Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I discovered, in composing this post, that I have just learned why I don't bike or swim right, either.

What's the common thread here?

I wing it. There are better ways to do all three, and I envy people who "can," but they can because they've learned properly in the first place.

In the last several days I've made reference to playing the piano very well even though I don't read music well. Shirley commented on this and I feel the need to elaborate.

I don't read music well because I resisted, I refused to learn. I was stubborn. My ultra-musician mother tried to give me piano lessons starting when I was about 6, partly to debunk the myth that parents can't teach their own kids. The experiment served only to reveal the myth as truth, at least in our case. It didn't work for my mom to set piano-lesson time, specify assignments, and enforce practice time.

I practiced on my own. I practiced what I wanted to practice. I practiced by ear. My mother played the accompaniments for choral arrangements she was working on with her high-school kids (she morphed from a professional soloist into a school music teacher) and I listened and then played them myself. Yup, both hands, full chords and arpeggios, when I was 8, by ear. I had no interest in the little ditties in the Learn To Play books. I did learn enough to play the stupid beginners' pieces in the books, but I fought my lessons. I sassed. I sulked. I got dragged to the piano bench where I sat with my hands in my lap. I won. Eckstein got put away and I played Ol' Man River by ear. My mother gave up. My music-reading never went beyond the second book.

When I was about 11, we moved, and one of my mother's new friends was a piano teacher. They thought I might be happier with a neighbor than my mother as a teacher. It might have worked, but by then there was a new fly in the oatmeal: I couldn't see. I was hiding this because I didn't want to be a dork and wear glasses. I did learn the neighbor-lady's music, at home, on my own, squinting at one note at a time, with my eyes 3 inches from the music, the piano-room door closed for secrecy. I memorized them. Then I played the pieces for my teacher, she coached me on any rough spots and wrong notes, and she and my parents were pleased. When my teacher presented me with new music during a lesson, I refused to play it. I said I couldn't bear to play it without practice in her presence when I could learn it on my own and play the polished result next week.

For a while it worked. But she was suspicious. One day she insisted I take a stab at a simple new piece. I swallowed. I sat. I said I didn't want to take lessons anymore, I was making more progress on my own. I'm quitting. My teacher had been watching me stumble around obstacles other than sheet music and she told my parents she thought I couldn't see.

I was busted. I went to the eye doctor. I got glasses. I refused to wear them, until one day, trying them by myself where no one could watch, I discovered I could see individual leaves on trees and the mortar lines between bricks.

So now I could see. I still refused piano lessons, having hated both go-arounds with them. I learned by myself. I still read one note at a time, though, as I'd been doing for years. I learned the accomaniment to "The Swan," the Schubert and Bach/Gunod "Ave Maria"s, and played them along with my mother's cello. She and my dad (also a professional musician, a trumpet player with Vaughn Monroe back in the Big Band Era) said I played as artistically, sensitively, and generally beautifully as any pianist they'd ever heard. I listened to what I heard coming from my piano and I knew that they were right. I'd heard plenty of music and musicians in my environment and I knew that what I was playing was outstanding. They didn't push about the lessons anymore. I was doing it on my own. One note at a time, but once I went through a piece of music a couple dozen times, I had it memorized, and could really start to lean into it. "Moonlight Sonata" took me a month to crawl through and a summmer to perfect.

During all my high-school years, I was the organist at a small rural church. I'd get the hymns a month ahead, explaining to the pastor that I really needed that much time to work on them. It would take me probably 20 seconds to figure out each next chord, finger by finger, dot on the staff by dot on the staff. But I nailed them and I played them on Sundays.

SWIM NOTE: I got Girl Scout swimming lessons, from a certified instructor, but I had to take my glasses off to swim and never got comfortable in the water because I couldn't see.

I agreed to voice lessons. I loved my vocal instructor, who was also my choral director and French teacher (and I actually learned from her to speak French, which I still do, quite passably.) I could read the music for my voice lessons, since there was only one note at a time to sing. She accompanied me and it sounded good.

One day she was late to my lesson. I occupied myself on the piano waiting for her. She stood outside the door listening to me playing "Moonlight Sonata" (she hadn't known I played piano), and when I was done, she walked in and asked where I'd learned to do that. I told her, by myself. She said, "Would you like me to help you?" Gosh.... no edicts, no directives, no coercion: "Would you like me to help you?" The ball was in my court. I accepted. So we started spending half of each voice lesson on piano work.

I told her I could only read notes one at a time and had to figure each one out. She asked me to show her; I tried one of my vocal accompaniments, and she said, "I see what you mean." And she said I could take my music home and learn it at my own pace and she'd help me with details like fingering, touch, and expression. She was the piano teacher I had needed all my life: she saw what I could do and what I needed, and not only let me do it my own way; she OFFERED to do it my way because she saw that that was the only way I could do it. She was an elderly nun at my Catholic high school. She's dead now. I hope she sees from Heaven how much she influenced me, because I never told her, because I never realized the magnitude of it till she was dead.

I wanted Debussy's "Claire de Lune." She gave it to me. I learned it over a couple months. It became my specialty. She gave me Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# Minor." She gave me whatever I asked for and I struggled through it until I could combine my ear and my memory and produce amazing music.

I sang at weddings and in church at Christmas and Easter and played the piano in my living room and voice studio.

I graduated. Went to college. Played the piano in the dorm lobby. Got married. Had no piano for 6 years. Got a basement freebie and learned more Rachmaninoff ("Prelude in G Minor") on my own, along with a lot of Chopin and more Beethoven. I played my old favorites from memory. This was a slow process. It had been so long. But the fingering that my voice teacher INSISTED on (she was a BEAR for fingering, one of the things I convinced my mother didn't matter)led me back to where my ear couldn't take me and the music slowly came back under my fingertips. I even tackled the 31-PAGE "Rhapsody in Blue." I never got all the way through that one, although I learned much of it.

Anyway, if you've read this far, you're almost done. You now understand how I can be the pianist I claim to be without really reading music.

And, extrapolating this to my swimming and biking..... I do those the way I read the music. One note at a time. One swipe at a time. One pedal revolution at a time. One arm-recovery, one kick at a time. I read books and try to do what the books say.

I guess I should take lessons.


Downhillnut said...

You're obviously too stubborn for lessons, and smart enough to learn what you need anyway. No wonder you've accomplished so much!

Anonymous said...

Great essay!

Our lead guitarist in Crooked Finger doesn't "read" music though he can pick out the notes one by one. He couldn't see the reason to sit through boring lessons when it was so much easier to listen a few times, noodle, around and then play.

Love your stubborn nature. :-)