Back to the roots

I’ve been avoiding talking too much about my own musical experiences here with the exception of some discussion of my family’s love of opera. Opinions yes, but not first-person experiences. But — and perhaps this is midlife crisis talking — I’ve been getting nagged lately by a little voice in the back of my head that’s telling me that it’s time I had access to a piano again.

My entire way of looking at and listening to music seems to have changed lately. I seem to have become aware of the fact that I can love music and love its theoretical structure at the same time. I know that sounds silly, but the only way I can think of to explain it is to describe what I’ve only just realized about my own experience as a musician.

I took lessons as a child, starting at age 10 or thereabouts. It wasn’t a terrible experience, and I enjoyed it. I certainly didn’t hate it. My parents were proud and supportive, and I know my father loved the fact that I played. But the music itself seemed to exist as nothing but a set of spatial relationships between the keys, and it was my job to make the correct shapes with my hands. The music was nothing more than the means by which I knew I had done this. I had my favorites out of the pieces that I played — I liked Clementi’s 5th sonatina more than the 4th, but not for any really emotionally engaging reason. Part of why I liked it was probably because I was better at it, although the third movement was a bit of a bugbear for me in terms of timekeeping. I would always try to rush it. I detested anything written in B or Bb, mostly because the shapes it made in my head and on my hands were so off-balance and ugly. It’s a sadistic key for any piano composer to use.

But I don’t think I felt anything for the sound, really. I wouldn’t listen to piano music for pleasure, with the exception of Scott Joplin or Billy Joel, and I didn’t find a trove of Joplin’s sheet music until I had been out of lessons for about two years. Until then, I simply played what my teacher set in front of me. It never occurred to me to sound out anything I heard and liked on the radio with the exception of “My Life,” nor to take emotional ownership of the music I played. It was a series of shapes in space that my fingers had to make, and the music was just the feedback mechanism that told me when I had done it properly.

Neither I nor anyone in my family listened to classical piano music very often for fun. Orchestral and opera? Sure, tons of it. Tons of voice. Voice, voice, always the voice. I could be transported by Luciano or Beverly Sills, or Art Garfunkel. But, as much as Vladimir Horowitz was always held up as something to attain, I can’t even remember having listened to him once. Not once. If I did, I can tell you now, it must have left me stone cold. He was a machine to be emulated and absolutely nothing more.

The music I listened to and loved was something else. Opera was something else. Styx, Foreigner, Billy Joel, Journey, and Queen was music for fun. So was Beethoven’s orchestral work, Mozart’s works, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, Leoncavallo. I smiled spontaneously at Beverly Sills singing “Una voce poco fa” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Horowitz clicking and blinking his way through anything with machinelike perfection? Not one blood cell would move faster. There probably is a great deal of feeling and emotion in his work, but I never felt it. Again, the sound the piano made was nothing but the way I knew I had moved my hands properly.

I never had any real discussions with my music teacher about theory — and I hasten to add that I remember her with great fondness. I never really chose what I wanted to play, and when she informed me that I had reached a level of proficiency that demanded that I begin specializing, I said Chopin for no reason other than that it was expected. Chopin was “pretty,” and simply what you played if you had big hands.

I never actually thrilled to the noise that came out of the instrument until that day when I propped “The Maple Leaf Rag” up on the piano and heard that sound come out when I started to play (although Billy Joel came close!). That was the only time I ever sat back in surprise and laughed. It was the first time I ever liked the sound for its own sake instead of simply hearing it with satisfaction as an indicator that I had made the correct shapes in space with my hands. The piano had been like a power tool for me. I made spatial objects with it, but the noise was almost incidental. Like hearing the water pump grind on a car, it was just feedback to let you know when things were going off.

It wasn’t until that day about a year ago when I was listening to music through YouTube and realized that Steve Perry was hitting a clean, solid Eb above a tenor high C — clean, solid, and with a lot of headroom over it — that I realized that the stuff I listened to and liked was the same sort of stuff as what I was supposed to have been playing.

Effectively, I realized I could take emotional ownership over not only the music I chose to listen to but the music I might choose to produce. What came out of that piano when I was a child should have been mine, and it wasn’t. It was an incidental waste product.

And now I don’t want it to be. I want to try finding a piano (a Clavinova sounds lovely, but will require no small saving on my part to obtain), sitting in front of it, and just going where I want to go. Headphones, too — this will belong to me and only me, and if I choose to share it with anyone else, it will be by my own damned choice. I’m not interested in making anyone happy but me.

Perhaps all along I should have sang. Perhaps then I might have loved both the sound and the experience of getting it right. But singing in front of people scares the hell out of me, and besides I loved and still love using my hands too much, and adore the idea of shapes in space. Perhaps I just had to reach this point in my life where that realization had to be made. Perhaps when I was 15, this was simply awaiting me, nearly thirty years in my future, and I just had to walk the path to arrive at it.

Whatever the reason, bless that glorious high Eb for prodding me into this realization even if it will mean that I’ve got to shovel some three grand into my savings account before I can get started on it. But at least now, with everything I hear, I’ll be thinking about what I can do with it when I have the wherewithal. Freddie Mercury and Handel had both better watch out.