It’s my first piano lesson in over a decade. I’m nervous. Of course I’m nervous. My confidence as a performer stems first and foremost from meticulous advance preparation, but an accumulated 8 hours of feverish application cannot compensate for more than ten years of complete inactivity. Professor Lichtmann has a reputation for being highly demanding; more than a few undergraduates who fled his studio forewarn me that I might regret the temerity of my request to study with him.
I don’t. Professor Lichtmann is very patient and very understanding, despite the fact that I’m inarguably his worst student in the history of his tenure at the university. There’s no sarcasm, no symbolic violence, no arrogance from him. And in response, for probably the first time in my life, I practice piano.
I spend the following ten weeks on one piece, Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1, with a very brief foray into No. 3 towards the end. We pull No. 1 apart, note by note at first, then measure by measure, then phrase by phrase. I bend my fingers, not unwilling but certainly unresponsive at first, to my desire to achieve technical and musical perfection, knowing full well one is eminently achievable, the other a pursuit that would last a lifetime and end inexorably in glorious failure. Prof. Licthmann brings to my insensitive eye but eager ear the sophisticated play of voices, the musical lines, the drama and depth of the Scottish Lullaby, and I leave his studio far too soon, but still having developed a newfound appreciation for both page and piano.
Within this process, the most important realization I had was that I could make this music, through this instrument, mine in a way I had only thought possible for me personally through the horn and the orchestra. Calling it “mine” wasn’t a claim to intellectual or artistic ownership, but the discovery that I could experience something through the act of making music that was profoundly, personally fulfilling. There was no jury at the end, no examination, no performance. My return to piano was something I had done only for myself, rather than a degree program or a parent, and as such it took on new meaning for me. With those slender wooden keys I could create the most wondrous things, (limited only by my imagination and their finite tessitura), tear them down and begin anew.
I don’t have a piano now – I don’t even have access to a piano, in fact, and I miss it dearly. I have a feeling that my performance supporting my future wife in 2006 was probably my last public appearance on the keyboard. The acquisition of a quality piano is a definitely a priority…once some sundries such as children and career and place of residence are sorted out – but still more of a priority than a place in which I could practice horn, in fact. I derive the same satisfaction from conducting as I did from horn: there’s a profound social element in the orchestra, naturally, in the act of creating music with friends and colleagues. At this point in my life, I’m also ready for deeply personal musical experiences, the introverted, private discourse between me and an instrument, the exploration of oneself by gazing into a reflector not of images, but of ideas and emotions. I need both – we, as musicians need both, I believe. Happy and fortunate are those for whom the two modes of expression converge in one place. It may be simply that piano is something I approach on my own terms, on my own conditions (incompetence?), and on my own time, unlike any ensemble experience. I can take from the piano exactly what I need, what I cannot get from my interactions with an orchestra as horn player or conductor, and this is what makes it invaluable, more so in the absence of an instrument.
Music cannot be single purpose. The social element it offers is critical, but it’s not the only one of importance or value. In the early days of instrumental study the ensemble environment can provide extrinsic motivation of a kind more immediately relevant and enjoyable to a child than parental pressure, but it must be directed to the development of intrinsic motivation, the pleasure and rewards inherent in the activity. This is the discipline, the self-efficacy, the difference between music as a hobby, or music as an essential element of life. And it’s that life in music that I want for my daughter, with both its social and personal rewards, rather than a career.
Sistema is not just for poor kids, contrary to the prevailing opinion. As long as it is portrayed as such it will be marginalized and dismissed by the existing industry, rather than recognized as the entirely valid, complementary mode of music instruction that it is. We can have the best of both worlds, and I intend my daughter to have the best of both of them too.
So at some point for her it will be piano, with her mother as teacher, and violin, with her father as co-student. I hope by that time Sistema-style orchestras have proliferated to the extent geographically and philosophically that I can be her stand partner, learning and growing with her, until the embarrassment for her proves too great. At some point she’ll vacate the chair, as is inevitable, but it will always be reserved for her. If she’s anything like her father, one day she’ll be back.