Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Piano Lessons

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Create a catalogue of life-changing experiences and it is unlikely piano lessons at fifty would receive much ink. Forsaking one’s worldly goods to side with the dispossessed. The choice to have a child at an age when you risk being mistaken for a grandparent. Reshaping one’s daily routines according to religious codes. All would warrant a two-page spread in the catalogue. Learning to play the piano at fifty?

And yet.

Any kind of change — whether writ large or small — can have profound and long-lasting consequences. To create music, to play Amazing Grace — haltingly, choppily, at a start-stop-start-again pace — is to transform silence into sound.

And so it was that yesterday evening a dozen or so adults of all ages found themselves attending the first class of Piano from Scratch at the Royal Conservatory of Music. One day I’d like to ask some of them what drew them to sign up for lessons that are usually initiated when one is still a child (and often abandoned by the time adolescence rumbles into the station). And I just may, as I’m planning to chronicle the experience of learning to play piano in book-length form. It won’t be – can’t be – a simple account of one middle-aged man’s attempts to navigate new but safe waters, as risk-free as canoeing on a dry river bed. A piano will be more than just an opportunity to learn a new skill; it will be the starting point for a series of essays and reflections, meditations on the theme of transformation.

To change is to transform, as in the story of Nick Troth. I met Nick, who lives on the outskirts of Birmingham, on a recent trip to England and accompanied him on his rounds as a piano tuner. If Nick’s world went through one radical change — he lost his sight in his 20s — other seismic changes are afoot. Piano tuners may soon go the way of blacksmiths: only a few might still be hanging their shingle. Digital pianos will never completely replace traditional ones but their presence has most assuredly affected the likes of Nick and other piano tuners. He’s already seen business drop, and he pictures more of the same in the years ahead.

As we stepped into the room at the Royal Conservatory each of us took a seat at a digital piano. The advantages were clear and immediate: as we plunked away at the keyboard we wore headphones that allowed us to listen to our own attempts at making music while sparing anyone else within earshot. It’s far easier to mangle a tune without the distraction of hearing someone glide through theirs.

Piano = transformation. It’s an equation that Sara Davis Buechner knows well. Sara was once David, a pianist hailed as “an extraordinary young artist” when he made his New York City debut at 24. But when David became Sara fifteen years later, her world was up-ended. Gone were the bookings, from a high of 50 concerts a year as David to a handful as Sara. She persevered and left New York, making ends meet by teaching lessons at a conservatory in Chappaqua. While playing at a summer festival in a converted barn she crossed paths with Carrie Feiner, a classmate from Julliard. A stay-at-home mother of four, Feiner offered to work as a de facto agent. Despite her scepticism, Buechner agreed. Slowly, her schedule began to fill. She eventually landed a teaching position at University of British Columbia, where she’s now a tenured prof and married to a Japanese woman who was her interpreter when Sara was David. Sara is now up to 60 concerts a year. Hers is a story worth exploring, a story where music is both the backdrop and front-and-centre.

And then there’s Francesco Lotoro, a pianist from the southern Italian town of Barletta. His magnum opus is best rendered in its original Italian, a flowing phrase that is musical and melodious: the Dizionario della Letteratura Musicale Concentrazionaria, works written in World War II concentration camps. A tango scribbled in a diary. A waltz recorded on a shred of a paper. A piece of jazz scratched onto a piece of toilet paper. Lotoro’s dictionary is part of a larger project: a library housed in Rome’s Third University that will house 4,000 papers and 13,000 microfiches including music sheets, letters, drawings and photos. The Rome library will include works by Gypsies imprisoned by the Nazis; chorus songs by Dutch women interned by the Japanese in Indonesia, and the music of Edmund Lilly, a U.S. colonel from North Carolina who wrote songs and poems as he went through various Japanese camps. Also in the library are the works of Berto Boccosi, an Italian captain who started writing an opera while held by the Allies in an Algerian camp.
For some 15 years Lotoro has travelled around the world, often alone and at his own expense, visiting museums, archives, antique shops and meeting with survivors or their families in his quest to assemble a living tribute to those who persisted in making music in the midst of death and destruction between 1933 and 1945. Music – and music lessons -- takes on a whole different meaning in this context.

As we place our fingers on the appropriate keys and follow the numbers teacher Ann Edwards walks from student to student, underscoring the need to hold our hands in the proper position (with a degree in theology as well, she has her own story to tell). Suddenly, I have a new-found respect for all the seven-year olds I saw perform at recitals when my daughters took (short-lived) piano lessons. But despite the challenges there is a deep satisfaction in, quite simply, making music where there was none before, however ragged it might be. I’m not playing Amazing Grace with much grace but I’m playing it.

5 comments

I'm so glad you liked the Collins poem, Emil! I hope that you and your old friend continue to enjoy getting to know one another again.

Hi, Karen,

Thank you for the lovely poem, and for introducing me to Billy Collins's work. There are so many turns of phrases that I've revisited: "every key is like a different room"; "every scale has a shape"; "the familiar anthems of childhood"; "this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile."

I thought of "the familiar anthems of childhood" today when I was at a music store and saw a piano book aimed at adults who were returning to play piano and had clearly abandoned it as children, as so many do. The cover featured black-and-white photos from the 50s and 60s of various children seated at pianos, and it made me think about the relationship one could have with a piano. To return to it, the book title suggested, is to renew a relationship with an old friend, to rekindle a bond broken by time.

Regards,

Emil

Nice piece, Emil. Interesting you should mention Buechner; perhaps you heard Jian Gomeshi's interview with her, which was my first introduction to her.

Anne

Hi, Anne,

Thanks for letting me know about Buechner's appearance on "Q", which I hadn't known about but will track down. I first read about her in the New York Times and find her story so compelling on so many levels. Gender, politics, arts...It's a heady mix that I hope to explore more fully down the road.

Regards,

Emil

Emil, Thank you for the blog. I cannot resist cutting and pasting into this comment box one of my favourite poems by Billy Collins, in case you have not come across it:

Piano Lessons
By Billy Collins

1.
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

2.
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

3.
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

4.
I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

5.
I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

6.
Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page