Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nine years of piano: History really does matter!


To the best of my recollection, I started piano lessons in February 1952, when I was 8 and in third grade. I was actually having trouble getting along with a teacher who was pushing me into “sports” and male behaviors. I remember the suddenness of it, but I don’t remember what made me want a piano.

My parents bought a Kimball console and put it along the interior wall of the living room. We had gotten television in 1950, and the unreliable BW TV was near the fireplace, also interior, about fifteen feet away.

I started taking piano lessons after school with an older married woman about a mile away in Arlington. Lessons took place at around 4 PM Mondays and Thursdays. Practicing was about 45 minutes or so a day. I started with John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” and the very first piece was the “Tom Thumb March” with nothing but repeated middle C’s. Each piece introduced a new note. There were first, second, third grade books that gradually introduced simplified pieces from classical music. Somehow I recall the Bach Musette occurred fairly early. The teacher would grade progress as A-, A, or with a gold star. On Wednesday afternoons, we had “class” – about ten kids, about half boys. The teacher had a record player that first played 78s, and LPs in 1952 were considered a novelty. She taught music memory. The end result of all of that is that by age 12 or 13, I could identify all the major works from the radio on hearing just a few measures.



Around 1954, I started with the Sherwood Music course, from a music publisher in Chicago. A salesman came to the house and presented the course, and he worked pretty much the way encyclopedia salesmen did in those days. (In fact, my parents bought the World Book in 1950 from such a salesman). How things have changed: door-to-door and house call selling was much more socially “in” than it is now. Sherwood lessons were packaged as leaflets in brown enveloped divided into topics like Notation, Rhythm and Meter, Key Signatures and Scales, Harmony, Theory, Form, and History, and concluded with self-test written exercises, that the student mailed in for grading.

I also played in “festivals” every spring, where we got ratings from judges, with Superior the best grade. There was always a required and an elective composition, and the elective composition had to be by an American composer or a composer who had spent significant time in the United States (Sergei Rachmaninoff was acceptable).

In the spring of 1958, when I was in Ninth Grade, my music teacher was diagnosed with colon cancer and died quickly. This was traumatic for me. We found another teacher in the Yorktown section of Arlington, who herself would eventually go deaf. During that time, I became more interested in composition, and entered the D Minor Sonata into a competition when I was 16 (a junior).

I had slowly started collecting records. We did not understand high fidelity well then. We had an RCA Victor Mono record player and changer that tracked at 10 grams. We didn’t start using diamond styluses until I was a senior in high school. So many records were damaged. I got a Voice of Music stereo in 1962. The first piece that I heard on a home stereo system was a mono recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Westminster, but the effect of multiple speakers was startling. At Christmas that year, I got Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Fourth, both an Angel, both performed by Otto Klemperer. The first stereo record that I played at home was the Mahler, and the opening “sleigh bell” passage was quite startling at the time in full stereo. (Because of Leonard Bernstein, among all conductors, Mahler and later Carl Nielsen moved to mainstream repertoire in the 60s.) Of course, since then, we went through an evolution: low tracking forces, elliptical styli, then CD’s, the music on the Internet (with all the legal issues around downloading). We got used to Dolby Digital as the standard for movies in new theaters.

My first piano teacher used to lecture me on “being a normal boy” (with all of the “implications”) but hoped that I would make music my “life’s work.” I once, around 1959, had a consulting session with a 70 year old professional piano teacher, Dr. Hughes, who prepared students for conservatories like Peabody and Julliard, or perhaps Indiana University. By the time I was a senior in high school, I could play some of the Rachmaninoff Preludes, such as the E Major, B minor, and D-flat Major from Op 32 (which prepares for his Third Concerto). The grandiose D-flat Prelude was my favorite. I remember banging it out on the piano one spring morning shortly before my high school graduation, when I would leave for a Science Honor Society Field Trip later that week. Some of the other preludes require greater virtuosity (G# minor, A minor) and were beyond my skill. I learned the second of the Liszt Legends (“St. Francis Walking on the Water,” a triumphant romp in E Major), but the first Legend (“Talks to the Birds”) was still unplayable (as was “The March of the Gnomes”).

The show “Everwood” on TheWB had prodigy Ephram Brown (played by Gregory Smith) learning the Beethoven Appasionata in one day (not possible – I could not have played the Finale adequately at age 17). Much of the plot has to do with his striving to get into Julliard, and his losing it because of a family problem mishandled by his headstrong surgeon father (Treat Williams). Instead, at age 18 he earns money as a piano teacher himself, and one of his students, Kyle Hunter (Steven R. McQueen), around 15, is the next prodigy, and the program suggests that he will make it when the series concludes. If there was ever an indie movie needing to be made, it would follow Kyle’s career in conservatory. (Warner Brothers, where are you? You own the trademark on the character, but I can write a script for you. Just call me!)

So why didn’t I make music my life’s work. I wish I had. I would have had a very different and likely more productive life. But I was a product of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was going up and Khrushchev was promising to bury us. I was good enough in school to graduate as one of 14 valedictorians (just barely) and chose to major in chemistry, and later switched to mathematics. Visitors to my blogs know what happened. (The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 would actually intersect my life in a bizarre way (as would “don’t ask don’t tell” starting three decades later.) There were real questions about how much freedom I had and could claim.

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