The Keys to My Heart

My fitful, torrid, and now steadfast affair with an ivory-clad lover.

December 2011By Comments

AH, YOUNG LOVE: The author with her first piano, a Kohler and Campbell spinet, before a recital in 1956.

My husband sometimes smokes a cigar after dinner on our side porch while I entertain my lover in the living room. John has tolerated and even encouraged this relationship since we were in our thirties. It’s hard to compete with a sophisticated old flame, now 79, who is fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Russian; knows Cole Porter and George Gershwin; and always wears a tux. Born of German immigrant stock during the Depression in New York City and transplanted to Texas in 1978, this elegant charmer came to my attention by way of a Dallas Morning News classified ad in 1980. The voice, the touch, the wide, toothy grin made my heart race. What would it take to get this beguiling character into my life? All the money Doubleday paid me for my first book? And what would the children think?

There had been pianos in my life before I moved this seductive ebony 1932 Steinway Model M into our home one September thirty years ago, but none so handsome or responsive. I warned the children that in case of fire, they should get themselves out quickly, because Mommy would be in the living room shoving the piano through the front windows.

I probably first noticed pianos as a preschool child at the First Baptist Church in my hometown, Texarkana. Every Sunday school room had one, for marching us little Christian soldiers in and out of various activities. I didn’t know that Schubert’s “Marche militaire” and the triumphal march from Aida weren’t Baptist tunes until high school. Our neighbors, the Prud’hommes, allowed me to plink around on their seldom-played parlor grand with the cracked and yellowed ivory keys, until my parents finally relented and bought me a Kohler and Campbell spinet when I was five. Our relationship was sensuous from the beginning. The smell of new piano keys still transports me to my earliest childhood. In piano showrooms even now, I always hope that the salesperson will get a phone call and leave me alone for a good sniff.

You might think that with this sort of early obsession I would be extraordinarily accomplished. I began lessons so young that my feet, dangling far above the pedals, had to be propped on a large box. Mrs. Gibson, my teacher, who looked a lot like George Washington, led me from “Here we go, up a row, to a birthday party” to the more exotic “From a Wigwam,” the last piece in John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play, with some alacrity. Playing my first sharp on a black key in a little piece called “Paper Ships” was so intoxicating that I played the same three lines incessantly. To this day, my older brother has flashbacks of this insipid melody.

My parents had no formal music training. They knew thirties and forties hit-parade tunes and loved the bounciest Baptist hymns. My father’s aspirations for my piano playing mainly included two pieces: Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” and the pop standard “September Song.” My mother selected my piano teachers based not on their conservatory training but on their proximity. “Can she walk to lessons?” was the determining factor. I had to bid Mrs. Gibson goodbye when we moved closer to my parents’ newspaper office. The new teacher within walking distance was Edward Walters, who, as luck would have it, had trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. Mr. Walters, who had surely dreamed of a concert career, instead had to listen to me lie about my practice chart and plod through “In a Spanish Garden” on his Baldwin grand. He never struck fear in my heart the way I think fine music teachers must. In fact, during my adolescent years, he became my favorite confidant, hearing me dither, no doubt, over whether I should cut my bangs or just get a perm. He caved in to my whining about Beethoven sonatinas and allowed me to play “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, and Eddie Fisher’s “Dungaree Doll” instead. I did reach an intermediate level of playing with him. I am a competent sight reader, because people who lie about their practicing have to be. By eighth grade, music lessons gave way to all the things the Tiger Mom forbids: cheerleader practice, crushes on boys, sleepovers, and school plays. I never stopped loving the piano; I just didn’t do my scales.

When I left for college, my very practical mother, without consulting me, sold my little spinet, perhaps to pay my tuition. Finding a writing desk in its place during the Thanksgiving holiday so outraged me that I registered for a private piano class at the University of Texas at Austin the following semester. I’d show her. I locked myself in those dungeon-like practice rooms in the basement of the Littlefield House, on campus, and exhibited a zeal for my lessons that would have astounded Mr. Walters. I relearned rudimentary music theory, met polyrhythms, and finally played pieces with serious names like “prelude” and “fugue.” My college teacher said I had some musicality, but we both knew I lacked the early rigor that underlies fine piano technique. At the end of a year, I recognized I wasn’t up to college-level juried recitals, so I gave up the lessons and played whatever was in the piano bench at the sorority house.

But my affair with the piano was not over. It simply lay dormant while I dallied with keyboards of another kind. I had an exhausting fling with a sexy Italian Olivetti portable, followed by a more sedate relationship with an IBM Selectric, whose only appeal was an ability to absolve me of my typos. I poured my heart into them, yet neither figured ultimately in my dreams. Serious longings for a piano resurfaced when my first child was born. I thought having a piano as an intellectual companion to fill the long hours when babies do nothing but sleep would give me back a piece of the girl I once was. My husband said we could spare $100 for this indulgence. (For perspective, gasoline was 36 cents a gallon.) I pored over the classified ads and traveled to faraway, dusty secondhand-piano warehouses. The best I could hope for was an instrument with all of its keys and a sustaining pedal. A hundred bucks bought me a monstrous, heavy oak Victorian upright. I could hear spinal disks rupturing as two large-
bellied, sweating piano movers heaved the beast up the narrow stairs to our duplex. Once it was shoved into a corner of the dining room, even our early attic furniture seemed to withdraw in horror. This rinky-tink piano belonged in a Wild West saloon, and it mightily resisted my civilizing attempts of Bach or Debussy. So did my young son, Jack, once he was mobile. Illusions of the rich musical environment I had hoped to provide quickly faded as he climbed in my lap to slam the fallboard on my fingers. Children learn early to regard anything that diverts their mother’s attention—their father, a phone conversation, a typewriter or computer, an old piano—as the enemy.

Two sons later, I could no longer find solace in the hulking upright. The boys interrupted my tuneful attempts to insist that I produce animal sounds or thunderous bombing noises. Mostly they tortured the poor old behemoth by ramming pennies between its keys and employing the pedals to send bat signals from the cave they created beneath its keyboard. When our washing machine gave out, without much remorse, I sold the piano for $40 to defray the cost of a new Whirlpool.

I couldn’t justify buying another piano until my middle son exhibited some interest, at age seven, in music lessons, spurring dear neighbors to offer us their grown daughter’s old spinet for a token sum. This little Hardman Peck looked a lot like my first piano. Its presence in a corner of our living room would require no apologies.

My son’s first teacher was not within walking distance, and lessons had to be squeezed in before school. Breakfast on music mornings was a banana. Drew seldom complained about this torturous routine, perhaps because I let him listen to the vulgar drive-time deejays on the trip across town to his lesson. Learning a musical instrument requires an intense and vulnerable time with an adult who is not your parent—a stress-inducing experience at any age. My young charmer, who was born defusing uncomfortable situations, met his match with Mrs. K., who would listen to his exaggerations of hours spent practicing, then take his little chin in hand, stare directly into his eyes, and say, “Drew, you’re lying.” The lessons lasted five years, but not without his frequently asking, “When do I get to go back to being a normal kid again?” I wince to remember that he and I played a duet for the fifth-grade talent show, followed by the coolest guy in the class lip-synching Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” complete with white glove, moonwalking, and back-up gang. What was I thinking? I could no more pass my piano obsession on to this child than my husband could interest our sons in his stamp collection.

It was time to pursue my passion for myself—no apologies. I handed off the spinet to the cleaning lady’s grandson, who was winning public-school piano competitions, then got an advance to write a book and squandered the entire amount on what is now my elegant soul mate. I asked the previous owner how he could bear to part with this beautiful instrument. Largely handcrafted of wood, iron, steel, copper, wool, and, once upon a time, ivory, it mysteriously breathes, contracting and expanding according to temperature and humidity. Its keys and soft ebony finish beg to be touched. He said that he needed the money to send his kid to college.

Such an extravagant purchase has propelled me into years of sporadic but intense piano study. The grand presence requires something more than “Chopsticks.” I have studied with my child’s former teacher, graduate students, and university professors, making enough progress to give a brief “don’t quit your day job” recital in my home a couple of years ago. After my performance, a well-meaning friend said, “I’m just astounded that you’ve stuck with this all these years.” I, of course, heard an unspoken implication: “And you’re no better than this?” Dallas is a purpose-driven city where a self-indulgence like mine requires justification.

When asked by a new music teacher why I want to study piano, I usually answer quite realistically that I like the mental challenge and hope to keep arthritis at bay. The truth is, I want to create great beauty and play like Vladimir Horowitz, but I can’t say that with a straight face. Sometimes I turn the question on them: “Why would you want to teach an adult?” One responded, “Because I hate assigning the amorous, erotic, spiritual, poignant, and ineffably sorrowful Brahms to anyone under the age of forty.”

Through the years, the piano has provided cheap after-dinner entertainment for my husband and me when we were too tired to talk. The son who studied piano for five years claims that it produced excellent independence of the hands, a competitive advantage in video games. For me, it offers a therapeutic and satisfying discipline. All musicians know the exquisite pleasure of “going home,” resolving a knotty suspension of chords at last to the tonic chord. Bach, who said that the aim of music is to glorify God and refresh the soul, almost always allowed the sun to come out by ending even his darkest compositions in a major key. Playing certain progressions may restore balance to the wobbly or offer a humbling taste of despair to the smugly confident.

Living with a piano enthusiast isn’t always pleasant. The incessant repetition and the starting and stopping that piano practice requires once prompted my husband to ask, “How long do musicians have to keep practicing? Don’t they finally get it?” I replied, “How’s your golf swing?”

He knows that after a day of wrestling the chaos of words to a blank page, there is nothing more appealing to me than sitting down to play something written in an entirely different language, one that needs no editing. During the crazy years of rearing three sons, John and I used to sit on the front steps and exchange fantasies while the boys played hide-and-seek in the yard. We both like to cook, so sometimes we talked of meals we’d eat when everybody outgrew macaroni and cheese. His other fantasies were of catching redfish tailing on the Texas coast or fly-fishing in pristine streams in Montana. Mine were of mountain cabins with a fireplace, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Goldberg Variations, and a splendid concert grand. We fulfilled modified fantasies occasionally. Before signing up for a pricey fishing trip to Montana, he’d always inquire, “Is there possibly a piano in the lodge?” When I registered for an equally pricey adult piano camp in Bennington, Vermont, I likewise asked, “How far is it to the Battenkill River?”

These days he smokes his cigar on the side porch, but he leaves the door cracked a bit so he can overhear the conversation in the living room. My lover with the 88 ivories offers the options: “What will it be tonight? To Leipzig? Paris? Vienna?”

“I think something romantic and Café Carlyle–ish, closer to home for the contemplative man on the porch who pays your tuner twice a year,” I reply.

“ ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’?”

“No, something easier, in the key of C, the one with ‘moon, lagoon, castle in Spain, surprising refrain.’ I had wine with dinner.”

“Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Romance’ it is.”

When we reach the last sweeping line, “My romance doesn’t need a thing but you,” I can’t resist adding a coda: “And new Steinway wippens for my birthday.”

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