THERE THE PIANO rests, just 15 feet from my perch on the kitchen stool. These are my feet, mind you, not the standard definition of a foot, as in twelve inches. I’m not sure this even matters, but my point is this: she’s there, I’m here, and something won’t let me get much closer than a quick heel-to-toe measurement before I run back to the safety of the stool.
When I was a kid learning how to play the piano, I couldn’t sit still long enough to get through a couple of warmup scales. I so dearly wanted lessons, but the whole experience was really frustrating for me: having to sit close to someone at the piano, the bright white music books, the unpleasant feel of the paper, the shadowy lighting near the piano, the songs I was given to learn, etc. That’s why my lessons only lasted a year. It’s called autism, although no one had a clue back then. Had we known to advocate for what I needed so I could relax and focus, I doubt I would have stopped playing.
Piano lessons aren’t an option for me at this point in my life, and not just because I can’t afford them. The thought of having to sit in close proximity to someone at a piano still really bothers me; it would be way too distracting and uncomfortable. But even if I had the funds and wanted to give lessons a fair try — and the teacher could sit at a different piano — the chances of finding someone willing to adapt their teaching to my learning needs is very unlikely. There’s a learning process all new piano students go through, but I hear and see and feel and think a bit differently than others. If I have to tiptoe my way through the learning process à la the standard way of being taught, I’m likely to up and quit and turn my piano into a cat tree.
And the thought of having to suffer through “When the Ants Go Marching In” and the “Mexican Hat Dance” and other similar songs found in the beginner’s books for adults the teachers use — definitely not an option. Like, really, really not an option.
When Bach entered my life not too long ago, I suddenly had focus and vision and purpose — and I knew exactly where I wanted to start with piano and what I wanted to learn, and there isn’t an ant or a Mexican hat in sight. You can read all about my music selection and my custom approach to learning piano in next Sunday’s essay.
As I’ve mentioned previously, this isn’t a project website. I’m not on anyone’s timeline but my own, and I have absolutely nothing to prove. My sole objective is to simply document my piano learning process and how piano and Bach have profoundly changed my life.
And, folks, it really is profound, but I’m struggling, and so once again I’m going to hand things over to the bears.
NOW THAT I have my very own piano and it’s been here two months, that feeling of hope and possibility I had when I first brought it home — the same feeling I had when I started lessons as a kid — has been squashed a bit by some stage fright and jitters and the grandness of something so exciting and right I’m unable to do much more than open the fallboard and run my fingers across a couple of keys. It’s kind of oxymoronic to declare that my piano makes me feel panicked and wobbly and inspired and awed all in one fell swoop, but it really does.
On the one hand, it’s like my piano has suddenly morphed into an exotic jungle creature, not yet tamed, and my job is to teach it how to sit and roll over and quietly cuddle against my chest during naps. This makes me think of my dogs. You can take a chihuahua to a doggy salon and get the thing cleaned up and polished and trimmed and rhinestoned and bowed, but at the end of the day, without any training, you are its hostage and the furball in the pink tutu your master and commander.
Three of my four dogs are some odd blend of chihuahua, so I know what I’m talking about. Without some training, they will ruin your life. I’m not saying the fear I have of my piano is in the same genre of fear I have of untrained chihuahuas. My piano isn’t going to sit on me while I’m sleeping and play Rachmaninoff over and over again until I can’t stand it anymore and I slip into a catatonic state and stay that way for the rest of my life. But the fear is there, and as of today, I’m not sure what to do about it — although I think that’s probably kind of okay. I’m not declaring this a piano emergency, not yet anyway.
And then you flip that silver dollar over and there is Johann Sebastian Bach, ever faithful and patient, and Simone Dinnerstein’s interpretations of his Goldberg Variations and his Inventions & Sinfonias that keep me going, and Inbal Segev’s beautiful Bach Cello Suites. These three albums are my piano sustenance; I listen to them throughout each day and they’re often the last thing I hear as I’m falling asleep at night.
Pianists and book authors who are a part of my self-education is yet another up and coming essay, but for now just know this: Bach has done a number on me, and no amount of piano fear and trepidation (and missing piano parts — yep, another essay) has diminished his presence in my life one little bit.
DESPITE THE LACK of pennies in my bank account, there always seems to be room for unexpected necessities, such as an old, scrappy, discarded and sorely neglected bear made from solid cement.
A few days ago, I found a bear in the outdoor donations area at a local thrift shop, tucked alongside two huge tires that had been transformed into planters. The bear had seen better days, and I started to walk away, when his sad and dull eyes turned to me, and he said in a wistful voice, “I’m not much different than that piano you rescued, you know.”
It was a rather desperate plea for someone to love him, so I very tentatively walked inside and asked the cashier about the bear. She said what bear and followed me back outside, searched for a price on his chalky white body and said I could have him for $4.99. But that’s the equivalent of two packages of Trader Joe’s turkey bacon. You can’t eat the bear for breakfast, but you sure can eat the turkey bacon.
The decision was easy: I’m sorry, bear, but no. After a quick scan in the kitchen section for vintage carbon steel knives, another newfound love of mine, I told the husband I’d wait for him outside and adverted my eyes as I walked past the bear — and almost made it to the truck when my dumb feet turned me around and walked me back to the cashier.
“One sad looking bear, please,” I said.
Just that morning I sold a 1930s milk glass light fixture and happened to have some cash on hand. Cash is dangerous in the wrong hands. Quicker than it would have taken to pull out the debit card and my ID, I was out the door and scooping up an incredibly heavy and dirty bear into my arms. It wasn’t until we were pulling out of a grocery store parking lot a little bit later that Rich caught a flash of white out of the corner of his eye, whipped around, and saw the bear seat-belted into one of the passenger seats in the back.
Yes, we were with bear and my husband didn’t know about it until we were on our way home. The piano was kind of a spur of the moment purchase too, and Rich had no clue until I asked him to please set some time aside on the weekend for moving a piano. But that’s not the connection I’m attempting to draw between bears, piano and Bach.
WHEN I PUT the bear on the deck when we got home and then stood there and stared at him, I had what can only be described as a Red Violin moment — one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way. I literally stood there and remembered this brilliant film I’d seen years ago when it first came out. That movie is worthy of an entire essay or three. And there she goes again, more essays. I’ve already got the equivalent of an entire book well under way in this, my fourth week of piano essaying.
But, really. The Red Violin, oh, my goodness.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you absolutely must. Most of my favorite movies I’ve seen multiple times, but this one I’ve only seen once, and my memories of how that movie made me feel are vivid and fully real to me, almost as if they’re on auto-play in my head and all I needed to do was something as simple as buy an old bear and there it was again: the story of a hand-crafted violin from the 1600s and the numerous and intricate stories it collects as it passes through time, until it reaches a modern-day auction house in Montreal and is put up for sale.
My bear and my piano aren’t worthy of an auction house, but they are dear to me. These seemingly unrelated objects time traveled before I knew them and collected stories and experiences along the way, until the perfectly right moment when they aligned with the life of a wild-eyed redhead in the woods and came home with me.
The bear has only been here a few days and already I’ve scrubbed him raw and removed most of the chalky, crumbling white paint, unearthing a whole other bear underneath. And then I scrubbed that away too until he looked like one of the discarded ancient relics I found littering the back of a Roman historic site in Budapest some years back.
The more I scrubbed, the more familiar he became, until just today, on this very Sunday morning, I scrubbed one more time — delaying the morning arrival of my piano essay in your inbox — and there he was: perfectly, wonderfully, recognizably mine, as if he had always been my bear. And soon, when I can afford to buy some hemp oil to refinish the deck, he’ll get a nice protective coating to help ensure he’ll be with us for a very long time.
And how this crusty old bear relates to Bach goes like this: he doesn’t, not really, or not directly anyway. But bear and Bach do both begin with the same letter (a bit of a stretch, I know), and they both ground me and fill me with awe and hope in the way that only something old that has been made new again can.
When I heard Bach for the first time — really heard him, as Rosalyn Tureck lamented in one of my favorite essays of hers — it’s like this man’s work had been hidden away in a German monastery for the last couple of centuries and was just unearthed, fresh and ready for my ears. This is what Johann Sebastian Bach has come to mean for me.
The piano, the German guy in the white wig, moose, and now a bear: it’s all very contrapuntal in how these standalone stories layer together and weave themselves into an ever-unfolding story just for me.
This all started on Valentine’s Day this year and already the threads keep expanding. When I linked to the Roger Ebert review of The Red Violin (see above) and read it this morning, I made a pretty amazing discovery: this movie was co-written by Francois Girard and Don McKellar, the same duo who co-wrote 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, an awesome film about a truly amazing man. I had absolutely no clue about this connection.
Dare I say you can someday expect an essay from me about Glenn Gould? He was a dynamite pianist, but it was his approach to playing and his quest for the perfect (to him) piano and what that revealed about him that has me totally enamored.
There, I think I’m done now, except for one more quick but heartfelt story.
THIS IS FROM a reader named Stephanie, who shared this with me in response to the very first essay I posted on Moose Notes. Her story really touched me and stands as a good reminder of why so many people love having a piano in their home, even if that piano can’t be played.
In 1955 on Christmas Eve, our home in Yuba City was all but destroyed by a terrible flood. I was in 7th grade. My piano was hauled out to the gutter in pieces. I was blessed by a love of playing but little talent. I continued taking lessons through my senior year and could only practice at school. I wanted a piano more than anything but my parents weren’t able to get me one.
This last summer a friend of mine posted a picture of her mom’s piano on Facebook. $250.00. I went to see it and tried to tell the lady she was asking too little for it but she stuck to her price. I bought it. Another $200 to get it moved and $175 to get it tuned. Still a bargain. I was in heaven!
I still have all my old music books and played and played. Fate played a miserable trick on me and I developed gout in my hands. My right hand is stiff and painful, the left not so much. I’m happy to see my piano but can’t enjoy playing it! Your essay reminded me of all I went through these 60 years to finally have a piano again!
See you next Sunday, folks. I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to send me a note and say hello, and please do share my essays with your friends and family. Thank you!
P.S. In the hopes of earning a few extra pennies now and then, I’ve included some Amazon affiliate links in this essay. It’s my first time doing this, and it’s the only advertising you are ever likely to see on my website. This is just a placeholder while I figure out the FTC requirements for posting affiliate links. Once I’ve got it figured out and fully up and running, I’ll remove this block of text.