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Published: Thu Apr 15 2010
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Piano

I still have the Baldwin baby grand piano my parents gave me as a high school graduation present decades ago. All through my adult life, every time I moved I took it with me—no easy feat with a piano so large—or else found it a suitable temporary lodging. The piano has accompanied me from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Boston and is now settled in Manhattan, where it occupies a good part of the living room. Once I went to Italy for a year, and for that year I asked my sister to shelter it. When I returned I found a few paper clips lodged inside among the strings and I heatedly accused my sister of not taking proper care of the piano, which in retrospect seems an odd overreaction on my part: just a few clips, after all.

It’s not clear to me why I’ve held on to the piano for so long and continue to play it, considering that I no longer play well, nor, to be candid, with much enthusiasm. It’s not that I love it so much. I hardly love it at all at this point. (This has nothing to do with loving music. I listen to music as much as ever and am enchanted by fine pianists. It’s only my own playing that has ceased to enchant me.)

The piano is a handsome piece of furniture, a warm cherry wood, still fairly sleek and shiny—it would be even shinier if I polished it—and impressive, especially when the lid is opened to its full extension. But beauty alone can’t account for my inability to let it go. I find it hard, in general, to stop doing anything enjoyable once I’ve started, which is one reason I’ve never tried hard drugs: I know what would happen. Habit, as Proust noted, is the most constricting of traps. Playing the piano is a benign, not dangerous or illegal habit, but even so, in my case it has gone on far too long; the habit has outlived the enjoyment it once yielded. Luckily my living room is large enough to accommodate the old piano, yet every so often I gaze at it in all its grandeur and imagine to what better uses I might put that space.

I was the musical child of a musical mother. She sang, played the piano (better by ear than from a score), the accordion, the banjo, and the mandolin. I played by ear when I was quite young, which prompted my parents to give me piano lessons starting at the age of six. I studied with various teachers until I left home to go to college, and by then I played pretty well, though not spectacularly well. My first teacher was called Miss Milady, and I thought of her as Miss Melody, which suited her: she was a lady of lilts and frills and trills, pink cheeks and gray curls adorned with a pink ribbon. My mother took me to her apartment, where she served shortbread cookies. Subsequent teachers came to my house and were more serious and professional—a hulking Eastern European with wild hair whom I always pictured in a flowing velvet cape—and, finally, a high school teacher who was a superb pianist and with whom I was a little bit in love. He suggested that I work towards a musical career. But I never wanted to be a pianist. I just liked playing and playing well, and I particularly liked having this teacher’s full attention and approval for an hour or more every week.

I don’t know what musical aspirations my parents had for me; they never articulated any, but rather encouraged me to be a schoolteacher, which also held no attractions. In any case, they bought me the piano at great cost, over a thousand dollars, a lot of money at that time, certainly a lot for them to spend all at once. I can’t remember whether it was their idea or if I asked for it, nor do I recall the doubtless humbler instrument I played before the Baldwin joined our household. That is, I remember vaguely what it looked like (black, unobtrusive) but not how it felt and sounded, which are what matters in a piano. I remember only that the new piano, bought under the guidance of that final, so charming, teacher, arrived with fanfare and I was thrilled to possess such a large and imposing object. At sixteen one does not own very much, and certainly nothing on the scale of a baby grand piano.

Maybe it was that, the pride of ownership of so splendid and expensive an instrument, which made me start lugging it around when I embarked on my adult life. Without regular lessons, I tried to maintain some sort of practice schedule; I would play over and over the pieces I’d been working on when my lessons stopped. But that spurt of ambition didn’t last. I was caught up in other pursuits and played less and less. Every few years I’d have an access of rigor and a spate of practicing. But it was boring to keep playing the same old pieces again and again. I tried learning new ones, but since even in my best years I was a poor sight reader, this was a struggle. After fumbling through some new Mozart sonata or Bach fugue, I would revert to show tunes or folk music, which I could play tolerably well. Meanwhile my performances of those old classical pieces—eroding daily under my fingers—were painful to listen to, a sorry reminder of the gap between my past and present ability.

So young, and already there was loss. It’s crushing to lose the capacity to do something we once did well, but we usually don’t have to endure such losses until middle age: think of baseball players, ballet dancers, mountain climbers. Still, those losses come with the territory; they’re inevitable and expected. My loss was entirely preventable, if only I had practiced. But I didn’t want to practice. I wanted to play sporadically and yet play well. This, as any pianist can tell you, is not possible.

In one of my more rigorous moods, I undertook to learn ragtime. Scott Joplin. His pieces, I found, I could learn pretty easily and I could listen to my efforts without cringing, even with some pleasure. I felt an immediate and instinctive affinity with Joplin’s music. It reminded me of playing Bach, except that Joplin was predictable while Bach was not. After learning several of Joplin’s pieces, I could tell right away where he was headed in each, what chords and harmonic patterns would turn up. This was comforting, reassuring. Bach was totally unpredictable—I never could tell what moves he would make next, and I found this unsettling, not to mention difficult. Of course that very unpredictability is part and parcel of his genius, but to a pianist like me, it was exasperating.

So I’ve made my way through almost all of the works of Scott Joplin, and now, when I’m frustrated by my ever-dwindling ability to play a Bach fugue, I play ragtime. I could say I’ve become a specialist, like doctors and lawyers. But even with the Joplin pieces, I notice that my fingers have forgotten the intervals they once found so readily. I can get the shadings right, the feel of the music, but I get tangled in a flurry of wrong notes, the most rudimentary kind of error, like a doctor who can perform surgery but can’t locate a vein for a simple injection. Those wrong notes are unbearable, because I know exactly how the music should sound. I hear it in my head, and in my head my fingers can make it sound perfect.

The wrong notes are even more galling because I harbor a secret faith that one day, miraculously, I’ll get my old proficiency back: my fingers will be as nimble as they are in my silent mental performances. They’ll be the fingers of my teenaged self, flitting confidently over the keys, making beautiful, evocative music. I’m constantly surprised and disappointed that this doesn’t happen. Playing the piano is not, alas, like riding a bicycle.

So long as I keep the piano, for whatever muddled reasons, I feel obliged to keep it tuned and in good condition. Out of respect for the piano itself and for my parents, both long dead, who left it trustingly in my care. Maintaining it is part of the enigmatic bargain I’ve evidently struck with them, a pact to honor their belief in my imputed talent. All those lessons, all that faith, not to mention money, invested in my piano playing. Obviously my parents no longer care. Even if I believed in an afterlife in which my parents keep an eye out from above, given the vicissitudes of my life, the piano would be low priority on their list of concerns about me. And yet I remain in thrall to it, most likely forever.

The piano is old now and, like aging people, needs regular professional attention, which I provide, within reason, as my piano tuner advises. Every few months he sends me a printed card saying it’s time to have the piano tuned. I call him and he comes. I enjoy his visits; he’s full of conversation. Also blind, as a number of piano tuners are, though he navigates through his busy life very efficiently; he lost his sight in his early twenties and so knows what the world looks like. He says the piano is in excellent shape for its years, still lively and exuberant, no signs of dementia except for one intermittently stuck key, which I must attend to. It would fetch a good price, the piano tuner says, several times more than the original purchase price. Not that he advises me to sell it. No, he suggests expensive and complicated procedures that would make it last even longer, maybe even outlast me as it outlasted my parents, the original donors.

Following his advice, I recently had the piano cleaned, inside and out, and now he says I should have it regulated, so as to—and here I paraphrase—prevent the action from getting sluggish, keep the keys responding properly, and keep the parts relating as they were originally designed to do. Also, the hammers would benefit by being filed. I don’t have a clear sense of what all this means, but I suppose I’ll do it one of these days. Such upkeep costs more than the piano did.

After the piano tuner’s visits, I vow to practice more, now that the piano has been revitalized, but after a couple of weeks I slip back into my old habits, playing just a few hours on weekends, which feels like a form of blasphemy. In my best piano playing years I practiced at least an hour and a half a day. I suspect that I would play better and more often if I had an appreciative audience. I’m unduly dependent on encouragement in whatever I do. Obviously an audience is out of the question, so now and then, to spur myself on, I make believe I’m playing for enthusiastic listeners, and this does improve my playing slightly. My parents were my best audience, so I often try to imagine them listening. They wouldn’t be hard to impress; they might not detect the wrong notes or be appalled by them—anyway, Joplin is easy to fake. See, I tell them, I’m still playing the piano you bought me.

They gave it to me as an act of faith; they expected me to play it, and I do. I’m like the girl with the red shoes who couldn’t stop dancing until they cut her feet off. Except that she had talent, and whatever talent I once had has evaporated. No, on second thought, I suppose talent itself doesn’t disappear; what disappears is its outward expression, without which talent lies dormant. I wouldn’t go so far as to have my hands chopped off simply so I could stop playing the piano, but sometimes I do wish I could sell it, or just give it away.

But I can’t. Someday I might have the urge to sit down and play a Joplin rag, and I won’t be able to do that unless I keep practicing every few days. And there’s always the chance that my fingers might be suddenly transformed into the fleet fingers of my youth. It’s only through an evil spell cast by time that I can’t make the music sound the way I hear it in my mind, the way my fingers play it in my mind.

Altogether I have too much to lose: the tangible, audible link to those early gratifying hours at the piano, feeling the happy sense of proficiency; the link to the myth of miraculous recovery of what is lost; and the link to my parents, who gave the piano its first home and listened to me play it. So there it sits in the living room, grand and magisterial. Mine. It was given to me to play, and so I do. Chances are I will play it until my dying day, unless my hands grow stiff and palsied. That would be a legitimate excuse to stop; in that event, my parents, wherever they are, could hardly expect me to continue.

See what's inside AGNI 71

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s latest books are No Way Out But Through, a poetry collection, and Crossing Borders: Stories and Essays about Translation, which she edited and which has just come out from Seven Stories Press. She is the author of twenty-three other books, including the essay collection This Is Where We Came In; the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award), and The Writing on the Wall; the poetry collections In Solitary and See You in the Dark; and three story collections, most recently Referred Pain. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. She teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars. (updated 10/2017)

Schwartz’s novel The Fatigue Artist was reviewed in AGNI 43 by Catherine Carter.

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