I’m fortunate to be working with five adult students who love the piano and its repertoire. Their enthusiasm is at high volume–keeping the live wire connection between student and teacher bristling with energy. Regardless of busy work schedules, they still manage to connect with the piano often enough to make lessons worthwhile.
I met Michael, a middle-aged attorney at the Discovery Shop of the American Cancer Society when I was helping to sell donated pianos of all shapes and sizes. At 6’5″ he bent over to ask if I taught piano. (He had dropped out of lessons as an adolescent) In a matter of months, he was barely making it through my standard size front door without having to carefully watch his head as he entered.
After a year into his piano studies, in 2007, he agreed to perform the Clementi Sonatina in C, op.36 no. 1, at one of my home recitals in the company of a dozen children. It wasn’t exactly the perfect scenario for an adult who stood apart from my other senior league students who ran like the plague from this opportunity, but he was willing to give it a try.
I remember that awful day in infamy. As Michael rose from a folding chair when his name was called, he slammed his noggin into my chandelier. Ouch!!! Audience gasps met his head on collision, memorialized on videotape. It would have been an America’s Best Home video winner though a glaring setback in my student’s performance career. The bump threw him for a loop, and he barely finished his Clementi in one piece.
Michael recovered from the impact of that event, and was amenable to carry on and play for his peers at one of my evening soirees. As it happened, not one other adult student was willing to actually sit down at the piano. All opted out, and volunteered to bring a side dish instead or a centerpiece of cheese and crackers. Through a process of elimination, or musical chairs, I ended up programmed as featured soloist but I summarily declined, so it’s been years and I’m still waiting for the green light to plan one of these low keyed events.
Outside the performing environment, however, most of my adult students are not as stubborn or resistant.
Through almost six consecutive years of lessons, Michael, for example, has grown to love the classical repertoire with his special affinity for the works of Beethoven. Time and again, he’s set aside months to dig deeply into every sonata movement, parceling out voices, analyzing harmonic progressions, and getting a handle on how to physically connect into the keys to produce a singing tone and a varied palette of dynamics.
He likens the physical dimension of playing the piano to his experiences on the tennis court so we’ve been using this metaphor over and again.
I drew on my own years playing tennis when I was insane enough to awaken at 4 a.m. to join my partner up at the tip of Manhattan in Columbia University’s bubble enclosed clay court. There I learned how to chop shots at the net with an angled wrist; hit an overhead smash with a certain delay in the follow through, and slam balls to the baseline with a swooping forearm motion. I had to be relaxed in all these efforts, centered, and very focused–a model zen master as described in Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis. (The book had been widely circulated among my students along with Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase)
Michael picked up on the tennis lingo and tossed back a few zingers–like how he had to tune out crowds at a match when he was semi-pro though it was a mighty chore. It required being immersed in the moment, silencing any distraction, and letting his muscles loose. Relaxation mantras all over again, with no need to rush the ball even though it often appeared out of reach in the course of long, arduous volleys. I thought about Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds following a mile high baseball in center field, making an an over-the-shoulder running grab without a frenzied pursuit. The graceful player appeared to follow the orbital missile in the company of deep, natural, flowing breaths, being at one with it in flight. His most impossibly elusive catches were made like they were pieces of cake. How could I not learn from such great athletes, applying their smoothly executed efforts on the field to the piano.
Michael certainly identified with the sports terrain and its relationship to piano playing. Once we completed our athletic routines, romping over the keyboard with every permutation of a selected scale and arpeggio, we were ready for the repertoire portion of the lesson.
Fast forward the clock.
Now that Michael’s been weaned from Beethoven sonatas that were the mainstay of his lessons for years at a time, he’s opened himself up to learning Debussy’s “Arabesque,” no. 1 with its colorful, nuanced, impressionist palette.
Who knows, with that awful memory of his head bump evaporating with time, he might soon consider another opportunity to play for his peers, even if he’s the only one game to do it.
Post Script: Michael has come a long way since his shaky performance in 2007. He can navigate the complex landscape of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and the presto movement of the composer’s “Moonlight” Sonata. All in all his pianistic skills have improved and he relishes his musical journey in the company of a lovely Kawai GE-20 grand that I selected for him in Berkeley, California.