When someone sees my piano for the first time, they usually say, “Oh! Do you play?” and I usually answer, “No. I practice.”
Once, during a visit, a friend watched me at the piano. “Are you having fun?” she asked me, skeptically. It didn’t look like it and it still doesn’t look like it, but yes, I am. The idea of one day being able to play music — which is so much more than just hitting the right notes — is enough to keep me going.
When I was growing up, I envied my classmates who took piano lessons. Kids who lived in normal homes (I naively believed there was such a thing) played piano. And there was even a piano, of sorts, in our home. So I asked for lessons.
Other people had pretty little spinets in their houses. The piano at our house was an old upright, painted a flat black, with thumbtacks on the hammers. It lurked in the corner, waiting for those rare occasions when my Dad’s friends would get together at our house for a jam session. Daddy would dust off his stand-up bass* and his friend Bud would take his seat on the piano stool while Bottle Curtis moistened his clarinet reed between his lips. Someone might have a a trumpet, someone else a guitar, and someone, or two, sang. But usually the band played jazz down at 51 West Main Street at Bud’s bar, Weber’s.
Weber’s bar was fashioned in Cincinnati and shipped
in parts to Shelby, Ohio, where it still serves the public.
Bud Weber’s own piano, another old upright, sat right inside the front door of his business, its back to the street. Bud used to joke that the piano had termites. Turned out, it did. The sound board crumbled around the same time its owner was eaten away by drink. (Or that’s the way my father told it, anyway, but then, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)
Daddy grew up in Norristown, PA, with a grand piano in the living room. My aunt played and sang, but I never heard her. My Gram put on concerts for my brother and me, singing silly songs and rolling grapefruit up and down the keyboard to play accompaniment. The last I knew of that once distinguished piano, it was dusty and neglected, the substantial front legs chewed by Winston, the English bulldog. My uncle — motto: Real musicians play by ear! –has a beautiful grand piano in his home now. He also has a bulldog. Smedley does not gnaw on the piano. In my parents’ home, our mutt Gigi never even tried to attack that old black upright.
My brother and I used to mess around on the piano but only when my father wasn’t home. We were always careful to allow him the undisturbed quiet he expected from us, even though, during a nap, his own snores would often wake him up.
I had a few informal lessons from a friend of my parents, but that didn’t last, so I made sporadic attempts to teach myself from the John Thompson’s Piano Book I retained. I could hit the right notes, but I couldn’t get it to sound like music.
When fifth grade band came around, my grandmother sent my uncle’s clarinet for me. Real effort was required to get a sound out of this horn; it was much easier to blow through one of the plastic clarinets rented by the other girls (for some reason the clarinet section was always all female). But I persevered and was eventually rewarded with a rich, layered tone. By high school, I played well enough to perform at the state level in woodwind trios and quartets. When the parts wove together just so, I was lifted out of myself, above the mundane, into timeless delight.
Like my father and my uncle, my brother couldn’t read music. He played trumpet by memorizing fight songs for the marching band and spinning Al Hirt records over and over until he could reproduce them note for note. Me? I was confined to the written music. It was drilled into me that my brother was the musician, not me. No one ever invited me to join a pick-up band and I wouldn’t have known what to do if they had.
To play clarinet takes a strong diaphragm and a firm embouchure. It requires daily practice. Once I left high school, I didn’t keep up with it.
When my first child was just starting grade school, a friend was moving far away, somewhere mountainous out west, and she gave us her piano. It wasn’t the first time my husband moved one of those heavy old uprights and — bless his heart — it surely wasn’t the last. (I have lost track of how many times he moved even that one piano.) When the piano tuner took a look at it, he told us it wasn’t worth fixing. Since we didn’t have the money to buy a piano, I told him: “It’s this piano or it’s no piano.” So he spent most of two days working on it. When he sat down to play it for the first time, he was thrilled. It had a beautiful, full-bodied tone.
My husband and I made sure our children had piano lessons if they wanted them and three of them did, but only our daughter stuck with it. One year for my Christmas present she performed Scott Joplin for me! Recently, she brought that same book with her when she visited and played a few of those lively tunes.
When she first started taking lessons, I was busy, busy, busy — producing her brothers, taking care of them, volunteering, writing, etc. I thought I had plenty of time to take lessons myself — later, when the boys were older and my life took on a more predictable routine.
But “yuppie flu” felled me before the youngest boy was even in kindergarten. I thought I was temporarily sidetracked, but that train will never run fast or reliably again.
So, no. I don’t play piano. But I’ve been practicing for several years now. My teacher would rather I played at recitals, but I don’t. And she’s been flexible when I cancel a lesson less than an hour before because I’m too dizzy to drive to her house or too brain-fogged to recognize the notes or figure out what to wear. And arthritis has interfered with my progress. Still, my fingers can now span an octave and my thumbs cooperate on scales. Of course, I can’t do this every day. Some days I can’t read the music. This morning, pain made it hard to sit up. Sometimes I practice throughout the day, in ten minute sets. Some days I can’t even do that much.
I had anticipated that practicing piano would be like an extended, focused meditation, an experience similar to what Margery Abbott describes in “Dispatches from a Week of Piano Practice” (in the September 2016 issue of Friends Journal). But M.A. plays. I practice. And much of my practice is the physical part: shoulders relaxed, elbows up, wrists loose, hands curled, etc.
I will never meet my uncle’s standards: I can’t improvise. And I may never reach my own standards. I have yet to play even the simplest assignment all the way through without a mistake. But I’m practicing more difficult compositions and, every once in a while, I’m rewarded with a few measures of real music and I’m lifted with delight.
*Daddy claimed Bill Haley, of Bill Haley and the Comets, borrowed this bass to record Rock Around the Clock, because Daddy’s bass had a superior sound which came across better in those early recording studios. But Daddy’s other stories had him making a total break with Bill Haley, maybe before this song was ever recorded.