Piano Lessons-How to Play 88 Keys for Music, Aging and Life

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ARTS AND MEDIA CURRENTS

"You have a piano teacher?"

The amazement of others no longer surprises me. Piano lessons can evoke memories of an intimidating teacher, mortifying recitals and an activity far too demanding and stressful to be undertaken voluntarily. But, yes, I have a piano teacher. No, I don't play well and, yes, I practice.

Why? To be sure, I enjoy fantasies of dazzling and delighting an admiring throng. I'm 60, though-time to get real. I know that piano study is good for the brain. Its value for children is well documented, so surely it benefits those who are confronting decline. But that's not what motivates me. If it were, I suppose I'd exercise, and I don't.

THE REAL REASON

The first time we spoke, Aglika Angelova, my current teacher, asked me why I wanted lessons. I speculated that playing the piano allows me to express feelings with an intensity that I don't show in the rest of life. She had the grace to accept that, although she probably suspected, and certainly has come to know, that I was bluffing. Actually, I'm as restrained at the piano as I am everywhere else.

The real reason is that making music-bringing sound, feelings and movements together, my way-is exhilarating. At sixty, though, I'm discovering something still deeper: Piano study, mediated by an extraordinary teacher less than half my age, offers lessons for aging. Some themes come to mind.

As we take a passage of music apart, Aglika often points out that I'm rushing the eighth notes-again. (In some pieces, these notes are pretty fast.) Typically I see a bunch of black notes on the page and worry about moving fast enough. It's worse if there is a note after such a passage that is beyond comfortable reach. "Yikes, I gotta leap all the way to the F sharp," says my inner voice. "Better hurry, get an early start." So I play the last eighth note too soon, and the distorted rhythm gives me less time to get to the F sharp, dashing all hope of an on-time arrival.

The truth is, eighth notes aren't the only things I rush. Sometimes I think a day was productive just because I got to six appointments and had my teeth cleaned in between. So what if I spent the first part of each appointment catching my breath and the last part worrying about the next one? I am losing tolerance for such rushing around. I'm gratified now by connecting, understanding, being truly present-not only in pursuit of a goal but with the others involved. That kind of engagement isn't created by hurrying or counting. It has a rhythm of its own-one I don't control, but can strive to respect.

I know the drill about rushed eighth notes: Practice with the metronome and learn the real length of each note. Usually I discover that there is enough time to get to F sharp, and, from then on, at least on a good day, I make it. That feels like an achievement, but with Aglika, it's just a beginning.

THE MEANING OF F SHARP

"Okay, what do you want to do with the F sharp," Aglika asked one day. "What does it mean?"

" Mean?"

"It's something new. How does it conclude the preceding passage and set up the phrase to come?"

We talk about the emphasis F sharp needs, and Aglika gives suggestions about touch, pedal use and timing. I manage to implement one or two changes, not all three together. Perhaps next time.

"Better," she encourages me. "Now, is the F sharp the high point? Where does it lead? How soft does it need to be to leave room for the climax? …