care of my cousins.  This was the family curse: my people turned their backs on their creativity and in the end, they paid a heavy price.  The year I left for college, my aunt took her life—and my father ended his a few months later.  Without music, their world simply made no sense.

Today,  I begin my practice with a C major scale, played slowly and with great care.  Each note has an overtone, connecting us to a complex realm of musical relationships. That same is true for us.  Whenever we cease to sing our song, we leave a hole in the cosmos—a space where a harmonic line should be.

I did not make a career of music—journalism was my calling—but I remained a devoted amateur. While living in New York, I acquired a piano from Tanglewood and trekked over to Lincoln Center to study with a protégé of the celebrated pianist Richard Goode. There I fell in love with the lush internal harmonies of Brahms. After my rendering of the Intermezzo, Opus 118, my teacher blurted out, “You’re not supposed to be able to do that! This piece is way beyond your technical ability.”

I have no logical explanation for such moments of transcendence.  They have occurred without rhyme or reason throughout my musical life.

The most sublime of these came fifteen years ago when I contracted Lyme Disease.  My left brain was so impaired that I couldn’t read a grocery list.   But my right brain went on overdrive, and like a patient of Oliver Sacks undergoing a strange neurological transformation, I began to churn out endless melodies.   The result was an album called Mindful Music that was presented at the Helen Bonney Institute, an organization that explores the connection between music and healing.

This direct line to melody is something I cannot explain. It has come and gone throughout my lifetime, like a religious visitation. And it has made me wonder, Where does sound come from?  What does it mean to tap into the music of the spheres?

In 2019, I attended a master class on Musical Phenomenology based on the work of Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache. The “conductor’s conductor,” Celibidache studied Zen and philosophy, and understood music on a whole new level. In 1945 he became the youngest maestro to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. In his later years, Celibidache would not approve of microphones in the concert hall for he believed that music was a living thing—a transcendent experience that could not be duplicated by technology.

I was introduced to Musical Phenomenology by Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel, a concert pianist who had studied with the maestro for some time, at her salon in Berkeley, California.   Christyna spoke about those rare moments when the music seems to come straight from heaven. She called this method of playing, “a stairway to paradise.”  I knew I had found my teacher—the one who could show me how to make the magic happen.

This was a major undertaking at the age of 70.  It was not a matter of picking up where I left off with scales, and Hanon, and a few familiar compositions. To really understand Musical Phenomenology,  I would have to give up my old way of practicing and begin anew.  I thought of Rilke who stood in front of the Apollo Belvedere and heard a voice say,  “You must change your life.”

Lesson One:  Work with Gravity

Christyna begins our first lesson with a bit of history:  Our early instruments are directly connected to the body.   The flute, she says, is animated by the breath,  the violin responds to the slightest pressure of the fingertips.   But the piano is mechanical, abstract.  The performer strikes a key which raises a felt hammer which then pulls back and strikes the string.  If all this does not happen in a fluid motion, the sound will be aggressive, harsh.   To achieve a beautiful bell-like tone,  I must learn how to work with gravity.

In the first few weeks, I do nothing but concentrate on the fall of my arm, sensing the heaviness of it,  as it drops.  The best pianists do not work from the fingers—they let the arm fall, and let the force of nature do the work.   Many players tense the hand and then attack, yet I practice this simple pattern of “fall and release” with the hope that I will attain what my teachers calls “a golden arm.”

We also pay attention to my posture at the keyboard.  My seat is now more like a jockey’s—alert, and slightly forward.  My shoulders back, my spine erect, always supported by my core.  (Practicing this way is as exacting as yoga or Pilates!)   Before I begin a scale, I check my body.  I do not touch the keys until I have a sense of being drawn upward—as though the top of my head were being lifted by an imaginary string.

Next, it’s scales, one note at a time.  Slowly, conscious of each tone,  until I am able to produce a clear, round note that seems to shimmer in the room.

Lesson Two: Your Body Keeps the Time

I have taken out the metronome, and though it reminds me of a series of punishing whacks, it is helpful when it comes to honoring the precise geometry of Bach.  But I set the pace much slower,  half the rate I would usually play, until it comes in synch with my heartbeat and my breathing.  Until I feel it in my bones.  Rhythm, Christyna reminds me, is the scaffolding on which the melody unfolds.  But it’s never mechanical, and always grounded in the heartbeat and the breath.

When playing the first piece in  Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” (Scenes from Childhood)  I must pay attention to the third beat in the treble clef that creates the lovely waltz-like nature of the piece.  But every so often I fail to connect with that last note in the right hand.  So what do I do?  I hold my breath and I speed up!

“Our whole society is in a rush,” Christyna tells me,  “and many students feel they have to play faster, and louder.  This is not the path to understanding.”

When I continue to have this problem, she delves deeper: “You rush when you are afraid of something.  You think you can’t get a certain passage right, or you start to worry that you’ll fumble the fingering, so you just speed up.  Remember, that’s just a way of covering up.”  These lessons, it is clear, are all about un-doing.

 And we aren’t just talking about Schumann. Now I’m face to face with my own anxiety,  my inability to slow down and trust in life.  I am learning a valuable lesson—that rushing won’t make the “hard parts” go away.  I have to face the music, as the saying goes.

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Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Oh, Valerie, your words flow as music, transporting the reader on a journey into the sublime – into the place where music and life merge as one – into a place where thought, structure, and foundational technique transform into trust, grace and ease – into a place where melodies sings from the depths of our soul, reminding us the magic is real – into a place where conscious learning transforms into expanded perceptions of expressions that emerge from within as if from nowhere – Yes, I know these places of which you speak, for I have traveled this sacred journey as well. Thank you for your beautiful sharing 🙏

  2. Hello Valerie, as I receive the Best of Bizcatalyst360 every week I skim through the headings of the articles until one hits me, I look at the author and then open the article. Yours struck me and I thank you because at 71, I just began to take piano lessons. Reason being, I write lyrics and have recently won recognition for that genera. But I wanted to learn the piano and guitar to add the music to the lyrics. You have inspired me to pursue learning the piano, although I cannot read music, my ear does through listening. I hope some day to play without stopping and going back to repeat the keys again and again. Beautiful article, thank you.

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