An ode to push-button Bach

By

`BUT Mama, all my friends will be at the party!'' I sobbed. ``They'll be having such fun and I'll be stuck.'' Stuck here, I thought, in our parlor, practicing dull scales while Paula and Meg and Jo-Ann and Peg are playing Spin the Plate and Musical Chairs and Blindman's Buff at May's party! I was only 7, and I LOVED birthday parties! I wept and pleaded, but Mama was not to be bent by tears. She said: ``I'm sorry, dear, but your music marks were very poor last month, and if it goes on this way you'll fail the exam and Pa will be very displeased. You know that, don't you?''

Oh, truly, I did know Pa's displeasure! He was a loving Papa, but severe, too. He was keen on education and I was being coached by a long-suffering music teacher for the first of the examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of England, in pianoforte. My parents desired me one day to become a teacher of language and of music. Both were very enthusiastic linguists and musicians.

That wasn't at all my idea of life. I hated music because it meant missing fun outdoors on half-holidays and missing delightful parties to practice dull scales and arpeggios. So, when Mama left the room, I played extra loud and deliberately badly to let her know she was bad! I banged on the wrong keys; never did I dream that one day I'd be on my knees thankful to Ma and Pa for making me study music.

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The next few years found me practicing unwillingly for the next music exams after Primary: stiff steps to negotiate on the way to the coveted Musical Degree, Open Sesame to Teaching Music. But when I was 14, the hard matric exam of the University of London loomed ahead (in our 16th year we had to take it, in 1934), and they all (that is, my music master, my head-teacher, and my parents) said the intense study involved in preparing for a difficult music exam was too great a burden for me, and the lessons ceased. Thereafter I, too, was free on half-holidays and had no more Damocles' sword of music exams hovering over my head.

My musical tastes were certainly not developed at 14, and I never listened to music concerts on the radio if I could help it.

Years passed; I married, had a family, came to Canada. We were living in a far northern isolated community, snowed in half the year, far from cultural amenities. No library, nothing. Winters were very long, evenings unbearably so: Without our little battery radio we'd have been lost indeed. It was our main contact with the great outside world of civilization and culture. The year was 1944.

It was around that time that I discovered the charms of music. As I sat knitting or mending socks and sheets by the window, watching the falling snow, the strains of soft music floated into my consciousness with a pleasant, comforting effect. I had been hearing a Beethoven quartet. Each afternoon after that from two to four I listened to the music program. -- and always with pleasure and with profit to my temper.

I began to have favorites. Schumann's piano pieces, his woodland scenes especially, carried me away from the subzero temperatures and ice sheets to a warm summer day and a walk through a forest; but in a winter mood I'd listen to Tchaikovsky and the other Russians and see in my mind the vast, snow-clad steppes, hear the troika bells as magnificent horses drew a great sleigh swiftly over the snows, bearing its fur-muffled aristocratic passengers.

Of course, then I yearned to have a piano. I began to save, pennies at a time, for this item which I desired above a washing machine, a refrigerator, a phone, or a car, the other desirable amenities of the 1940s household.

It was 1955 before we had sufficient funds saved to buy a used piano; and it was a great day when the clumsy, old-fashioned instrument was delivered to our door. By that time we were living in a small town not so far north. The piano was the wonder of the neighborhood.

The first week, all the local children seemed to have come to ``try it out.'' None could play, but they had fun thumping the keys and making ``thunder,'' or ``doing bells'' or ``finger races.''

It had not been tuned, and three notes were mute: However, it was -- we decided -- better than no piano at all, and for $30 what could you expect?

Our three children had their first lessons on the ``has-been,'' and I resumed my studies. My fingers, long unused to playing, were stiff and clumsy, and I had to use the old album of scales and five-finger exercises, once so despised.

In a couple of years we gave the ``has-been'' to a large family 'round the corner, whose children had been aching to have one of their own, and we acquired another used instrument for $100. This was passably better. The children and I advanced to pieces by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Schubert.

This piano lasted us four years, when we splurged $300 on a secondhand piano that came with a stool. On this one we all four advanced to Rachmaninoff and Chopin. Very ambitiously, I purchased a Debussy album because he makes delightful word pictures of rainy morns and parks in all seasons, and I've always loved to see pictures in my mind. Debussy is a musical artist.

Then our family fell on hard times. Every family goes through the vicissitudes of life, so I won't go into detail. Our piano was sold; soon all three children married and departed to live in other parts of the country, and I found myself in a small city apartment where there's no room for a piano anyway.

Then, a surprise: For my birthday my children bought me an instrument of compact size that plays organ, piano, harpsichord, and strings at the press of buttons. It is electronic, but that does not trouble me. This morning, with joyful anticipation, I began to take out from an old trunk the hoarded-up piano pieces from years ago. How glad I am that I kept them! Now memories rush back as I prepare to resume my music studies after yet another long gap of years.

Recently I rediscovered that old and beautiful song of Schubert ``Du Holder Kunst,'' his Ode to the Art of Music . . . which lifts us up far above the cares of daily toil, above this everyday world.

Senior citizen though I am, I had begun to sing it whenever I felt especially happy, such as when a breath of spring in advance of its time wafted to my door with a hint of daffodils and lilies of the valley and hyacinths. I sang this song in the original German . . . a language I have recently taken up as a hobby. Since the walls of my small apartment are soundproof, I can warble away to my heart's content.

The one drawback was, I had no accompaniment. But since I have this totally unexpected and wonderful gift, I enter a whole new world of song via buttons. Does a Handel aria demand a harpsichord accompaniment? I press Button A and, voil`a, I have it. Does Bach's ``Easter Oratorio'' require rich organ tones? Button B works the magic. Does a light song by some modern composer require a piano accompaniment? Button C brings it to my side, and we sing together, my instrument and I, and the hours fly blissfully.

This is a vast improvement on our first tuneless, rickety piano. If this is Progress, I'm all for it! How I wish I could fling my arms about the necks of dear old Papa and Mama and thank them from my heart for having, long years ago, insisted that I diligently practice my music! The children's parties . . . they are long gone; but the beautiful art of music, with its consolation and inspiration . . . that is still with me.

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