'A Little Warmth in My Hands'


Music, Love, & True Adventures

By Noah Adams

Delacorte Press

250 pp., $20.95

For those who know and love National Public Radio, "Piano Lessons" is virtual reality in print. It's like listening to Noah Adams's voice of friendly inquiry from "All Things Considered" - and to the sound of the pianos, music, and musicians he encounters on the way to surprising his wife with a candle-lit, black-tie performance of Schumann's celebrated "Trumerei" just for her.

"It would be easier, I think, to have an affair than to learn this little piece of music," the 50ish tyro concludes after instruction by computer, cassette, and live teachers. But an affair is not news on today's literary scene. And a book like this is - where one spouse abets the other's midlife passion (for the piano) in a happy modern marriage.

What is it about pianos these days? "Piano Lessons" comes at the same time as "Piano Pieces," essays by concert pianist Russell Sherman. They are not to be confused with "The Piano" the movie, or "The Piano Lesson" the play, both of which carry heavy fictional freight. As do novels by writer-pianist Frank Conroy ("Body & Soul") and writing teacher Paula Huston ("Daughters of Song"), in which readers learn about the piano along with off-stage turmoil, too.

What Adams offers, like a good NPR script, is personal experience that conveys information. And almost all of the text would be acceptable on NPR. Indeed, some passages are transcripts - whose format is slightly intrusive here - from Adams's broadcast interviews.

In one of these, he elicits pop star Tori Amos's tribute to the piano's "sustain" pedal: "Yeah, this is the biggest part of everything I do. I play the sustain like it's a whole 'nother instrument."

Concert pianist Leon Fleisher challenges the use of fingers "like little hammers" and suggests it's "much more natural" to play "close to the pad of the finger than on the tip."

Taped on the wall in Adams's NPR office is a fragment of a poem: "After a black day, I play Haydn, and feel a little warmth in my hands."

The #quotes, the wide-ranging references are part of Adams's way of drawing us into pianos (he worries that he cares more about pianos than about music), how to buy them, and how to play them. In his computer piano course he watches paratroopers on the screen, knowing that if he gets his ragtime chords right the jumpers' chutes will open and they will land safely. In his cassette course he is advised to find the melodies to familiar songs, and soon he is picking out "Moon River." "You don't tickle the ivories ... you play the felt that's underneath," one music teacher advised him.

When can one say, "I can play the piano"? That's a question Adams takes up early in this endearing book. Perhaps he answers it at the end when he performs "Trumerei" in his tux and "even the wrong notes seem to have a special quality."

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