Let's Tickle the Ivories

By Dubal, David | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Let's Tickle the Ivories


Dubal, David, New Criterion


There is an old proverb that goes "Play the piano daily and stay sane." For me, the main word of this proverb is daily. Playing the piano daily means inevitable accomplishment, and, without a sense of accomplishment, life is an impoverished journey.

Machines have taken us away from our hands. In his last days, Rachmaninoff continually practiced a composition he never performed. One of his last statements was: "Farewell, my dear hands." Today, we are starved for a deep contact with our hands. The poet Edward Dahlberg felt "our hands are already very stupid and morose. What can we do with them? What do we do with them?" Let's get back to our hands--they are craving good work. At one time, the terms "handmade" and "handcrafted" meant a great deal. In schools, the young are no longer taught to write in script. Handwriting provided the first glimpse of individuality. What a thrill to see our beloved's handwriting in a letter. And what of drawing, once an essential form of education? Painting and drawing are no longer common practice. Goethe, sickened by the Babel of words, counseled, "Let us draw, instead of talk."

There is wisdom, so I say, let us play the piano. Non-verbal music reaches into the depths of the unconscious. There is nothing so satisfactory for our hands--physically, sensuously, and artistically--as playing the piano. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of playing a small piece of Bach or Schumann. If you can't play a Bach invention perfectly, or even imperfectly, try to do it, and you will come to agree with me. The path to such an achievement asks for focus, discipline, attention, a delicate sense of touch, musical feeling, and more. Good practicing is meditation without the mantra. When you commune with Bach or Schubert, you can reach the heights of Mount Parnassus, where the atmosphere is ratified.

Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well," but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adults should take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children should be given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won't serve the ego's craving for recognition.

When I was a student, I had an adult who studied with me. The man was gifted in a number of ways. He took his lessons seriously and worked hard. After about two years, when he thought he had mastered a group of compositions, he could not resist showing off. He rented a small hall and a Steinway and invited a large group of friends. I told him that this was a mistake, as he had no idea what kind of super-mastery was needed to play in public. He was a self-absorbed, flamboyant character who thought he could pull it off with his usual flair, as he did with his acting and dancing.

In the green room before the little concert, he was stunned to find his legs and hands shaking beyond control. Still, he went out to face his audience and made a complete fool of himself, flailing in every piece. The next day, he called me angrily, saying that he was quitting; he didn't love the piano, he told me. I told him I thought that was a good idea. I never saw him again. His narcissism excluded the possibility of properly loving music. The piano is not only a severe taskmaster, it asks that you possess character. If you have the temerity to play publicly, you are all alone, and the way you perform and your preparation tells a great deal about who you are. In a clash of wills, the piano will always win. Robert Schumann wrote, "The hearing of masterworks of different epochs will speediest of all cure you of vanity and self-adoration." Playing the piano teaches one much, especially humility.

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