It’s not a big deal when a student forgets her scale, arpeggio, and total assignment, then drifts into a casual reading of “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio.
Albertina, 13, had brought a coffee-table size anthology of popular tunes to her last lesson. It was indexed by Movies Themes, Broadway Show hits like “Annie,” and some contemporary Christian hymns like “You Raise Me Up.” She basically played through the melody without yet having explored the bass line.
Great! This was a wonderful duet opportunity I did not pass up.
(Over school vacation, students were sniffing daisies, taking hikes, and playing computer games. Finding time to practice was not the norm so I was impressed with Albertina’s initiative.)
In the past, I’d played off-season duets with Allyse, a 16-year old, who was enraptured with the Beatles and Taylor Swift. Both she and her brother, Alex, had invested enormous energy downloading pieces they wanted to study in lieu of Bach Minuets, and Clementi Sonatinas–not to mention, SCALES!
After a bit of cajoling, however, they always compromised, taking their musical vitamins beside treat pieces.
I noted my journal entries about these excursions into popular music that were accompanied by a treasure trove of personal memories:
“Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms was playing pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe, playing a hands divided version of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons, in any case, was the natural follow-up to these explorations. If nothing else, they had historical value.
“I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear-jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.
“Melody permeated the most rhythmically-driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,’” another ear-grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo-strumming beat.
“Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!
In the late 50′s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker-tape parade down Wall Street. I had a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing an initiation rite by fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.
“I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.
“My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky-Korsakov’s the Easter Overture, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.
“So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.
“Fast forward the clock: Today, Allyse practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always,” agreeing to a slow and steady tempo.
“A few months ago, she begged to learn them. Meanwhile, older brother, Alex,dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice in virgin form without fingering. My work was cut out for me.
“Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades, but still on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.”
A Piano Lesson with Alex, 17, as he practiced his favorite, “Liz on Top of the World.”