Friday, March 18, 2011

Tickling the Ivories

Tickling the Ivories, 2011

"A handful of keys

And a song to sing,

How could you ask for more?

Fats Waller, “Handful of Keys”

One of my great regrets is not having learned to play the piano well. I come from a family of musically inclined people. Music’s in my blood. My parents met singing. Either of them could sit at a piano and play or sing most anything by ear or from sheet music. The local newspaper once called them “songbirds.”

My condition isn’t for lack of love of music. I’m pretty sure music touches me more and more deeply than any other medium of communication. Live music performed competently by people who love what they’re doing is downright rhapsodic.

And my condition isn’t for lack of trying at times. But then maybe the “at times” part is the issue. I took piano lessons briefly as a child. But that was it for years. When my wife and I were first married I discovered that a local university music department had a community music school. If you had an interest in a musical instrument and they had a senior student willing to teach you, you were on for a modest charge. Every Tuesday for a year or two I reported to one of the department’s basement practice rooms after work for an hour of instruction.

Picking the piano up as an adult has its challenges. For one, I didn’t have a piano when I started taking lessons again. I solved that by getting permission from the church next to my office to let me use one of their old pianos to practice on during my lunch hour.

By far the biggest struggle was reading music. It’s not that I can’t read it. It just never became second nature with me. Maybe there’s a missing link in my eye-hand coordination.

It doesn’t help that I did pick up my parent’s ear for hearing music. I can sit down at the keyboard and pick out most any song by ear. But put a piece of music in front of me and it’s like reading hieroglyphics. When my teacher realized I was playing Bach by ear from memory, she quickly moved me into unfamiliar material from Bartok and Scriabin so that I’d have to learn to read the notes.

It also doesn’t help that I have stubby fingers that curve this way and that rather than pointing straight out like they’re supposed to. Good pianists tend to have long fingers. Mine don’t span a single octave without causing a lot of strain.

I’ve always blamed my lack of piano mastery on my fingers, knowing full well that this was a lame excuse. And if I didn’t already know it was lame, it was handed up to me again yesterday when I watched the film They Came to Play again.

If you’re a lover of piano music, you might enjoy the film’s trailer, here. They Came to Play chronicles the experience of a dozen or so people who competed in the 2007 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Talented Amateurs. (“Talented amateurs” means they were over the age of thirty-five and have never been professionally represented.) Every one of the people in this film is extremely talented from both a technical and expression standpoint. The music is gorgeous.

And I’m ashamed to say that at least one or two of the people who made it to the semi-finals have short stubby fingers like mine. One even played the same Chopin prelude that was my showpiece back when I was taking lessons, so well that it was like just another rap across my knotty little knuckles.

So I guess I have no excuse but to get back to practicing.


  1. Oh--Go for it! If you love it, you should! Love that photo and the movement in it.

    I "played" piano growing up, but I'm not good; my older sister is an amazing pianist. I can't sight-read music to save my life, and I, too, memorized every single thing I ever played. She could pound out things like Rachmaninoff's "Ritual Fire Dance," and I'd sit watching in awe. I long ago decided some of us have to be appreciators and some are the real thing: I just don't fit into that category. She does.

  2. I took for years, from age 8 - 18, then went back and took 2years as an adult trying to 'learn' jazz.... another world! I can't play by ear to save my life, but have no problem with the reading... it becomes automatic, and I have marvelled at the curious thing that happens in one's brain... the 'hieroglyphics' go into your eye, and then come out through your hands... skipping your conscious mind! I have heard it compared to learning another language, ( as is math ) and I can see that... you have to get to where you are not longer translating the 'words' in your head to 'english', but it just flows...
    Anyway, I sat down a few days ago at a friend's piano, and tried to play some old sheet music I had, and... I was blocked! Like those marks were foreign! YES, have to get back to practicing!
    Good luck to you, if you enjoy it, then by all means keep at it!