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Piano Practice

A shared love of playing the violin by my parents brought me into this world. Set up on a blind date by mutual friends, it cemented their relationship. Once married, my mother gave up the instrument, and my father played nearly every night of his life.

He practiced in the downstairs den wearing his baggy blue boxer shorts and white undershirt, with his chin cradling the dark wooden instrument, and the bow in his right hand hovering over the strings. I like to imagine the violin was a source of great pleasure, a refuge, because I play the piano and practicing can sometimes be the most enjoyable part of my day. Why else would he have played every night?

My father was self-taught, and was most likely the reason he showered his own children with the benefit of piano lessons, which began for me at the tender age of six in the living room of Mr. Levy. Mr. Levy had a lump poking out of his head, barely covered by his sparse hair. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. A baby grand took up most of the room and when I sat down on the piano bench, my feet swung freely.

I was overwhelmed by this huge instrument with its mysterious black and white keys beyond my reach, but my father wanted me to play and I was an obedient child. So I held back my tears as Mr Levy showed me where middle C was, right below the S of Steinway, and explained the sequence of notes—C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The explanation only served to deepen my apprehension and I turned my head to look at my father who sat nearby. He smiled and nodded his head to reassure me that everything was all right. I calmed down and the lesson proceeded.

Mr Levy was a patient teacher. And while I was not fond of the lessons, I enjoyed learning how to read music. I cannot recall when or how the change came about, but at a point, we no longer went to his house, and he came to ours. I did the best I could, and my brother Burt became a star pupil. I envied his talent. Despite his gift he gave up the piano after he left home, while I continued to play.

Growing up in suburban Long Island in the 1960s we spent a lot of car time clamoring for control of the radio. My father listened to classical music in the car. FM stations at the time did not exist, and the sound was occasionally scratchy across AM airwaves. It amazed us that he could unerringly identify the composers of quartets, symphonies, and concertos. Little stumped him. If my mother wasn’t with us, we fought over who would sit in the front seat because that person could reach the radio dial. When my mother occupied the front seat, we pleaded to turn the dial to WABC, for the top 40. DJ Cousin Brucie pronounced each of the station’s call letters in a drawn-out howl. We wanted to hear the Beatles, Beach Boys, Supremes, and Tommy James & the Shondells. My father had the final say over what station we listened to. When we wore him down from our incessant whining, my father caved. .

In hindsight, our music must have been jarring to his ear.

My father and mother were lifelong devotees of Carnegie Hall, but they did not take their children to hear the concerts performed there. I’m not sure that we would have wanted to go with them. We loved Rock n’ Roll. It was only as an adult that I developed a serious interest in classical music. Near the end of my father’s life I went with him and my mother to Carnegie Hall, where we heard the renowned Vienna Philharmonic, one of the great orchestras of the world. Sitting near the front of the baronial cream-colored hall in some of the best seats in the house, we were quietly transfixed by the sound of that big orchestra. After the performance I noticed my father walked a little more upright and with a bit more spring in his step.

I thought about my father a lot during the first year of the pandemic, when the piano became a source of comfort, a refuge in uncertain times like baking sourdough bread or knitting a sweater.

During that year, I tackled Prokofiev's second sonata, a piece in four movements encompassing some forty-one pages he composed in his early twenties. The movements were tempestuous, even grotesque, yet simultaneously tender. An especially poignant moment occurred at the end of the first movement when the notes murmured like tolling bells. Were the bells for his father? He wrote the sonata around the time of his father’s death. As I played the somber notes, I thought of my own father who died ten years earlier. An image of a violin is etched on his gravestone.

My teacher, an accomplished pianist from Eastern Europe trained in the classical repertoire, guided me through the passages, urging me to listen deeply Mr Levy did not teach me to interpret music, perhaps because I was too young to understand. Playing through a passage where dense cascading chords were relieved by a simple melody, my teacher likened the passage to rain steadily falling against a window until it slowly tapered off. Her insights helped me to hear the sonata in an entirely new way, and during the worst days of the lock-down I fell in love with this sonata and cherished its dissonances.

Despite hours and hours of practice, I wasn’t able to play the sonata at the composer’s intended tempo and couldn’t manage to hit all of the right notes. Frankly, I will never play the piano well but it doesn’t really matter. I play for myself and my teacher. The repertoire of music written for the piano is seemingly endless, a treasure that can be revisited countless times. When I was a growing up I struggled to practice. Now I willingly sit down to play and the time spent at the keyboard passes without notice, like a kind of meditation that is deeply pleasurable.

Still there are times when I become discouraged by a particularly difficult piece of music. When that happens I overcome my reluctance by remembering ,my father, who never abandoned the violin.


Marjorie Shaffer is the author of Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. She lives in New York City with her two cats and practices piano most days.

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