Let S Tickle The Ivories (On The Joys Of Playing The Piano)


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The Joys of Piano Playing & Music

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Let S Tickle The Ivories (On The Joys Of Playing The Piano)

  1. 1. The New CriterionFeaturesFebruary 2012Lets tickle the ivoriesby David DubalOn the joys of playing the piano.There is an old proverb that goes “Play the piano daily and stay sane.” For me, the main word of thisproverb is daily. Playing the piano daily means inevitable accomplishment, and, without a sense ofaccomplishment, life is an impoverished journey.Machines have taken us away from our hands. In his last days, Rachmaninoff continually practiceda composition he never performed. One of his last statements was: “Farewell, my dear hands.”Today, we are starved for a deep contact with our hands. The poet Edward Dahlberg felt “our handsare already very stupid and morose. What can we do with them? What do we do with them?” Let’sget back to our hands—they are craving good work. At one time, the terms “handmade” and“handcrafted” meant a great deal. In schools, the young are no longer taught to write in script.Handwriting provided the first glimpse of individuality. What a thrill to see our beloved’shandwriting in a letter. And what of drawing, once an essential form of education? Painting anddrawing are no longer common practice. Goethe, sickened by the Babel of words, counseled, “Let usdraw, instead of talk.”There is wisdom, so I say, let us play the piano. Non-verbal music reaches into the depths of theunconscious. There is nothing so satisfactory for our hands—physically, sensuously, andartistically—as playing the piano. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of playing a small piece ofBach or Schumann. If you can’t play a Bach invention perfectly, or even imperfectly, try to do it,and you will come to agree with me. The path to such an achievement asks for focus, discipline,attention, a delicate sense of touch, musical feeling, and more. Good practicing is meditation withoutthe mantra. When you commune with Bach or Schubert, you can reach the heights of MountParnassus, where the atmosphere is rarified.Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes “If something isworth doing, it is worth doing well,” but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something isworth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adultsshould take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children shouldbe given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It mustbe a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’tserve the ego’s craving for recognition.When I was a student, I had an adult who studied with me. The man was gifted in a number of ways.He took his lessons seriously and worked hard. After about two years, when he thought he hadmastered a group of compositions, he could not resist showing off. He rented a small hall and aSteinway and invited a large group of friends. I told him that this was a mistake, as he had no idea
  2. 2. what kind of super-mastery was needed to play in public. He was a self-absorbed, flamboyantcharacter who thought he could pull it off with his usual flair, as he did with his acting and dancing.In the green room before the little concert, he was stunned to find his legs and hands shaking beyondcontrol. Still, he went out to face his audience and made a complete fool of himself, flailing in everypiece. The next day, he called me angrily, saying that he was quitting; he didn’t love the piano, hetold me. I told him I thought that was a good idea. I never saw him again. His narcissism excludedthe possibility of properly loving music. The piano is not only a severe taskmaster, it asks that youpossess character. If you have the temerity to play publicly, you are all alone, and the way youperform and your preparation tells a great deal about who you are. In a clash of wills, the piano willalways win. Robert Schumann wrote, “The hearing of masterworks of different epochs will speediestof all cure you of vanity and self-adoration.” Playing the piano teaches one much, especiallyhumility.The piano offers a variety of avenues for musical growth. The novelist E. M. Forster says of his ownperformances upon the piano that they grow worse yearly, but never will I give them up. For one thing . . . they teach me a little bit about construction. I see what becomes of a phrase, how it is transformed or returned. . . . This gives me a physical approach . . . which cannot be gained through the slough of “appreciation.” Even when people play as badly as I do, they should continue; it will help them to listen.To listen acutely is something that few achieve. Artur Schnabel put it bluntly, writing, “The intimacycreated by listening to a piece of music (even repeatedly) is superficial compared with the result ofrepeated playing or even reading of the music. The aptitude for reading music as one reads wordsshould be cultivated by everybody who is fond of music.” The fact is that, today, reading music, anelementary form of musical literacy, has become rare, and many music critics do not possess thisability.One of the most wonderful aspects of piano playing is learning and developing the ability tosight-read (score-read). What an adventure it is! As this skill develops, all of music becomesavailable to the pianist. If one is really curious musically, this is the greatest of feasts. The amateurprobably doesn’t have the time, patience, or even the desire to hone a piece to high technical polish.Who cares! That’s for people who play in public, those who deal with the professional andcommercial apparatus of music. Over time, I have realized that the amateur who constantlysight-reads is often a more cultivated musician than the performer who slaves away polishing andshining every phrase. The fine sight-reader may not be a concert pianist, but he knows how to use apiano.In orchestral music, good piano arrangements will bring out clearly a score’s roots. In the process ofdiscovering them, one learns to be a conductor. Really getting to know Mahler in piano reductionsgives us a real appreciation of his orchestral mastery. If opera is one’s passion, piano reductions onmany levels are ideal in developing a deeper understanding of the operas of all epochs. If one isserious about internalizing the depths and complexities of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, there is no betterway than slowly plodding through the arrangements of Karl Klindworth (an important pupil of FranzLiszt). Nothing could reveal Wagner’s stupendous mind better. All the performances on all thestages of the world cannot bring one closer to these “music-dramas” than one’s own two hands.Another enchantment is the endless piano reductions of music for four hands, including the originalduet literature itself. In Robert Musil’s classic novel The Man Without Qualities, Clarisse and Walterplay four-hand piano, “unloosed like two locomotives hurtling along side by side. Seated on theirsmall stools, they were irritated, amorous, or sad about nothing, or perhaps each of them aboutsomething separate, only the authority of the music joined them together.” During the Civil War, a
  3. 3. something separate, only the authority of the music joined them together.” During the Civil War, aUnion general and his troops marched into Holly Springs, Mississippi, with the intention ofdestroying the little Confederate town. Looking at a beautiful mansion, the general walked in, saw afine grand in the parlor, and began playing. Upon hearing the music, a beautiful young womandescended the long staircase. After a few minutes of conversation, the pair discovered that they hadboth studied in New York with the same teacher. The very next day, he again came to her home andthey played duets. On taking his leave he said, “You and your piano take the credit for saving HollySprings.”The invention of the piano was the greatest event in the history of music. As a cultural artifact, it ispeerless. Through its existence, music expanded into many unexplored regions of feeling and form.The arts are spiritually and emotionally interconnected. Nowhere is this heard more clearly than inthe song literature of the world. The piano’s developement in the last quarter of the eighteenthcentury was accompanied by an unprecedented burst of lyric poetry in England, Europe, and Russia.The new verse captured personal feeling through a rediscovery of the vernacular. Thenineteenth-century Romantic composers were nurtured on this literature, and, from Schubertonward, dozens of them set their national poetry to voice and piano. With the piano, poetry found anew and expanded life. Such composers as Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky,Fauré, Debussy, Strauss, Borodin, and Rachmaninoff used the piano with an uncanny sense ofdescription and detail. Just imagine any of these “art songs” being sung with harpsichord. It wouldprovoke laughter.The piano is also without equal as an artistic and social medium. It is found everywhere, fromtaverns to the White House, in churches and houses of ill repute. Wherever it is, it always beckons tous. One day, while visiting a nursing home, I encountered a shiny ebony grand in the cheerful sittingroom. I asked the attendant if anyone played it. She responded that a few people strummed on itoccasionally. Why, I asked, was the piano here? Her response told much. “Sir, the piano is herebecause it makes everyone happier just to see it. Most people have grown up with a piano.” Indeed,many families strove to keep up with the Joneses in purchasing this expensive object, hoping toenrich their lives with music while watching their children grapple with the magic box, beingbrought to beauty and culture as they progressed through the classic purity of Clementi’stime-honored sonatinas.The piano represents a sense of continuity which lives on today in dozens of subtle ways. Discardinga piano feels so sacrilegious. Recently, I saw an old upright degraded on the street. I looked at itwistfully, knowing there is still a lot of music in those old keys. While I was standing there, othersalso stopped, looking sadly at the lonely instrument. One woman exclaimed, “How can anyonethrow a piano away? A child should have it to begin piano lessons.”Emerson wrote: “’Tis wonderful to see how quickly a piano gets into a log-hut.” When Oscar Wildemade his lecture tour in the wild and woolly mining towns of the American west, he was touchedwhen he saw on the wall of a saloon a big sign reading “Don’t shoot the piano player, he is doing hisbest.” Growing up in Texarkana, Texas, Scott Joplin was taught the piano for pennies by one of themany poor immigrant musicians pouring into the United States. In Joplin’s case, his teacher was aGerman Jew. Later, the creator of classic ragtime made his living by playing on uprights in thebrothel parlors of the Missouri Valley region. Those rickety instruments spawned a generation ofAfrican-American ragtime virtuosi. When a client entered, the working girls hallooed for theprofessor to set the mood for their daily (and nightly) labors.Alas, there are too many pianos that go unplayed. The world has changed drastically since the dayswhen the piano was the centerpiece of a home. Few people now play instruments other than their CDplayers or iPods. Silence doesn’t exist. Homes are flooded with the odious noises of television. The
  4. 4. internet has robbed us of time and life itself, becoming the world’s major addiction.Once parents bought a piano to give their children the “finer things in life”—a middle-class phrasethat now sounds quaint. George Gershwin, living a rough-and-tumble life on the streets of NewYork City, would say: “The piano made a good boy out of a bad one.” The moment he had heardAnton Rubinstein’s Melody in F played at a penny arcade, he was mesmerized. A piano would neverleave his sight. Today, the piano is seldom in the living room. Children now play video gamesinstead of Mozart.We can no longer quite grasp what the piano meant to society in its heyday just before World War I.The instrument was almost deified while a mighty race of piano virtuosi round the world played theclassics. Paderewski and many others were celebrities of the first magnitude. At the height of pianoproduction in 1911, 310 piano manufacturers produced 376,000 pianos in the United States alone. Itwas no coincidence that 1911 was also the peak year for immigrants streaming into the country.In 1915, Irving Berlin, who grew up with his piano, wrote the song “I Love a Piano.” Popular musicwas changing American culture just as was Henry Ford’s Model T automobile. Years after “I Love aPiano” was composed, Judy Garland sang it with Fred Astaire at the upright in the movie EasterParade. The song is a delight: I love a piano, I love a piano. I love to hear somebody play Upon a piano, a grand piano. It simply carries me away. I know a fine way to treat a Steinway. I love to run my fingers o’er the keys, the ivories. And with the pedal I love to meddle, When Paderewski comes this way. I’m so delighted if I’m invited To hear a long-haired genius play. So you can keep your fiddle and your bow Give me a p-i-a-n-o, oh, oh, I love to stop right beside an upright Or a high-toned baby grand.By the time World War I had started, however, phonograph sales pulled ahead of piano sales for thefirst time, and piano sales began to decline. Consumer culture was replacing the do-it-yourself ethic.When the Great Depression hit, the piano industry was a fragment of its former, glorious self. Fromhundreds of firms of piano-builders, only three dozen or so survived.Once a house could not be considered a home without its piano. The psychological warmth of thepiano in the parlor had a profound effect on family life, which was now beginning to slowlydeteriorate. I am amused by present-day politicians who mourn the death of what they call “familyvalues.” I would tell them to call for the return of the piano in the home. Before the endlessproliferation of canned music, mothers played for family and friends a variety of music, from hymnsto sentimental popular songs, while feet moved to the current dance craze, and many a romancebegan near a piano. There may even have been flashes of radiant beauty when mother played thefirst movement of the Moonlight Sonata. D. H. Lawrence describes almost unbearable nostalgia fora mother playing to her child in his magnificent poem “Piano”: Softly in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
  5. 5. of the tingling strings And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.The piano still exudes an aura of allure and romance. I was delighted with Joe Queenan’s 2009essay in The New York Times Book Review, “Play It Again. And Again.” He wrote, For the past few years, whenever I’ve found myself down in the dumps, I have turned to books that contain the word “piano” in the title. Immediately, the dark clouds fade. . . . The very fact that I am reading a book that has something to do with the glorious old 88s invariably lifts me out of the engulfing gloom. Perhaps this is because of the elegance and majesty of the instrument itself, or because the very word “piano” is reassuringly beautiful. Or perhaps it is because I, like so many other baby boomers, have long dreamed of playing the piano but have had to settle for being able to strum a few primitive Neil Young songs on the guitar. Whatever the reason, “piano” is evocative in a way no other word for a musical instrument is. I do not get the same emotional payoff when I read Come Blow Your Horn, The Advancing Clarinetist, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Tin Drum, The Cello Player, The Vanishing Violin, The Little Drummer Girl, The Soloist, Gideon’s Trumpet, Young Man With a Horn or even Corelli’s Mandolin. The word “piano” itself possesses an ethereal charm that the nomenclature for other musical instruments lacks. Words like “harp,” “English horn” and even “viola da gamba” do nothing for me. Literature pertaining to the banjo or the flugelhorn isn’t even in the ballpark. And just forget about books like Accordion Crimes. The accordion is a crime.My least favorite name for an instrument is “organ.” But the name is not the thing, and the centralfact is that Beethoven did not compose his thirty-two sonatas for the bassoon. This greatestcelebration of music could only have been created for the piano, or if you prefer, the pianoforte—itcan, after all, play very loud indeed. Truly, the piano is “the king of instruments.”Writing in 1946, the art historian Bernard Berenson noted that “man seems to have begun as an artistand only in the last hundred years has he succeeded in emancipating himself from art completely,exchanging the possible Phidias in him for a Ford.” In the intervening years, the population hasbecome greatly alienated from art. Fewer and fewer know who Phidias was. When did you last meeta sculptor? In his 1897 novel The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ Joseph Conrad writes of the artist who“binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living tothe unborn.”All of us, consciously or not, crave art. The novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote, Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born—they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art—the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility—or we ignore it. The truth is, artists or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives.Almost everyone who played the piano as a child and quit wishes they had stuck with it. But thepresent is here. Take charge. Go to concerts. Buy recordings. The great pianists each have differenttraits beyond their own specific tone. Rubinstein’s noble simplicity, Horowitz’s eroticism, Lipatti’s
  6. 6. purity and elegance, Gieseking’s lavish color wheel, Kapell’s scalding temperament, Cortot’svisionary imagination, and Gould’s asceticism are waiting to be revealed to you.The piano recital is still a singular and exciting event. Keyboard virtuosity in itself remains aglamorous thing: the nimble muscularity of scales and arpeggios dashing down and cascading up thekeyboard; octaves coruscating through the great concertos; the lid of the grand opened, the feetquivering on the pedals—the sheer danger of it all is breathtaking. And is there anything morerewarding than mastering a Bach fugue or conquering the exhilarating pitfalls in one of Liszt’stranscendental etudes?The piano is a shrine to the human spirit, an instrument so perfect that it has permeated the lives ofthe great composers. In its literature are compositions for every level of attainment. It is said that inChina thirty million people study the piano. That’s quite a good start. Let’s go country by country. Iactually believe that playing the piano may save the world. But forget about the world and saveyourself.David Dubal is an American pianist, teacher, author, broadcaster and painter.more from this authorThis article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 February 2012, on page 17Copyright � 2012 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Let-s-tickle-the-ivories-7274