The longest relationship in my life (besides my parents) is with my piano. My parents bought the Hardman upright right after they got married in 1958 as their first piece of real furniture in our small apartment in Flushing, Queens, New York. My mom started playing when she was pregnant with me and to this day says she can’t listen to Beethoven’s Fur Elise without feeling twinges of morning sickness.
By the time I was about nine, my parents were prodding me to pick the instrument I wanted to play. I was torn between piano and guitar, and my parents kept (not so subtlety) pointing out ‘Well, we already have a piano‘. I took the hint.
Moving to the suburbs of Long Island shortly after, you could find me Wednesday afternoons after school walking the few blocks over to Weldon Lane for lessons with Mrs. Mazola – a really nice, middle-aged woman who called me ‘darling‘, was very nurturing and incessantly smoking (it was the ’70s!). I would carry my assortment of eclectic musical books – from Hanon etudes, to Clementi sonatinas (I can still play by memory), to Scott Joplin ragtime and more contemporary (‘cool?’) sheet music like Cherish (with my idol David Cassidy on the cover) or Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly with His Song.
I played throughout most of high school. At one point, everyone in our family was playing an instrument (mom and me on piano, dad and brother Larry violin) to the point where I practically had to book practice time. And in so many of our family photos (my brother and me as kids, my kids), you can find us on the piano bench. Looking back, the piano has played a pretty big center stage in both families, my parents giving it to me as soon as I moved to my own home.
While we all stopped playing at around the same time in the mid-1970s or so, dad picked up the violin years later and continues to play to this day, at nearly 89 years old. In fact, I saw him in concert with the Symphonic Pops of Long Island orchestra just this afternoon. And I took over my son Dan’s piano lessons about five years ago, when he went away to college, in a really joyful move for me.
I’m loving playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann. This year, I also decided to tackle (very slowly!) one of my favorite pieces of all time, Debussy’s Clair de Lune. And just to keep things interesting, I’m also working with my teacher on Neil Young’s Harvest Moon (even bought a ‘G’ Hohner harmonica, watched some YouTube tutorials, but that ‘harp’ solo is hard!)
Over the years, I’ve come to realize how much the piano means to me and in how many ways. In our mostly year-round ’empty nest’ I find it one of the most soothing and peaceful things to do. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time when I play – to a Jane Austen novel, where a little girl might entertain guests on the pianoforte. No electronics involved (just a small piano light), some great brain and finger work and then, if I’m lucky, some pretty beautiful music floating through the house. Plus, it’s basically impossible to multi-task (I can’t even play piano and chew gum at the same time, literally). You’re truly in the moment.
When I play piano, memories fill me too, of all the other fingers that have played on that same instrument. I think of my son Dan, who plays incredibly expressively and well, and even considered majoring in piano in college before ultimately selecting chemistry. (His college essay was all about the special quirks and imperfections of that particular piano that make it so special to him.) I think of his close childhood friend Thomas who played on it as a small child and I keep his memory close to my heart whenever I play [see Remembering Slothy]. And I’ll never forget how my college friend Linda used to so gracefully play You Light Up My Life and that song that always made me cry, the theme from the poignant movie Brian’s Song.
As I play, I also think about the incredible gifts my three piano teachers over the past five or six years have given me as a returning adult player, which transcend piano playing. (My teachers tend to keep moving away – but I’m definitely not taking it personally … lol!)
My first teacher (who taught Dan so magnificently for several special years) Debbie always had me use imagery to turn music into beautiful stories and, actually ‘music’ versus just playing the notes. My second teacher, Jessalyn, taught me all about touch and intonation – and how I could begin to play so much more gracefully with simple wrist movements, etc. And my new teacher Jen is all about counting and rhythm, and is helping me build my internal metronome, among so many other great insights she shares.
The biggest gift all my piano teachers really gave me, though – from Mrs. Mazola on – is the confidence I often lack to play out, not worry about mistakes, learn and grow in a constantly positive, affirming environment. Their confidence in my abilities has shown me that I can tackle much of what I set my mind to … and even reach a certain level of competence and grace. On the piano and in life. Music to my ears!
And, of course, thanks to my parents for the lifelong gift of my special piano. (Cats Lucy and William, shown above, say thanks too!)