Monday, January 19, 2009

piano lessons

Thirty years ago, you took piano lessons. You don't remember how long you kept it up, or if you were any good (except that your teacher told you you had "obedient fingers," for what it was worth), only that you approached the piano like you approached everything back then: with lists and schedules and the expectation that if you just applied yourself enough, and were disciplined enough, you would succeed.

For better or for worse, you use that approach to this day.

Working now on a piece of fiction about a young girl first setting out on a career in classical music, you are challenged to capture the essence of the piano lesson on paper, to evoke what it is like to not just play the instrument, but to experience it at the most basic level, where the senses are engaged. To place the reader on the piano bench, sheets of practice music at the ready, hands in position.

Your first pass at that exercise looks something like this:

For her, the piano was an experience, something that was to be played and listened to, yes, but also understood on a tactile level — inhaled and stroked and consumed with the eyes. Finally, it was something that evoked memory and place, and longing and struggle and mastery, such that in the end, the entire experience was complex and complete, and infinitely satisfying.

She loved the high polish of a grand piano, loved that her image was reflected before her as she played, herself but not her Self, her emotions and expressions and clumsy and perfect fingering all mirrored back to her simultaneously, as though the experience was worth double the expression.

She loved the feel of the keys under the pads of her fingers, the cool of the ivory, long and flawless and weighted to precise specifications, and the shorter, angular black keys that her fingers sought out without assistance from her eyes, sliding over the front or side of each as she played them.

But most of all, she loved its smell, the warm, dusty, secretive scent that was immediate and intimate. Enveloped in an olfactory experience that was at once earthy and synthetic, she felt the world to be — literally — at her fingertips.

There was the intoxicating smell of coated veneer and zesty furniture polish that lingered in wood knots and felt fibers and the grooves of tightly-wound piano wire.

There was the warm and musty scent of felted wool, and the robust combination of a forest of wood from which the body of the piano, from legs to ribs, was constructed — spruce and maple and birch and walnut and sugar pine — as rich and comforting, as earthy and edible and elemental as anything she knew.

There was the tang of metal, of brass pedals and iron piano wire, heavy and solid and sustaining, like the depths of the earth from which they were mined.

And so it goes.

When you were ten, your mom drove you once a week from northern Marin into San Francisco, where you took lessons at the Flood Mansion on Broadway, in Pacific Heights. Twenty-nine miles and some change, each way, covering the entire length of one county and venturing well into another, to sit in that glorious building overlooking the Bay and wait your turn with the metronome.

Back at home, schedule in hand, you practiced your scales and Bach movements and the Beethoven etude (the one he composed for his wife), but with the mute on. Always with the mute on. House rules.

Looking back, you wonder at the lengths (driving to the City) and limitations (practicing with the mute on) involved with this time in your early development, and wonder if you don't unintentionally impose the same opposing conditions on present day aspirations. Could it be that you still set out with the best of intentions to obtain, experience, absorb at the highest level, only to put a damper on things in the in between times, when discipline and practice and just showing up ultimately serve to bridge the distance between dream and reality?

And if you believe that the world rests at your fingertips, then it certainly must be time to reconfigure the old approach, to not only cast your intentions as wide and far and high as you might dream, but to also ease your foot off the mute pedal so that you can experience every clumsy and perfect note you play con affetto — with emotion — and out loud. Very much out loud.
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