Strike a Chord – Do you play an instrument? Is there a musical instrument whose sound you find particularly pleasing? Tell us about your experience with the instrument of your choice.
My mother believed that children needed not just food and a roof over their heads. We also needed culture. Books. Ballet. Music. Which included playing an instrument.
She had grown up poor on the Lower East Side where so many immigrant groups settled after passing through Ellis Island. They didn’t have much. A tiny flat, two adults and six kids. And a piano.
No one knew where the piano came from, but it seemed to have always been there. There was no money for lessons, but my mother taught herself to play. Not brilliantly, but well enough to bang out a tune and sing along.
When she and my father bought the house in which I grew up, a piano was the first major purchase. First a Baldwin spinet which fit neatly in a corner of the living room.
Eventually, I outgrew the spinet and for my 14th birthday, I got a Steinway living room grand.
Some of my best memories of childhood are little me, sitting on the piano bench with my mother as she sang. Mom sang all the time. Sang, hummed. Half the songs I know I learned because my mother sang them. I don’t think she realized she was singing. It was just her way.
When I was four, my brother was deemed least likely to succeed at playing an instrument. He wasn’t completely tone-deaf, but close. I, on the other hand, could pick out his lessons with two fingers, even though I was tiny and my feet swung, unable to get near the pedals. My piano teacher (formerly my brother’s piano teacher) said “Let him go play stickball. I want her.”
And so began my musical career.
I was a small child. Thin, short, buck-toothed, wildly curly hair. Not a particularly pretty girl. I improved some with age, but classical beauty was never mine. The piano did not care. If I could hit the right keys, it would sing for me. There was no admittance fee to the world of music other than hard work. If you had it in your heart and hands, the piano was yours.
I progressed quickly, though I was never technically as good as I needed to be. I was a good interpreter, but not a great performer. The biggest problem were my hands. Tiny hands. To this day, I can barely reach a 9th with either hand. Most classical music was written by men. With big hands. From day one, I was at a disadvantage unless I was playing “small music” which fit into my little paws. My favorite composers were Chopin and Beethoven, but I had to pick pieces to find those my hands could manage.
Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique” was my performance piece. It was a loud piece, one of the few that made the family shut up and listen. I never got used to being asked to perform, then having all the aunts engage in a lively discussion while I played. It’s a family thing, I suppose.
I never fully conquered Beethoven, though I got close. My hands were small and I lacked the physical strength to take over the piano. It was a struggle. I didn’t notice I was struggling until I got to the Grieg piano sonata in e minor Op 7. When I was a kid, it had yet to be recorded. My teacher thought I was the one to do it.
NOTE: In the preceding performance by Glenn Gould, you hear only the first movement of this sonata. There are three more movements, totaling 28 pages of music. I actually like the later movements best. Glenn played everything too fast, including this piece.
I never worked so hard in my life as I did on that sonata. I practiced until I thought my hands would fall off and every once in a while, I managed to get it right. It was a big piece of music. After months of trying, I knew I would be almost good enough to perform that piece.
I majored in music at college for the first few years, but it wasn’t happening. Almost good enough in classical piano equals not good enough. Because for me, it was piano or nothing — and I didn’t have it — it was over. I moved on.
I still have a piano. An electronic one. The arthritis in my hands has stopped me from playing, probably forever. Still, music, especially classical music, is embedded in my heart and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.