My mother believed that children needed not just food and a roof over their heads. We also needed culture. Art. Sculpture. Literature. Dance. Music. Moreover, a properly brought up young lady had to play 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 pretty close. I, on the other hand, could pick out his music with two fingers, even though I was tiny and my feet were to short to get near the pedals. My piano teacher (formerly my brother’s piano teacher) said “Let him go play stickball. I want her.”
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. Classical beauty was never mine, but classical music was. If you had hands and gave it your heart and hands, the piano would love you in return, frizzy hair and all.
I progressed quickly, though I was never as good technically as I needed to be. I was a good interpreter, but not a gifted performer.
The biggest problem were 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. I was at a disadvantage unless I was playing “small music” which fit 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 conquered Beethoven, though I got close, sometimes. It was a struggle. I didn’t notice how much I was struggling until I got to Grieg piano sonata in e minor, Opus 7. I was 15 and it had yet to be recorded. My teacher thought I could be the one who did 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 like the later movements better. This is not one of the great piano performances because Gould played everything too fast.
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 have a piano today. Electronic. The arthritis in my hands has stopped my playing, but music, especially classical, is embedded in my heart.