Play Chopin only on an excellent piano.

— André Gide

I understand that later you come to an age of hope, or at least resignation. I suspect it takes a long time to get there.

— Jane Smiley, “The Age of Grief”

 

It’s, a Steinway vertical, the “professional” model, taller, with longer strings than a spinet, and three pedals, like a grand. It has a satin finish, each of its five coats of black lacquer applied and then rubbed in turn with fine steel wool, producing a sheen rather than a hard shine, the elegance of a top hat. It’s an aristocrat, born with a patina and a name. It bears, in fact, the autograph of John Steinway — now seventy-two, great-grandson of the founder — on the rear right-hand corner under the lid, in magic marker.

I hadn’t played for years when I went shopping for it, so I was shy about trying it out in the store. I played a few notes as quietly as I could, felt the touch, heard the tone. I couldn’t find anything to criticize, but I knew I hadn’t given the keyboard a real workout. When I heard someone playing one of the grands in another part of the store — which was a warehouse, pianos lined up like desks in an insurance company, row upon row, grands in one section, uprights in another — I asked the salesman to ask the performer to play something on the piano I’d selected. The performer was the manager, and glad to comply. But first he shook my hand and congratulated me on my purchase. “Is this your first Steinway?” (Is this your first child? Your first Oscar?) A man about my age, forty-four, dressed conservatively in a dark blue suit, the manager sat and began playing Chopin’s Waltz in F Minor, op. 70, no. 2. That’s when I felt my upper lip tremble, and I held my hand over my mouth. I was a fool, but I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful.

 

Miss Eva Hodges, my piano teacher for eight years, now deceased, would be gratified to learn that I bought the Steinway. She’d be proud of me. She used to shout down from the window of her studio, between the Ionic columns above the front steps of the high school where I went twice a week for lessons, “Hold your head up!”

She looked like George Washington on the dollar bill: the same Roman nose, same thin lips, same chin. She had frizzy red hair and a redhead’s pale complexion, pale blue eyes behind thick, rimless spectacles. She was tall and slender. She wore sensible shoes with low, thick heels; in summer she wore printed organdy dresses. She never married. She rented out the upstairs of her house; once, the tenants let the tub run over, and water seeped through the ceiling and damaged her Baldwin grand below. She drove a ’52 Chevy that her brother, an orthopedic surgeon, had given her. She was the organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. And she taught piano to talentless and recalcitrant children.

At first she glued stars in my assignment book each week, gold if I’d practiced well, silver and blue for B and C. But she soon stopped that, because I was too smart for her. I knew that stars weren’t real grades, and “music” (I took “music,” lessons) didn’t really matter. I was going to be a doctor. I didn’t have a lot of time to practice, anyway. And I had never been much of a sight reader. I could play better by ear. I didn’t practice scales or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, although Miss Hodges assigned them. I’d play the show tunes and popular ballads I liked: “Old Man River,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “But Not for Me” — all in the key of C, but with feeling. I played for fun. I stopped the lessons altogether when I was sixteen because I knew I would never be really good.

She kept in touch over the years. One night when I was still in high school, she phoned to let me know that there would be an all-Gershwin program on the “Bell Telephone Hour”. When I graduated and was heading off to Johns Hopkins, my brilliant career as a physician assured, she gave me a plaid canvas suitcase. Every Christmas, I received a card from Miss Hodges. The summer of my sophomore year, she invited me and another young man who’d taken lessons to lunch. She served chicken salad (I complimented her on the tuna fish) and said she was proud of us both. The other young man attended Yale and was majoring in physics. I had switched from premed to English, having failed chemistry and managed only a C in cell biology. But she was proud of me.

I told her I’d developed a taste for Brahms. We all loved Chopin, of course. But I couldn’t understand Beethoven, I admitted. I said he seemed so noisy, all those kettledrums, all that pounding. Miss Hodges had taught me only a couple of pieces by Beethoven: the Turkish March and, later, the slow movement of the Funeral March Sonata, which is comparatively easy. But Beethoven in general was what I didn’t “get,” I said. I was hoping Miss Hodges would leap to Beethoven’s defense and justify his reputation. But she didn’t. Maybe she thought that attempting to explain Beethoven to a twenty-year-old would be pointless. Or maybe she didn’t know herself why Beethoven was so great. Miss Hodges lacked all pretension, unlike me. I doubt that she was bothered by the thought that she was not a great artist herself, that she didn’t compose, that she was even something of a type: a spinster with a rigid expression, tight-lipped, frizzy-haired, bespectacled, smelling of bath powder.

The only thing she did that went against type was to join a fundamentalist congregation out in the country after she was diagnosed with liver cancer in her seventies. She started attending revivals, apparently convinced that she would be healed. She wasn’t.

 

I’ve had the piano for six months now, and I play every day, probably more than I have time for, more than I should. I’ll play while I’m waiting for French toast to heat in the microwave (two and a half minutes) in the morning. I’ll play between the time I finish the breakfast dishes and the time I head out for class. (I’m a teacher, not a physician.) I’ll play after supper, before I start grading papers, and I’ll play before going to bed, from 10:30 on, until I’m scared the neighbors will call the police. If there is something desperate about my playing, there’s something desperate about my having bought the piano in the first place — the result of a typical midlife realization that I am not going to live forever. Some men have affairs at this age.

In six months I’ve learned two waltzes, four mazurkas, and a nocturne by Chopin. I’ve learned two “easy” (that’s a laugh) sonatas by Beethoven, the Nineteenth and Twentieth, and the (relatively) slow movement of the Eighteenth. I am wrestling with the other movements of that sonata. I’ve mastered two impromptus by Schubert, nos. 3 and 4 of op. 90. And I’ve learned Gershwin’s Second Prelude, which I couldn’t play as a teenager because of the wide intervals.

I used to struggle just to read the notes. For each new piece I attempted, Miss Hodges would have me read the left- and right-hand parts separately, then put them together later. She would assign a few measures each week, marking them off with her number #2 pencil and dating them. Now I forge ahead on my own, playing both hands at once. I am reading music faster than I can memorize it. Amazing what the fear of death will do for one’s concentration.

I am not, however, a real musician. Sometimes I’ll be tired, and the fourth finger of my right hand, which seems longer than it ought to be, gets in the way. I’ll be negotiating a rapid scale, and that finger will trip me up. It’ll scrape the edge of a key, and that minor mishap will be enough to transform my Steinway, this “instrument of the immortals,” into a mere contraption, a row of wooden blocks, a box of tinkertoys, fuzzy hammers striking tinny steel, wound wire. It doesn’t sing. It plinks and plunks, twangs and buzzes. I think, what for? I know I’ll never be any good.

 

My first public performance was a disaster. I was six or seven; it was shortly after I’d begun taking lessons. Miss Hodges gave me “The White Knight” to learn, a piece composed for a child. I felt it was beneath me. But I agreed to play it anyway in a recital to be given by a few select pupils of local piano teachers, in an auditorium at the local college. I was second on the program, after a little girl who played her simple piece without a hitch and walked off the stage to polite applause and adoring smiles. (And where, may I ask, is that little girl today?)

My turn came, and I wasn’t nervous. The piece was in my fingers. I’d played it at home countless times without a mistake. It was easy. I slid off my seat, marched down the aisle, climbed the steps to the stage, and approached the piano, a Steinway concert grand. I turned, faced the footlights, and bowed as I’d been told to, from the waist, with a smile. Then I sat down. I waited a moment until I felt comfortable on the stool, not too close, not too far away from the keyboard, per Miss Hodges’s instructions. Then I lifted my little hands, lowered my little fingers, and began playing the wrong notes.

Startled, I stopped and started over. Wrong again. Where was I? I couldn’t find my place, the right keys to begin on. The keyboard appeared strange, intractable, a friend turned traitor. I got up and fled the stage. I went straight for my grandmother’s lap, where I curled up and endured the rest of the recital, whimpering sporadically amid a long program of others’ musical triumphs. I lived to play again, of course, even in public. But the experience left an impression.

 

“Are you going to play for us, Jake?” This from my nephew’s bride at the dinner table on Christmas Day. I’ve not met her previously, but I can tell she’s been cued. The whole family knows I bought the Steinway. “Jake can really tear up a piano,” says my sister’s husband, a hardware contractor. Is he merely being kind? Or does he actually believe I play well? One does not say of Murray Perahia, for example, that he can tear up a piano.

Later in the evening, after dessert, after the dishes are cleared away, after we’ve finished opening presents and I’m on my way to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, my sister grabs me in the hall. “Please play some carols, Jake,” she begs. “I miss your music.” I decline because I’m not going to play some carol in the key of C which nobody can sing. If I attempt something more ambitious — Chopin’s Barcarolle, for instance — I’ll fall on my face. No one will listen, anyway. It’s too long. When my brother-in-law says I tear up a piano, when my sister says she misses my music, when they all say they want me to play, they don’t mean it, or else they don’t know what they’re talking about. I have my pride.

My pride isolates me. I am forty-four, as I’ve said, single, unattached, bald. As the years pass and I watch my nephews marry, have children, solidify their positions in the community, I feel more and more alone and defensive about it. I live across the street from a park. April through September I hear the gleeful shouts (and sometimes the profanity) of children playing baseball, flying kites, throwing frisbees. They hear me practicing the piano, if they hear me at all, dimly. If they were told that the pianist is an English professor, middle-aged, unattached, what would they think, if anything?

I used to pity Miss Hodges. With the arrogance of youth, I pitied her. Had she never been in love? Why hadn’t she married? Was she normal? Was she human? Now, as I approach the same age, and the same fate, I am contemptuous of the questioner, the child I once was. Now I answer my own questions: we’re all normal; we’re all human in our loneliness.

 

On April 12, 1956 (I can see the inscription now, her distinctively neat handwriting), Miss Hodges gave me a copy of The Music Lover’s Encyclopedia, inscribed: “With best wishes always to my little pupil.” I was eleven, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the chapter on counterpoint, for instance, or the collection of brief biographical sketches of famous composers, including Deems Taylor’s once-familiar essay on Wagner, “The Monster.” But I kept the book on the piano at home, beside the metronome she gave me. And as I grew older, I’d open the book and read only the inscription: “With best wishes always to my little pupil.” At first it embarrassed me, like a declaration of love that I was in no position to reciprocate. It seemed sentimental, the words of an old lady to a boy, sweetly inappropriate. Later, the inscription would serve to remind me that ten, then twenty, then thirty years had passed since I was anybody’s little anything.

My mother tells me I began playing the piano when I was four, standing at the keyboard and picking out tunes I’d heard on the radio. I inherited the ability from her. She worked for a time in a music store demonstrating sheet music. I remember her playing “Glow Worm.” My father bought me an accordion when I was older, a manlier instrument. But I preferred the piano, our upright Hamilton that Mother bought used. It was smaller than the Steinway, less resonant, tinklier, with a flaccid touch and real wood sharps and flats. It was also infested with moths. Mother didn’t find out until it was too late and the felts were nibbled ragged. But before the piano reached its eventual state of dilapidation, some notes sounding “clunk,” it stood up to my practicing; it bore the brunt of my youthful enthusiasms, my Gershwinisms, my Broadway melodies. When I was eight, I composed “Ducks on a Pond” and “Halloween Night” on that piano, and, when I was fifteen, “Metropolitan Midnight,” my biggest hit. There’s a tape somewhere of me playing it at a high-school assembly to thunderous applause. Miss Hodges transcribed that one and sent it off to Schirmer’s, which rejected it.

I played after school to relax, and I played after finishing my homework to wind down. I played while my parents fixed supper, and I played as quietly as I could after my father went to bed early because he was tired. I played through the years that saw my father lose his grain storage business to an unscrupulous partner, that saw my mother return to work as a salesclerk in a women’s clothing store, that saw my father struggle with alcoholism and depression. After I left for college, I played only when I was home on vacation. By the time I got to graduate school, I’d stopped playing altogether. I received my doctorate in English in 1979 from the University of Iowa and have been teaching here at Southeast Missouri State ever since.

My father died five years ago, at seventy-eight, of Alzheimer’s. My ability to grieve, like my musicianship, is not remarkable. I’m an amateur. God forbid that I should become an expert. There are millions of us out there, in any case, who are grieving. Nor am I the first man to feel, on the death of his father, that he too is mortal. But what my father’s death — as compared, say, to Miss Hodges’s passing — made clear to me was not only that life ends but that life can disappoint, dreams fail. His death taught me that I am no better than anyone else, not only because I too will die but because I will probably leave the world as he seemed to, defeated first by circumstances and finally by disease.

 

Against this background of loss, then, and feeling my middle age, I have bought a Steinway to realize at least one dream. On the practical side, I think it makes me healthier — along with walking and lifting weights and eating bran flakes — to practice every morning, to learn new pieces, to discover that I am capable of improvement, that my brain is not dead. I’m learning the Goldberg Variations, and I’m on the sixth one now. Never having studied any Bach before, I feel a real sense of accomplishment. I may not play them well, but I play the right notes, in tempo, and my playing of Chopin has improved as a result — perhaps because Chopin himself played Bach, or because playing Bach strengthens the fingers.

At my most sanguine, when I am able to sit down and play a variation through without faltering, as a piece of music and not a series of notes, with my heart and not just my fingers, then the music sings. My sense of accomplishment derives not only from knowing that my practicing has paid off but from the feeling that my spirit has prevailed: muscles and nerves, bones and ligaments, wood and steel — all in service of the Ideal. In this sense, buying the Steinway, taking up “music” again, was an act of courage, of defiance appropriate to Beethoven, a pounding of kettledrums against God’s sullen silence, a beating down of despair.

E.M. Forster defended his own playing, bad though it was (says he), because it helped him listen, taught him something about construction, about the importance of keys and their relationships. But that’s if you like music in the first place. The philosopher Susanne Langer wrote that music expresses the form of feeling, and that feeling, expressed as form, is more than raw emotion: it is thought. It is thought that is beyond words. And since music is not words, I can’t repeat what it says.

With Beethoven, there is evidence of a brilliant mind at work in what he does with a key, a theme. You don’t have to be a musicologist to admire that. But the beauty speaks of something beyond logic and words and even feeling. It’s not what music says; it’s what music intimates, the existence of spirit, something shared but ineffable, something within us that we can only acknowledge without knowing fully, something we share with Beethoven, genius though he was. Because music is an argument for the spirit, I have reason to hope.

Would Miss Hodges confirm my speculations? No matter. The important thing now is her abiding, incontestable presence — an argument in itself for the immortality of the spirit. “Best wishes always to my little pupil,” she wrote. Apparently she meant it. I want to believe in the truth and efficacy of that benediction. I want to be redeemed. I want to emerge whole and intact from this phase in my life, this humiliatingly ordinary “midlife crisis” with its fears and regrets. I want to be saved.

The religious analogy is apt; I have taken up playing the piano again the way people return to their faith after abandoning it in their youth. They didn’t realize what they had until they’d lost it. But now they know that their faith is a part of them they can’t shake, ingrained like their temperament. Returning to their faith is returning to themselves, the selves they neglected in order to pursue degrees, careers. Humbled by experience, what they once rejected as childishness, they now embrace as wisdom.