A LONG STORY ABOUT MY EARLY MUSICAL CAREER
My mother and I are walking down Broadway in Bayonne, N.J. to see about me starting piano lessons, sort of like an audition. I am now seven years old and basically clueless about taking piano lessons, which is my mother’s idea.
The teacher’s name is Eddie Goldman. He was in the Medical Corps in WWII and served in London during the Blitz. Then he went on to Juilliard where he was friends with somebody named Lenny. Lenny went on to become Leonard Bernstein; Eddie met up with Fritzi and they settled in Bayonne and he was my piano teacher.
So he has me stand next to his grand piano, which has the lid open. My mother, all dolled up as usual, sits in a chair facing me. The idea is he is going to play some notes and I am supposed to tell him if it’s a step or a skip. I should add here that I have already been told by my mother that I can’t carry a tune, something I continued to hear for years until I met up with The Duchess in my junior year of high school, but we'll get to that in a minute. How my mother expects me to tell a step from a skip is a bit obscure, but here we all are in Eddie Goldman’s front room where he teaches people how to play the piano.
He plays a couple of notes and to me it sounds like a step and I say “step” and he nods. He plays a couple of more notes and at that point I can see that the hammers inside the piano move whenever he plays notes. The moving hammers are far apart this time so I say “skip.” Actually I can sort of tell the difference in the sounds, but I’m going with what I can see, and beside that it’s pretty cool to watch the hammers moving up and down.
We’re moving along nicely, Eddie Goldman looks happy, and suddenly my mother realizes what I’m doing. She jumps up, grabs me, puts her hand over my eyes, and she’s saying “no, no’ you can’t look, Michael.” I’m furious, trying to pull away, I really hate when she does stuff like this, especially when she calls me Michael like that and then I can hear Eddie Goldman laughing. He tells my mother “any kid who’s smart enough to figure out how a piano works is going to do just fine with me.”
So that was the beginning of my musical education, not that I was ever going to play in Carnegie Hall. Over the seven years I took lessons I learned a lot of stuff about musical theory and how to perform in front of an audience when you’re scared stiff. One thing I took away with me from the very first day was the idea that if you can’t quite hear the notes you can always try looking inside the piano.
Eddie Goldman used to tell me stories about how he practiced playing the Piano during the blitzkrieg when he was stationed in London. I asked him if he was afraid. He told me that if he hadn’t been able to play the piano when the bombs were falling he would have gone insane. He also told me that if you want to get good at something you can’t let anything distract you. So I really had no excuse for not practicing.
A pianoforte is an amazing technological achievement, especially when you consider that it has no electronics – not even an on-off switch. It’s made out of wood and ivory and metal, and it works in a musical sense because it is tuned to equal temperament, which is actually a hack. Pythagoras knew that in principle the whole idea of a perfect fifth was incommensurable with an octave, not to mention other important intervals, but if you make a few compromises when you tune your piano nobody will notice the subtle discords that appear when you play a major triad. I’m not suggesting that you should actually try tuning your own piano, but you get the idea.
So in practice this means that a seven-year old kid who “can’t carry a tune” can make reasonably plausible music just by following the instructions, or the “score.” pushing down on the right keys, and practicing every now and then. And the “can’t carry a tune” problem can be deferred for the rest of your life or until you have that audition with The Duchess, another Juilliard grad just a bit older than Eddie Goldman.
Her actual name at the time I had my audition was Janet Grimler, though I think that name was a bit unfair to her somehow. The Duchess was serious about music, she expected her students to do everything as well as they possibly could, and she was certainly no Miss Smiley-face. Nobody would dare call her Janet – or even think seriously about the possibility. She was also pretty intense. But grim? Come on! Beowulf was grim. Macbeth was grim. Sauron was grim. But if anyone wants to call Miss Grimler awesome you have my permission – she definitely qualifies.
My own rather modest ambition was to sing in the boy’s glee club, and so here I am once again standing next to a grand piano and somebody is playing notes. I am actually scared stiff, an idiomatic expression best taken literally, which is probably not helping matters, but this is The Duchess after all; looking at the hammers going up and down inside of the piano is not going to help. She plays some scales and arpeggios and I’m doing my best to sing what I’m hearing, but somehow I have the intuition things are not going so well. Finally she stops and looks at me with her usual serious expression. Did she have blue eyes? I can’t remember.
“Well,” she says, “you’re just not singing on pitch.” There is not the slightest reproach in her tone – she’s just telling me the truth the way she might tell me I needed a haircut or had green eyes. I felt like crying, though I did my best to hide it, and mumbled something or other by way of apology. And then she said in the same earnest way she had, “It’s not something to apologize for. You can sing on pitch if you work at it. Would you be interested in taking voice training with Miss Jones?”
Voice training? Seriously? You mean like opera singers? It turned out that this basically meant learning to listen to the sound of your own voice. Who knew it was something you could teach? Actually it was, and Miss Jones was amazingly patient. The next year I went to audition again and she told me, in exactly the same tone as before “You’ll be in the boy’s glee club for this year. You’ll be singing bass.” Let’s be clear – she didn’t tell me to start learning Schubert’s Winterreise, but then I wasn’t trying to be the next Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The Duchess had some exceptionally talented singers to work with, but I don’t pretend I was one of them. Anyway this is the way I look at it – if the Duchess said I could sing on pitch then it was a matter of fact that I could. I trusted her to be honest with me because she cared about music so much. There is a big difference between telling someone they are not singing on pitch and telling them that they “can’t” carry a tune.
Around that time Miss Grimler got married and changed her name to Mrs. Gleason. If some novelist came up with those names you would probably think the symbolism was a bit too obvious. Anyway, nobody cares what your name is if you’re really a Duchess. I can’t really fit Janet Grimler into an Ello posting – in some sense she was just too big for that. Probably she was barely aware of my existence and that was ok with me. I think she wanted the best for her students and wanted them to find the best in themselves.
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high. (Edna St.Vincent Millay)