Better than a Book Club

Everybody has a friend who’s in a book club. If you want to start one, you can buy a book that will tell you how. Some books even come with “book club” guides to tell you how to lead a discussion on that particular book.

I think what makes book clubs so successful is that they give people a place to talk about something that is an otherwise solitary experience. Reading a book is a wonderful thing, but often when you finish it you want to say, “Didn’t you just love the part where Annie finally told John that she was leaving him?” and have someone say, “Yes. I thought she’d NEVER do it.”

Practicing the piano can be as lonely as reading a book. You play for your teacher, but that's not always enough. It's important to have a place to share that experience with other people who can understand and appreciate your hard work.

My adult students get together about 5 times a year. We always meet at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons (in honor of Vladimir Horowitz, the illustrious Russian pianist who would only play on Sundays at 4pm.)

I hold these gatherings at my student Dave’s beautiful Victorian apartment. He’s a retired psychiatrist with a gorgeous Steinway and a home full of art. Sometimes there's a painting missing from his walls when it's on loan to a museum. His home is peaceful and comfortable. Yesterday he filled his huge crystal vases with star gazer lilies and blue irises. It was a chilly, rainy day so he lit a fire: the perfect atmosphere for an afternoon of music.

Yesterday:

Judith, a college professor, played the Schumann piece, "Child Falling Asleep". Though she began as a complete beginner just over ten years ago, she has developed into a beautiful pianist. She is at the top of her field professionally, but playing the piano for others is a challenge to her nerves. Yesterday she won the battle over her nerves and we got to hear her gorgeous playing.

Richard, a retired transportation engineer, played the Bach C Minor Prelude & Fugue from W.T.C. Book II and El Puerto by Albeniz. He has played the piano his whole life and taken it up with gusto in his retirement. He's getting better all the time. Yesterday he played especially well. His next piece will be a Haydn sonata and he's excited to get started on it.

Barbara, a grandmother in her late 70's, played six pieces from Schumann's "Davidbundler" absolutely gorgeously. She plays with such love and passion. She looks like a grandmother who would love to bake you some yummy cookies; she plays like a demon and is a most professional musician.

Dave, our host, played the first movement of the Bach E Minor English Suite. After many years of not-so-subtle hints from me, Dave finally worked on this piece consistently with the metronome. It was fabulous.

Sruti, a high school senior who drives more than an hour one way to study with me each Friday afternoon, (that's parental dedication!) played the Mozart D Major Rondo and the Chopin F Major Waltz. They were both brand new pieces and they were sparkling and full of energy.

Finally Yung-Yee, a senior piano major from Stanford University, played the Bach B flat Partita and the Chopin Ocean Etude. Yung-Yee is a petite young woman who surprised everyone in the room with her incredibly virtuosity and passionate playing.

One of my favorite things about teaching piano to adults is the marvelous mixture of people who meet through music. I enjoy bringing together people who would otherwise probably never meet. I delight in the conversations that unfold among people of different ages, races, and professions.

And I bet they'd all agree with me; it's better than a book club.

Football and Piano

Yesterday my friend Meg came over. It had been a hard day.

My 8 year old daughter’s hamster died.

Evie found the hamster dead while I was watching football. Professional football. The NFL. Yup. Me. Concert pianist, writer of piano method books for children, recording artist, specialist in the music of Bach and Ravel; I was watching football. I wanted to be left alone because things were close in the third quarter. It was the playoff game between the Cowboys and the Giants and the lead kept changing. I didn’t care who won as long as it was a good game. I suggested she go check on her hamster and make sure it had food. Oops.I turned the game off immediately. I still don’t know who won. I’m not a bad mother.

Meg wanted to know why I like to watch football. I thought about it for a while. It’s because football is the complete antithesis of classical pianism. If I’m playing a concerto with an orchestra, we’re all on the same team: working together to create something beautiful. It’s about elegance and refinement and subtlety. There’s a conductor who lovingly keeps us together by making pretty patterns in the air with her hand. (Football has a coach yelling things from the sideline.) No one jumps on top of me. I’m never in physical danger. (Something my mother always rejoiced in – especially when I fell off the balance beam in junior high and knocked myself unconscious in my one and only gymnastics meet.)

Football? Football is ugly. If you have the ball, a guy can jump on top of you and hurl you to the ground. In fact, that sort of behavior is encouraged. If you get caught going beyond the realms of football decency, which most times you won’t, the worst thing that can happen is a 15 yard penalty: that’s for an extreme personal foul like “face mask”. Your team gets only a 15 yard penalty for you grabbing a guy’s face mask, spinning his head around and trying to make him resemble Nearly Headless Nick.

When I’m playing a concerto a lot of things can wrong. I can miss an entrance or come in early. I can rush and get ahead of the orchestra. I can play too loud or too soft. (Technically called “Balance problems” as in, “There were balance problems in the second movement.) I can play too passionately and get lost. People may hate my performance. The audience can even get up and leave. But I’ve never one been thrown to the ground in my line of work.

Now that I think about it, that’s not exactly true. I did. About two years ago I was in New York City rehearsing with five singer and dancers. One was the fabulous Bebe Neuwirth;. We were in a small underground rehearsal space whose walls were covered with mirrors. There was a scene in the play we were rehearsing, Here Lies Jenny, that involved two guys boxing in a bar. One held a padded circle while the other guy hit it repeatedly. I was playing music with heavy beats that coincided with the punches. It was the first day of rehearsals and we were all a little excited. The first time the boxer boxed he got too excited. There was a chain reaction. He boxed. The guy with the padded disc backed up too far with each punch. The studly dancer landed on top of me, the piano bench leg cracked in half, and I fell off and landed on the floor with said studly dancer squarely on top of me. It could have been worse.

No referees gave out a penalty. My head was still attached. The leg on the piano bench was broken for good. We all picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and started all over again. Sometimes, piano playing can be just a teeny, tiny bit dangerous. But it doesn’t even come close to football.

I love to watch those guys playing rough. It’s the perfect antidote for classical piano playing.