I'm getting ready to do a very interesting show at the Altamont Free Library for their "Songteller Sessions" series on March 9th. They've asked me the same 10 questions they ask everyone who participates, and I make my set list based on those questions. As a result, I will be doing things I never do in public. One of the questions is, "What was the first song you learned to play?" I started playing songs on the piano, which I never play anymore, but I will be bringing a keyboard to this gig and will do a song from those early days. Because of that upcoming gig, I decided to share one of my memoir pieces with you. I've added an update at the end.
When I was 10-years old, I was offered music lessons at school. I wanted to play the violin. I loved the violin. After the first week of practice, my parents set me up in the unfinished, dirty basement, next to the parked car to continue my practices. I kept practicing, but quieter. I didn’t realize until I was 40 that pressure on the bow stops the squeaking. Apparently, that’s why very young children have an easier time playing this instrument. They aren't worried about the obnoxious squeals that emanate from it, so they play with vigor. But not me, I was always looking for peace, trying to fly under the radar. After not getting any further than “Hot Cross Buns” which I played over and over and over again, and being teased relentlessly about it, even to this day, I quit. A few months later, I overheard my mom and dad talking about an old upright grand piano that was being sold for $25, but you had to pick it up yourself. I ran in and begged and pleaded with them. “No,” they replied. “You didn’t stick with the violin, so why should we get you a piano?” I promised to practice every day and reminded them that the piano makes a beautiful sound no matter what key you press and wouldn’t squeak and squall. I even cried. I wanted that piano with all of my being. They finally relented, found friends to help move the piano, and the torture began.
The piano turned out to be a treasure and, as promised, I practiced every day. I also played when I wasn’t practicing. When I sat at that beautiful instrument, all of my worries and fears went away. I could almost feel them melt off of me. And, no one bothered me when I played. There were no fights, no punishments and no misunderstandings. The music made a bubble around me, shielding me from all the turmoil in our household. I was in a world of my own, and it was like heaven. That lasted until my piano teacher told my dad that I wasn't working hard enough. I’m sure she meant well, but Dad decided that now I had to practice with a timer running and him sitting there next to me. Now practice was hell. The timer I was forced to use made a loud ticking sound that was not in time with the music and had an abrupt loud bell that signaled the end of the session. Dad yelled when I made mistakes and sometimes made me practice the wrong way, causing trouble at my lesson. I think the teacher finally figured it out and asked him to let me practice alone so that she could assess my progress. That only made things worse. Now, I had to do things Dad’s way and lie about it to my teacher. What a mess. I finally decided to practice for two hours, one by myself before Dad got home and another with him. That was not as successful as I might have hoped but was definitely an improvement.
As my life got harder, I played the piano more and more. It was my lifesaver. I took voice lessons in high school and learned to sing classical music and mostly loved to sing the blues. Mom always said she could tell what kind of day I had by the music I played afterschool. I played until all was right with the world. It was a protective cocoon that couldn't be penetrated by anyone.
When I moved to the West Coast, I obviously couldn’t take the piano with me. My parents assured me that they would keep it for me. After all, it was my piano. They moved it to that same unfinished, dirty garage, uncovered and unloved. Whenever I visited, I would go down, dust it off and play it a little, but the basement was very uninviting. When they moved to upstate NY, they brought it with them, and it lived in the basement, which was much cozier. I moved my family into that basement for a few months when we moved to NY and sometimes played it then. Our cat loved it and walked across the keys, listening to the sound of the music the piano sang. As soon as we got our own place, Mom started pressuring me to take the piano with me, but I had two small children living in a small second floor apartment with no space for such a large piece.
A few years later, we moved into a trailer in the country and were afraid the piano would go right through the floor. Finally, they were finished holding it for me and gave me a month to take it or lose it. A wonderful friend agreed to house it for me in exchange for piano lessons for her girls. Now it lived in a home again, and I visited it every week for piano lessons. They fell in love with it, and maybe it fell in love with them, too. My friend was very sad when I finally had a place to welcome my cherished instrument. After moving it, I found a piano tuner. When he came, I explained that I couldn’t remember the piano ever being tuned. It had always stayed in tune with itself. Like me, it was a survivor. I even checked with Mom who confirmed my theory. It really had never been tuned, at least not in the last 40 years. Though skeptical at first, the tuner confirmed that it was indeed in tune with itself and was less than a one and a half tones flat but more than a whole tone flat. Afraid of breaking strings and damaging the sound board, he suggested tuning it to less than concert pitch and then assessing the situation. He managed to bring it up to pitch that day without any damage and came back in a month to tweak it. When he came back to find that it had stayed in tune, he offered to buy it. If I had a dollar for every person who has offered to buy my piano, I would be a rich woman.
And I am a rich woman. I have a very old, very beautiful piano with an incredible rich tone that stays in tune and soothes my soul. Unfortunately, I rarely play it. I play lots of other instruments and even make my living doing music, but when I sit down to play the piano, I hear my dad’s voice in my ear every time, “stupid kid, can’t you get it right?” When I was a young teen, I worked for months in secret on a Chopin piece, one of his favorites, as a surprise for his birthday. When I played it for him, he got up without a word, put on a recording of Van Cliburn playing the same piece and said to me, “Now that’s how it should be played.” Try as I might, I can’t shake that voice constantly telling me I’m not good enough. But every once in a while, when the house is quiet and no one is in the room, I will pull out my classical music and play. Once I start, it’s hard to stop. Sometimes I even cry while I play, just like I did when I was a child, overcome with unexplained emotions. I play until I am exhausted and satisfied. Then months or even years go by before I play again, but I always play again. Now after all these years, I have another cat that walks across the keys, listening to the sound of the music the piano sings. Now after all these years, I still yearn to play my piano with ease and walk past it every day as it reaches out, wanting to soothe my soul. Meanwhile, I dust it regularly and touch it as I walk by. Meanwhile, I love hearing my children and grandchildren play it and smile every time my musical cat plays for me. And, I feel very rich.
I no longer have a cat, though I have very fond memories of her coming into the music room every time we jammed, and of her "singing" lullabies with me to my granddaughter. She would hear me singing and would climb up into the bed, rubbing up against us and meowing in a musical way. At first, it was hard to get through the songs with both me and my granddaughter laughing so hard. After a while it became the normal bedtime routine with me and Butterscotch singing together. My piano no longer lives in my house but currently lives in my rented studio in Albany instead. I would like to break through the barriers that stand in the way of me playing it regularly, but I need it in my home for that. Moving it up the steep flight of stairs into our living space is prohibitive at this time, but I still hope that one day it will come home again.