A Little Bit of My History Rolled Away This Morning

A melancholy morning: About 11 a.m. I said goodbye to my piano. The piano is nothing fancy, just a spinet for learning on and practicing on. But it’s the piano I learned on when I was six, so I’ve had it for a long time.

Actually, I didn’t have it for about seven years, from the time I left home and moved to New York City to the time I moved back to California, only this time to the Bay Area, in 1989. Then my parents thought I should have it, now that I was back within a reasonable distance, and they had it sent to me. For nearly 20 years, then, I’ve been schlepping it around every time I move, and never really using it much.

When I’m working on some lyrics for a musical or opera libretto, I use it to hear what the music sounds like. Before my surgery nine years ago, when I was singing a lot, I used it to learn my vocal lines. But really, for those things what I need is a small electronic keyboard I can plug into my computer when I need it and put away in the closet when I don’t. I don’t need a permanent, heavy piece of furniture taking up a big chunk of wall space and costing me money for piano movers every time I move to a new place.

(By the way, AA McCrea Piano Moving in Oakland is terrific and worth the extra money. It’s a show to watch these guys in action, carefully balancing the piano on this or that point like a lever on a fulcrum, so that they’re rarely dealing with its full weight as they take it down the stairs and lift it up into the truck. It’s like piano judo, working with the weight of the piano instead of against it.)

When we moved to the house on Bayview nine years ago, I considered giving the piano away to a school where a friend of mine taught music. But at the last minute Dave and I worked out a way to rearrange the furniture in the living room and squeeze it in. We shouldn’t have; I didn’t use it much and it would have been better to have had a less cramped living room all these years. But of course you hate to let go of things like this because you’re not quite sure how much you’re really going to miss them once they’re gone.

I’m already missing the piano, but it can’t be because it’s going to leave a hole in my life; I’ve used it very, very little in the last nine years. I know I’ll get myself a electronic keyboard when I need it. I know that if I ever want to take up playing the piano again, I can get a new spinet easily enough. And I know I’m very unlikely to want that anyway.

I think it’s grief for the fact that I once thought playing that piano was going to be an important part of my life, and it never turned out to be so. When I was six I started piano lessons with a teacher I really loved — I can’t remember her name now — and I think she could tell pretty quickly that I had interest in learning how music worked but wasn’t likely to ever be much of a performer — things that I didn’t even learn about myself till much later. Along with the practice, she gave me bits of information about basic music theory — the circle of fifths, stuff like that — but didn’t press me too hard about my playing.

At the age of seven I “composed” my first piece of music and proudly showed it to her. It was twelve bars long, I remember — it was all about twelves, in fact: four three-note chords in each measure, and the four chords in each measure had no tones in common, so that the twelve notes of the octave appeared exactly once in each measure. In my foolishness it didn’t occur to me that I should play it on the piano and hear what it sounded like as part of the process of “composition”; I just chose combinations of three notes in such a way that they were spaced more or less like the chords in the music I was learning and so that they used all twelve tones an equal number of times. At seven, I thought this must be how people composed.

My teacher was very amused by this. It was another 15 years or so before I learned about twelve-tone music in college and realized why she had been chuckling.

After about a year and a half, though, my teacher moved somewhere else, and I changed to a new teacher. She never told me anything about the circle of fifths or what the different kinds of chords were; mostly she just criticized my playing and drilled me on scales and etudes and even said a few bad things about how poorly my previous teacher had taught me if she had let me get away with such careless playing. Finally, after four years of weekly unhappiness, I asked my parents if I could give it up, and one of my great regrets about childhood is that I didn’t have the awareness to realize that what I really needed to ask for was a different sort of teacher, one who would teach me more music theory. That was what I had found fun; I never really cared all that much about performing. But at 10 or 12, I didn’t know enough to ask for that.

Might I have become a composer? I doubt it. Since college I have studied more music theory, in an on-and-off, haphazard way, and I’ve always found it pretty slow going. I was talking with a composer friend of mine some years ago and he said he always thought he would write words for his own songs as well as the music, but writing the music always came pretty naturally to him and writing the words was painfully hard and slow. And I laughed and said it was just the opposite for me; I’ve always wished I could write my own music, but writing the words has always come pretty naturally and writing the music is difficult, and then the music isn’t even much good when I’m done with all that work. Not that there hasn’t been a lot to learn about writing words to be sung, too, but I’ve always picked it up pretty quickly and absorbed a lot just from studying lyrics on my own and taking them apart and seeing how they’re put together, and that’s always been fun for me, but doing that with music has always been hard work.

So I figure you’ve got to keep focused on what you’re best at, where your talents are. And I’ve had a pretty good career as a writer and editor that I’m sure I would never have had as a mediocre musician and composer. But there’s always been a part of me that really wishes I could have been a good composer instead of a good writer.

One very good thing about my early piano training that has been of lasting benefit is that I learned to read music at the age of six, so that it became almost as natural to me as reading words. This was a hugely useful skill when I started writing words for songs and musicals and operas later on.

Later on I joined a chorale and discovered to my surprise that I was a pretty good singer, and I learned to sightread and took part in madrigal groups and sang some small roles with Berkeley Opera and a couple of other small companies in the Bay Area. So I’ve been able to pursue music just for fun in other ways. And I’m thinking now it might be fun to learn to play guitar and have an instrument I could take places and accompany myself on.

But when I saw that hardly used piano loaded on to the moving truck this morning, I started to cry a little. Not because I’ll miss the piano. I think I was crying for that seven-year-old kid who lost something he loved a lot when he had to change piano teachers. I was crying because I want to go back with my adult knowledge and do it all over again and this time articulate what it is that I want from a new piano teacher so that my parents will know how to help me find the right one. But hanging on to that piano isn’t going undo what happened or get back the kid I was back then and turn me into somebody I’m not.

I’m giving the spinet to my friend Brent, who is excited to be getting it and who I know will get far more use out of it than I have in many years. And it’s better for a piano to be used regularly and cared for, too. So this ought to be an improvement for both of us.

Even so. (Sniff.)

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