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playing by heart

The red piano. No, not Elton’s, mine. And not really a piano but an electronic keyboard. But yes, it’s red – bold, bright, and undeniably present – sort of like me on my good days. And it’s found a place in our home and into my heart. (Also into B.’s ear, but he’s been really good about that.)

“Can she play?” you ask. I certainly could, once, and have the stats to prove it. Ten years of weekly piano lessons on our living room upright starting at age seven. Daily practices ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. Two teachers.

The first, a portly old man who had played classical piano professionally at one time and had conducted at another. Evidence of the latter was his showing up at our home each week with a conductor’s baton, the better to help his students stay on rhythm. Until one day, after my little fingers had slipped off the correct keys into dissonant territory yet again. The frustrated maestro had had enough and the baton came crashing down on my knuckles. My scream – more of fright than of pain – brought my mother running in from the kitchen. And quicker than a mama bear can save her cub from danger – and almost as ferociously – she ejected the monstrous maestro from our home in a flash. Brava, mom.

My second teacher was a really nice man who played in his own combo most nights and taught during the day. He’d arrive each week with a battered leather case holding tons of sheet music, and he was patient and kind and instilled in me a love of playing. (Not practicing, necessarily, but playing.) For the $10 weekly lesson cost, he’d also provide me with one piece of classical music (his choice) and one piece of “fun” music (mine). And that is how, to this day, I know the lyrics to so many old pop songs, American standards, and showtunes – it’s all from that sheet music and my attempt to sing as I played. (Sort of like singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror and pretending to be on stage – all I needed was a tip jar atop the piano and I was famous.)

He also went a step beyond ordinary piano lessons and taught me about music theory – how to play scales in a variety of keys and in a variety of methods (parallel and contrary); how chords are constructed; how to notate music and how to transpose it from one key to the next. Not only did I work on the two piano pieces he left with me each week, I also had a big blue music notebook with theory homework.

It was the music theory part that is responsible for my new red keyboard. While I have rarely touched a piano since ending lessons at 17, I guess the love of playing has never left. Last week, I was explaining to B. exactly how two hands play at the same time; how the right hand is usually the melody, the left hand the accompaniment; how you can create chords for the left hand by knowing the key the music is written in. From there I launched into a talk about scales, about harmonics, and about how to read music. When I stopped to catch a breath, he had just one thing to say:

He: “We need to get you playing again.”

Me: “What are you talking about? We don’t have room for a piano.”

He: “Then we’ll get you an electronic keyboard.”

Me: “But what if it bothers the downstairs neighbors?”

He: “We’ll get one with headphones.”

Me: “But what if I can’t play anymore?”

He: “You’ll relearn it.”

Me: “But what if I sound terrible?”

He: “I’ll wear earplugs.”

Me: “But what if I never play it?”

He: “But what if you do?”

Ah, the man makes a good argument (always has) – and he knew what he was hearing in my voice when I explained some of that music theory to him last week. It was passion.

And so we found the perfect keyboard for me. It has only 61 keys instead of 88 for space reasons, but I don’t think that in all my years of playing I ever needed the top or bottom octaves much at all. It offers all kinds of options for different sounds and effects, but I very happily keep it at the basic piano setting because that’s what I want. It came with a stand and the promised headphones, as well as a cushioned bench, and fits perfectly into our den, where B.’s pool table (a scaled-down version) has had pride of place for a few years. And did I mention it’s red?

After one day of ownership, I’m proud to say that I’ve mastered Bach’s “Minuet in G” (who knew that you can now buy sheet music online and print it out?). Plus, a book of 50 great songs is arriving today (all very sing-along-to, with “Hallelujah” and “Moon River” being at the top of my list). Most wonderfully, the ability to read music has never left me – I find that incredible and awesome and very good news.

And so on I play. Lots of sharps, loads of flats, more than the occasional missed note, many more than hoped-for-at-this-point perfect notes. It’s like finding an old friend after years of not even realizing how much I missed her.

Me and my little red piano. Heart and soul.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

One comment on “playing by heart

  1. Wonderful knowing all about your young self. Isn’t it nice that our brains never let us forget. Loved it

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