Tickled by the ivories

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The first time I was in the same room with a piano, I was 7 years old. I was at my aunt's house, and there it was, an upright piano sitting against the back wall of the living room. I heard my mother in the background call to me, "Don't bang on the piano."

I remember staring at it, with its dark wood and black and ivory keys, but I never touched it that day, even though I wanted to push down on an ivory key and make a sound.

In high school, I made friends with Frieda, a pianist who had debuted with an orchestra when she was 11 years old. Sometimes, I would go over to her apartment to study after school, and she would be finishing up her practicing, which she did for two to three hours every day.

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I would sit down on the couch facing her back and watch her fingers fly over the keys of the grand piano. The rich sound seemed so full that it could not possibly have come out of that one instrument. Her body would gyrate around and around toward the piano and then away. Her talent fascinated me, and I was envious of her journey into a world I knew nothing about.

My relationship to the piano changed one day when I was chatting with my old friend Mike, who was refereeing my daughter's soccer game. He reminded me that he taught piano, and I mentioned that I had always wanted to learn to play. He suggested that he come over and give me one free lesson. Then I could decide if I liked it and wanted to continue.

He came over a week later and brought a book called "The Older Beginner Piano Course," Level 1.

We sat down at the piano, I on the bench, Mike on a folding chair next to it. The piano is a Knight upright made out of rosewood that had been my father-in-law's. Now it belonged to us, and even though it has sat in my living room since 1988, it was akin to a lamp or a table - just there, not that noticeable - but certainly not used as much as a lamp or a table. Now it was time to use it.

The first page of Unit 1 said, "The piano keyboard has black and white keys. Tones sound higher when you play to the right on the keyboard (up the keyboard), and lower when you play to the left on the keyboard (down the keyboard)."

At this very first lesson, the book asks you to actually put your hands on the keys. Your right hand, starting with the thumb, goes on middle C, and then the other four fingers go on D, E, F, and G. The left thumb goes on G below middle C, and then the remaining four fingers go on F, E, D, and C.

Then you do a little warm-up, going up and down the notes, first with your right hand, then with your left: C, D, E, F, G; G, F, E, D, C. And then, glory, you actually are told to play a song, on the first day! The song was "Merrily We Roll Along." E, D, C, D, E, E, E, D, D, D, E, G, G. E, D, C, D, E, E, E, D, D, E, D, C.

As my fingers stiffly moved (I was panic-stricken and sweaty), I did it. My friend Mike was very patient. He said, "Very good," and I was hooked.

That first lesson was three- and-a-half years ago, and we have been together ever since, piano, teacher, and student, voyaging into the world of the written note, that black note that takes you on a journey you didn't know existed.

How can I explain the privilege of having been given the exact music that George Gershwin wrote, (OK, in a somewhat easier format)? How do you convey the feeling of being allowed to appropriate those notes as my own, to know what they mean, how long to hold them, where they sit on the piano. How to express the thrill of touching the key and then having a sound come out, the exact sound that George Gershwin intended, which is why he put that particular note on the paper in the first place.

Since the early days of Level 1, I have added easy versions of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, classics, pop music, lounge music, and my love, Broadway.

Mike and I have a wonderful time, especially when I get a new piece, and he sings the words to aid me in the rhythm. If I hold a note for too long, searching for the next note on the piano, he might turn blue, since he is holding the note, too, but he doesn't mind.

Sometimes when I am done with a piece, and it went pretty well, I lean my head down on the piano and rest it there, amateur and instrument as one, and thank it for responding to my inept movements.

My daughter's cello teacher used to tell her to hug her cello, and now I understand why. The line blurs between you and the instrument, because it takes both to produce the sound, that beautiful, musical sound.

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