Last night I sat down at the piano in my studio for the first time in a long time. My mom likes to remind me that I studied piano for more years than I did violin, and it contributed as much if not more to my overall music appreciation. She’s right (grumble). But I never found that same connection to teaching piano or the community of playing piano as I did with violin.
I had two different piano teachers in my life. Both of them are now deceased. Mr. Leviton started me at age 3 and took me through age 13 or so. And then the last three years of high school I moved on to Dr. Isaak, at Northwestern University. He was the one who thought I was absolutely NUTS for not continuing to study music in college. He said I was already at the level of a typical Master’s Degree student at Northwestern! I simply ignored this, or dismissed it as the rantings of someone as lunatic as you must need to be in order to become a professor of piano.
In retrospect, I missed out on some great learning by not being open to him at the time. He was someone who was absolutely IN LOVE with all things piano. He was known for his undergraduate survey course, “Piano Repertoire”, in which he would cover the entirety of piano literature over the course of the school year. I sat in on one of his lectures when I visited Northwestern as a high school senior – the university’s overnight, “sell themselves” pitch weekend for prospective incoming freshmen. The class was held in a small room within the Victorian style building that housed the School of Music. It was designed for maybe 20 people maximum. There was a Steinway in the room, where he was seated. And there were about 40 to 50 people cramped in all corners of that room, sitting on the windowsill, on the floor, even standing. He had a stack of piano music on one side of the music stand and he just flipped through each of them, bringing them up in front of him as he talked, playing excerpts from certain pieces, telling stories, all at a rapid-fire pace. It was like watching a grandfather flip through photo albums of his family, filled with love, joy, memories, admiration, pride. And there we were, the students, wide-eyed, trying to take something in from all of this stream of consciousness and knowledge imbibed over a career of studying, teaching, playing. No one could take notes. It was just too fast! There was no textbook, it was just the entire oeuvre of piano literature. I don’t know what the exam for that class must have been like. I’m just glad I didn’t have to take it. But I am sorry I didn’t get to sit through the entire year of lectures.
Last night I sat down and took out my Dover edition of Volume One of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas (there are two volumes, each about 200 pages). I remember the dark black sky of the painting on the cover of the book. The oversized pages. Dover (the publisher) always chose beautiful, classical paintings that matched the era of whatever music was in each of its volumes. There’s an Impressionist painting on the cover of the Debussy Preludes, and a Romantic painting – one with a full moon over a landscape – on the cover of the Beethoven sonatas.
I turned to the piece I performed in its entirety as part of my senior recital – the Op. 2, No. 3, in C major. Allegro con brio is the tempo indication for the first movement. I tried the first phrase. To my astonishment my right hand could still do those thirds! I remember having such a hard time with them even when I performed the piece, never getting my 3rd and 4th finger to do quite what I wanted them to. But tonight they just did it. Was it the result of not thinking so much? I didn’t care why, I just kept playing it over and over again, incredulous, wanting to prove to myself that this apparent success-without-practice was just a fluke.
That first page is marked with Dr. Isaak’s characteristic narrow, tall cursive handwriting. “With vigor”, he translates above the tempo indication. “2 styles: 1. singing, 2. brillante” reads another corner. “Fun” he has in red colored pencil. He had a way of making me choose words to capture the mood or approach to a piece that really annoyed me at the time. I was an ornery 16-year-old high school senior who just wanted to move on to the “real” experience that was awaiting me in the free adult world. I clammed up at his attempts to get me to describe how I felt about the music, or what the words he chose meant to me. I had a terrible attitude toward learning. I must have been a nightmare for him to teach, especially during that last year. I remember my parents’ attempts to converse with me about my sullen moods and silent treatment of my teacher during the lessons. Those conversations didn’t go very far. I still don’t fully understand what was eating me at the time.
But as I played through every single page of that 30-page Sonata last night, I felt the gift of being in the presence of genius. Of being able to touch it. Of getting a little closer to it than the average person who never played a Beethoven piano sonata, much less studied it with a professor of piano who could work himself into a tearful soliloquy on just what a great, great man Beethoven was. This happened, actually, at one of my lessons, and my dad and I both felt very awkward at being present at such a personal, emotionally poignant moment for Dr. Isaak. We obviously did not know how great a man Beethoven really was. We would have to settle for just feeling the sense of loss for not being as close to Beethoven as Dr. Isaak felt himself to be.
The closest I got – which I now appreciate as being a lot closer than most people in the world ever get – to Beethoven’s greatness was studying those sonatas. Not just figuring out how to get through them once. But practicing, studying, memorizing, and then performing one in its entirety. It’s a different level of mastery, to live with something like that, for over a year, and then give it all you’ve got in front of an audience. The thing I didn’t realize even at the time of that performance – held in the small, low-ceilinged living room of Don and Bea Isaak’s South Barrington (Honey Lake) home – was that it would stay with me for this long.
I felt that I was visiting an old friend as I played that sonata last night. It wasn’t just Beethoven. It was my teacher, Dr. Isaak. Seeing his markings in the music while sitting at the keyboard brought me right back to his small studio on the second floor of the School of Music, with two Steinway grand pianos, side by side. On his wall, among many photos of himself with other musicians, was a sign that said, “Work smarter, not harder.” Sitting on the floor nearby was a large barbell with fifteen pound weights on each end. He would sit perched on a tall director’s chair to my right, or, when he wanted to demonstrate, at the bench of the second piano to my left. My dad, who usually drove me to those lessons, could be found lightly snoozing in the antique upholstered chair in the corner.
Things that I didn’t even know were still stored in my arms, fingers, and body just flowed. It’s not that I was able to actually play the piece at the level of the performance I gave so many years ago. But I felt pangs of memory at various points in my playing, things that had been embedded there from the struggle, the study, the repetition, the closeness you achieve when you have the urge to understand something. Those sixteenth note ascending arpeggios and broken octaves on the first page, punctuated by grand chords in the left hand, showed me two things: there is nothing like the grand sonority of a big chord played on the piano, especially a Beethoven chord; and, piano playing really is an athletic activity. My breath and pulse quickened as I played over that passage a few times, not only because of the excitement and “vigor” of the music but the sheer physicality of moving at that pace and for those distances across the keyboard. My hand, unaccustomed to the stretch of an octave, especially after years of computer mouse training, felt sore from the new demands I placed on it.
Not having anyone to please, I also listened with enjoyment to myself. I enveloped myself in the sounds – some of which may have inched toward what Beethoven intended, but most of which were crude approximations, approaching meaning in the way that a baby’s babbling speaks to us without our fully understanding its meaning. It was healing in a way that I imagine all acts of memory to be. When we relax into a memory, and allow our bodies to experience it, we can accept who we were and who we are more fully.
I was filled with such gratitude for so many gifts I had been given in my life – the opportunity to practice and study over a continuous period of time so that I gained skills; the opportunity to learn from a passionate piano scholar who tried to share his love of music with me; and the opportunity last night to sit at my own piano, in my own studio, and just play for fun. To make a visit to an old friend like Beethoven – to count him among the friends I now have the ability to revisit – is something I know is the result of many, many people investing many, many hours, over many, many years in me.
I am reminded of this quote, which my mom used to say as one of her stock “old Chinese sayings” when we were growing up, and which I recently saw on a walk through San Francisco:
“When you drink water, think of its source.”
To me, right now, it means, to remember and feel gratitude for the many generations who have led me to this moment in this life, when I get to sip the healing water of my own memories.