MY PIANO HAS been enjoying its new role as a cat tree and doesn’t seem to be lamenting the fact that it has had just one visit of the human variety all week. One measly little lifting of the fallboard so its keys can breathe, and one quick passing of a song as I tripped my way through a Baroque folk tune I taught myself over two months ago. And that’s it.
That’s not me in the video, by the way. Someday I’ll upload narrated recordings on SoundCloud so I can torture your ears and test your patience, but until then you get YouTube videos of complete strangers. I guess I’m kind of a stranger to you too.
Anyway, let’s keep this crash test dummy moving along.
So I have a piano that I’m hardly playing. It’s like my piano is an illicit lover I’m forbidden to acknowledge, and the best I can do is look the other way as I walk by, hoping to catch a glimpse of it in the mirror on the opposite wall as I try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
When I was studying French and then Hungarian, and eventually Japanese, each language became my obsession and the focus of all my waking hours — just like it was with the piano when it first came home. And then, some weeks or months into my studies, I would reach a point of not being able to tolerate the intensity of that crush anymore and would simply stop. The note cards on my walls would come down, the study materials would get tucked out of sight on a closet shelf, and it was just me again: bored, alone and sad that I relinquished something I really enjoyed.
Why do I do this? Why can I only go so far before the thing I love the most becomes intolerable and I shut it down? It’s a very strange kind of love to make me do that, and yet I pursue it until my heart can’t handle the infatuation anymore and I quietly turn my back and leave.
College was like that for me. Much to everyone’s surprise who knew me, the criminology student who became an art history student and who loved French enough to want to spend a year in Provence, was actually quite good at math and briefly became a math and physics major. I was even awarded a small math scholarship.
For some code is poetry; for me it was math, a language so mysterious and beautiful that at times all I could do was stare at a problem, memorize the shape of the stacked numbers, and then wait for night to fall and sleep to take over so that I could solve it in my dreams. And often I did. The next morning I would push back the covers and walk over to my graphing calculator, test the numbers, and sure enough: problem solved.
And then one day I gathered up all my math books and supplies, put them in a box, and never opened it again.
When I finally graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2003, it was with a wordy mishmash of a degree, a patchwork quilt I threw together from scraps: a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a primary emphasis in criminology and a minor emphasis in art history, French and media studies.
If that sounds fancy intellectual, you are wrong. It’s desperate, boring and uninspired. And on graduation day, as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma and my gown static clung to my legs and made my backside look like a saggy elephant butt, I was kind of heartbroken.
The thing I had unexpectedly discovered I had loved was gone, and what was left was a huge pile of student loans I’ve never been able to repay (quite shamefully) and absolutely no sense of what to do next. And so I ended up cleaning houses for three years. I had just barely fallen short of graduating summa cum laude with my 3.89 GPA, and how was I using all of that education? Cleaning toilets and making beds.
It turns out I’m on the autism spectrum. I’m sure that played a role in what happened. But I’m beginning to wonder just how much of this sudden abandonment of the things I love has more to do with fear, the kind of fear lots of people experience and that doesn’t necessarily belong to any particular diagnosis.
To both love something and fear it makes sense. But it can also be a problem. When that fear becomes paralyzing and you end up staring at a tree all day from the lack of knowing what the heck else to do with yourself, time can kind of shove you forward, and before you know it, you’re suddenly 45 years old with nothing but huge debts and gobs of scruffy cats and dogs (and one untamed piano) to show for yourself.
This is something I’d like to explore more in depth someday. I can already see the TED Talk headline: Carla DeLauder on ‘Where love meets fear and everything in between.’
That’s where the crash test dummy steps in and takes over, because there’s no way I could stand on a stage and be coherent. And I’d probably fart and everyone would hear.
JUST WHEN YOU think you’re a fried fritter, a done deal, yesterday’s leftover toast, an unexpected something or other happens and suddenly you’re eggs over easy and feeling fresh and revived and overflowing with curiosity and gratitude.
I must be channeling Hemingway. Just kidding. But that’s just what that dang dinged eyesore of a piano has done to me.
And naturally when one has a piano, one signs up for piano lessons so that it does more than just sit there and entertain the cats. But there was a teeny little problem with that: money. And, of course, that other thing about not wanting to share a piano bench with a Homo sapien.
It’s not like my piano is a magic eraser and just like that all of my problems have vanished. But to wake up every morning and walk into the family room and see a relic from the 1940s that, with some care and coaxing, is capable of producing beautiful sounds — that right there is pretty awesome. And I never intended to find a teacher anyway, so it’s not such a big deal, unless, of course, you happen to disclose in a piano forum your intention of doing without a teacher and get royally pummeled by the self-appointed piano elite, which I guarantee will happen.
The thing about a life changing experience is that it doesn’t belong to anyone but you. And therefore no one but you can even dance on the edges of trying to tell you how to manage and nurture and shape it, because it’s totally yours. You own that thing, whatever it is, and the dummy dingbats that tell you it needs to be coddled with goat skin gloves and fed and milked and groomed a very specific way — the same way everybody else is doing it — well, I have some doggy enhanced mud I’d like to throw in their face.
So I’m tackling piano lessons on my own, according to my unique needs, and it’s dumb for someone to suggest I’m doing it wrong (which some have) or that I’m never going to progress beyond some basic scales.
On a side note, if you don’t know piano but you do know reptiles, kindly put down the iguana and let Julie Andrews help clarify for you the piano version of what is meant by a scale.
I THINK MY basket weaving skills are falling short today, but here’s where all of this comes together: at the piano bench.
My yoga teachers were always fond of telling students to take their problems to the yoga mat for some insight and resolution. But I’m with Sonny Corleone, who simply said, “Go to the mattresses!”
Tom Hanks explains that Godfather reference better than I can, in my favorite movie You’ve Got Mail.
Sometimes you have to go to war and fight for what you love, and so sitting on my piano bench is me going to the mattresses. That bench is where my work needs to be done, where I need to park my cheeks and contemplate what it means to take up arms and stand strong in the face of disappointment and a long string of regrets. It’s easy to romanticize doing this; not so easy actually sitting down at my piano and making it happen.
As I’ve said before, I have nothing to prove. I’m not on a mission to master Bach in a year and then land a book deal where I reveal hard-earned tips on how you too can become a piano maestro in just 365 days. But I do welcome what it would feel like to teach myself how to play the piano — and I would especially love to learn all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias.
Bach’s repertoire is extensive. The Inventions and Sinfonias are a structured collection of 30 short instructional pieces of his that he put together for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. In Bach’s own handwriting, he describes the purpose of this work:
by which the amateurs of the keyboard — especially, however, those desirous of learning — are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obligato parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.
This is where counterpoint and contrapuntal come into play and why I started a piano glossary.
When I stumbled upon the music for one of Bach’s Inventions a few months ago, I was immediately smitten and knew what I wanted to focus on for my lessons. There was something about the structuring of those notes that really drew me in and had me wanting to know just what I was looking at. I’m still not sure how to explain that experience, but that’s what led me to Bach and these essays I’ve been sharing with you.
But sideways glances at my piano through a mirror isn’t going to teach me how to play Bach’s music. I need to sit down at that darn bench and take this fight to the mattresses.
I’M ARMED WITH some carefully culled music books — most notably the Henle edition of the Inventions and Sinfonias (the one with the fingering suggestions). And I’ve just started reading John Eliot Gardiner’s book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. It’s a rather dense read but packed full of great information, and his writing style is very engaging.
For nice instructional filler, I found an Alfred edition of just the Inventions — more commonly known as the Two-Part Inventions — at a thrift store for $1.99. And would you believe the hardcover Gardiner book was free due to Barnes & Noble royally screwing up my order? It gets better: The Henle book arrived damaged and I was granted a 50% refund; and my other study book, the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (also a Henle and a gift from Bach to his second wife), had a similar fate and was fully refunded.
How do these companies make any money if their books are so poorly packaged they arrive damaged? Well, as someone who had to generate some quick funds on eBay to afford a $75 piano — which ended up costing me $69.85, thanks to a $5 refund check on a failed box of organic tampons and the 15 cents I found hiding under the keys — I was elated that my study materials were practically free.
These books are on my piano, and they look good there. They inspire me, and although I haven’t touched them in a good while, I haven’t hidden them away on a shelf in a closet. You, the reader of these wayward tales, and the accountability of producing an essay for you every Sunday (however late in the day, as happened today) keeps me focused and excited.
I honestly don’t know what each installment is going to bring. It’s like each week a new chapter in my life is created on the fly — even though I’m reflecting on things that have mostly already happened. But once again here’s another one for you, and now I think I’m done. Until next Sunday, that is.
See you then, folks!