To say that someone has a musical gift, or is gifted, usually means that they have unusual talent or can perform beautifully for others. I mean something quite different here.
When I say “musical gift” in this and the next two posts, I mean a gift to me, one that enhances my enjoyment of music. I was granted these through no effort on my own––no long, arduous hours of practice.
Opportunities to learn
The first of the three gifts is opportunity. It came in multiple ways.
My father sold pianos through his store. We always had a piano in the house; it was part of the store’s inventory. If anyone wanted that model he could sell it as a lightly used piano. That meant that we might discover that our much loved mahogany spinet might be suddenly hauled away and replaced by a large black upright, or in later years by an electronic keyboard.
That tumult led us to learn how to adapt quickly to different playing conditions. It could also lead to rapid redecorating. The white horses with black bases that looked so good on the shiny black piano might not fit on the electronic keyboard or on a light oak finish baby grand.
Having a piano in the house meant that we could play anytime. Neighborhood friends could join us in duets. It also meant that my two sisters and I could all study piano.
Most importantly, my parents loved music. My father had a large collection of LP vinyl records. We donated most of it after his death to TCU and TWU, two colleges in Fort Worth. When we weren’t playing the piano (whichever one it might be) we heard recordings of big band, opera, chamber, symphony, jazz, and other music genres.
I took all of this for granted. Well, worse than that, I resented it. I didn’t like taking piano lessons, especially not practicing. My parents allowed me to quit after a couple of years. I realized later how much a gift I had been given.
The most important aspect of opportunity is my second gift, caring teachers.
You wouldn’t know it if you heard me play or sing, but I had many music teachers. These were in school, through private lessons, or informal advice.
I had so many because after a short time even the most patient would say something like, “you shouldn’t try to learn everything from one teacher; you can benefit from the influence of other teachers, and this would be a good time to do that.”
Let me mention just three who were both extraordinarily talented and patient.
At Westcliff Elementary School I learned from Louise Canafax. She was an accomplished pianist, singer, and cellist. Later, she participated in every Van Cliburn competition, which I know of in part because my father supplied pianos for the contestants.
In the beginning of the competition, Louise participated as accompanist for pianists through her position as Fort Worth Symphony violist .
Later she became a much-beloved backstage mother for the competitors. She would help them steady their nerves before competing, with whatever was needed––candy, aspirin, or repair of a broken strap. As she said:
We just encourage them and tell them that they’re wonderful, they’ll play their best, they’re human. Don’t worry; if something crazy happens, you’ll be fine.
Many years later, my own two children took piano lessons in Illinois from Felix Chan, another excellent teacher of both voice and piano.
I also took lessons from Felix. He suggested singing along as a way of improving my rhythm and phrasing. It may have helped a little. Of his three students in our family, my two children and me, he was an unquestioned success with two of us.
Deborah Geithner was another great teacher for me. She combined perceptive listening with helpful suggestions for performance and practice.
More than that, she brought wit, insight, caring, and encouragement to her teaching. She would delve deeply into a piece of music, comparing editions, and trying out different interpretations. But that intensity only added to a concern for the person and enjoyment of the music.
These three teachers, and several others I don’t have room to talk about here were a second musical gift for me, one I failed to fully appreciate at the time.
My third gift is incompetnece.
When we speak of musical gifts, we often mean talent, especially that ineffable ability that appears to arise from nowhere and is not accounted for by hard work and study. Given the chance, I would gladly choose that.
But I’d like to speak up for the many of us who, like me, are universally judged not to have talent.
I first have to speak about Arthur Rubinstein, someone who was unquestionably talented. He’s considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time. I have no doubt that when he encountered a new piece, he could sight read it more beautifully than I could after a year of practice. For many of the popular pieces I enjoy he could probably improvise a reasonable facsimile of the entire piece after reading just the first line.
He’s also judged to be a great interpreter of Chopin, and that relates to a piece I’m living with now. The piece is Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E♭ major, one of the most beautiful solo piano pieces.You can follow that link to hear Rubinstein’s version.
I’ll spare you my interpretation, but I have to brag by saying that it’ snow good enough that one or more family members recognize that Rubinstein and I are playing the same piece. My problem is that whereas Rubinstein could intuit rhythm, phrasing, key transitions and such, as unconsciously as breathing, I need to work at every stage. It takes me longer to feel the beat, to incorporate the movement of the piece into my body, to leap across the chasm separating abstract understanding from music.
Rubinstein had a gift, many gifts. But I have one that he didn’t have. Whereas he could play all 21 nocturnes flawlessly (and much more besides), I’ve worked on just a few of them, and none to the level I’d like.
But as I struggle, say in the E♭ nocturne, I experience the slow birth of the music in my mind, fingers, and heart. It’s far from perfect, or even good, but it grows. Over a time that would amaze Rubinstein, it comes alive inside me and I become a part of it. I have a gift––a very special, and dare I say, a fuller experience. It’s at least more drawn out so I can appreciate it over many months!
I draw some lessons from all of this. First, I need to acknowledge what an opportunity I had and look how little I did with it. Second, I should be thankful that some of that rich environment sank in, despite my best efforts at being oblivious. I learned to appreciate diverse kinds of music and to sight read simple pieces.
Teachers were a big part of this, but also time, and chances to listen to music alone and with friends.
Due to Covid, my Carnegie Hall debut is on hold. Time has also allowed me to appreciate more what I can do with music and to ignore the parts I can’t.
The value of making music
But I’m also led to another line of musing. When I was young, pianos were common in middle-class homes. Most of my friends had studied piano to some degree, even if they later switched to other instruments, vocal, or quit performing entirely.
That’s not true for most young people today. They have available a vast array of recorded music and diverse ways to listen. But that listening is often solitary, through headphones. Many may lack the experience of making music with one’s own body and with others, through playing instruments, singing, and dancing.
I know not to judge others through my own experiences, but I can’t help thinking that the gift of a recording library that multiplies my father’s large LP collection many times over comes with a cost. We’ve lost something important.
please share with Susan.
Just read your latest piece. Wonder if Henry has seen it. He wrote a whole piece about “talent” in regards to music. It was a theme he worked with and over for some time.
Tried my darnest to have Jenny exposed to music, arts and sports, amongst other things. She was tp play a sport (only liked cheerleading, my last try), study music in some way (ended up in a chorus (because no practice necessary), arts (she liked to draw as long as I posed in the middle of fixing dinner) and I still have her only somewhat dismantled art room in the basement (Still likes to make things, a lot). She disliked reading, probably because of an undiagnosed eye issue, but now reads to Leona continually.
Are you getting this new storm tonight? Think it’ll be messy but otherwise a winter event, of which we have had none.
My car finally got fixed, after it was rear ended Dec 25 with Sam driving. Took two months and a lot of phone calls! I’ll appreciate it more after this…