Friday, February 18, 2005

12. The piano

On my sixth birthday, the front door opened and two large men deposited a piano in our living room. It was a gift from my ancient Aunt Estelle, who lived in an apartment in Forest Hills covered with brocade, dusty velvet throws, and china figurines of cherubs in humorous poses. This was her childhood piano, a dignified Hardman upright with real ivory keys that bore its age much better than she did. My mother had told Estelle that I played acutal chords for my kindergarten teacher the year before, and they both construed this as a sign of genius.

So for the next six years I took lessons from Mrs. B, a former concert pianist from Argentina who swayed back and forth like a rowboat in restless waters whenever she played. Mrs. B, who had a towering hairdo and wore tight, mod clothing, lived in a musical world of emotion, drama, and lots of pedal, even when my feet could barely touch the floor. We covered the basics, but all I really remember studying is Chopin--waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas--with a particular emphasis on the Nocturne in E flat minor, op. 64, no. 2, which took about four years to learn. I swam in rubato, aping Mrs. B's every pitch and yaw, and didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. I wasn't very good at reading the bass clef, so just picked notes that sounded right. Mrs. B was never happy about this, and after a few months each piece was covered with so many red pencil flourishes that I could barely see the page at all. But I didn't mind, because she was nice and never made me play boring scales, and my mother enjoyed the post-lesson glimpses over coffee into her exotic world of childhood stardom and dalliances with conductors.

Although I hated to practice and was so terrified during recitals that I never remembered anything that happened on stage, Mrs. B convinced me to go for an audition at the Julliard pre-school. It was about the same time as my Bat Torah, and I also felt like an imposter. They liked my nocturne, and invited me to be a student. I declined, with my mother's support. I was greatly relieved. Mrs. B moved away, and I soon discovered that singing in a chorus was much a more sociable musical outlet, and knowing how to play the piano--even without any knowledge of music theory--was an asset.

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