The Interviewer Becomes The Subject


Walking into a recording studio in the Monitor Radio building where we are to tape an interview about his new book, Noah Adams, a short, intense man with a shock of white hair, warmly greets all involved - the producer, the engineer, me. With calm smile and outstretched hand, his easy charm flows. It's a charm that has put the subjects of 25,000 radio interviews at ease during Mr. Adams's 22 years at National Public Radio (NPR).

But as quickly as he greeted us, he slipped quietly behind the keyboard of the studio's Steinway grand piano and sits tapping at its keys. He tinkers with phrases from Schumann's "Trumerei" and a Bach prelude, heedless of the clutter and commotion around him - the chairs and half-wall dividers strewn about the partially renovated room - or the engineer who's struggling to get the microphone into position. No, Adams is practically alone with the instrument of his passion.

But he hasn't always been able to concentrate so intently on the piano. When Adams decided two years ago to learn how to play, he figured he could sandwich in 20 or 30 minutes of practice time between dinner and his nightly preparation for the next day's "All Things Considered," the NPR program he co-hosts.

Not so. "I would sit down to play" he says, strumming a C major chord on the piano in front of him, "and right away my mind would start to wander back through the day - to mistakes I made on the air or questions I forgot to ask."

Concentration was a skill he developed only over the course of a year. It began when three burly guys from Fox Piano Movers arrived on his Washington doorstep. Soon the $10,000 Steinway Professional Model 1098 upright they delivered became a daily challenge. For months he struggled. "I got almost to the end of that first year not knowing if it actually was going to work," he says. "I was perfectly prepared to sell the piano and to give it up."

But he found "salvation" at a 10-day music camp in Bennington, Vt., in a family's large white frame house perched atop a hill. "There," he says, "I found teachers, and I found people obsessed with music, and I found music I really wanted to play."

But what finally got Adams to succeed at the piano was having to perform for the family and 22 other adult campers. In the small living room, he nervously sat down to play, his hands shaking. He skipped over many notes. But, he recalls, smiling, "After I finished, they had me stand up again and applauded. My face was just red, and I was exhilarated. And I was embarrassed and proud all at the same time. And then we went in the kitchen and had a big dinner. All of a sudden I was a piano player among my colleagues and my friends."

Ever since, he says, "at any waking moment, I'd rather be at the piano."

He's also become more aware of what's really required to succeed in taking up piano as an adult. "It's a matter of integrity," he says, referring to something a New York piano teacher recently told him: "If you're going to approach a Beethoven sonata, it's between you and that music and that keyboard. You can't start cheating. You can't start skipping notes."

Also crucial is humility: "What keeps us from taking up piano" - or any such task - as adults, he says, "is the fear of failure, the fear of turning from being an accomplished professional adult back to being a child, to knowing where middle C is and not much else."

It's a humility that for Adams has only increased since starting piano - and increases when he interviews or listens to professional pianists. Fingering a particularly tough cord of "Trumerei," he says, "When I learn to do some small thing on the piano, it takes me hours to work it out. But to hear them, it's like they're playing galaxies of stars that I haven't even been able to see yet."

But this new-found "cosmic" humility is what gets Adams up an hour earlier than need be to practice every morning. With his dog, Will, curled up on a cushion in the piano room, Adams sits down to play.

A man alone at his piano.


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