With a little help from my friend

Part 2 of the piano bits

When I first went to Block Island to work in the summer of 1982, I rented a room from a woman who owned what used to be an old hotel that had been cut up into small dorm-like rooms. Carrie and her husband rented the rooms to kids who came out to work for the summer. No kitchens, shared bathrooms, but at least it was a bed to sleep on.

Southeast Bluffs of Block Island on a hazy summer day

I didn’t stay in the room long, but it’s a small island and I kept in contact with Carrie over the years I summered there. By the summer of 1986, Carrie and her husband were running a bicycle, moped and car rental business. When a friend of mine who was visiting decided to stay for the summer, the decision was facilitated by Carrie who gave her a job and a place to stay for the summer.

Carrie is, to me, a larger than life character. She is incredibly generous, kind, smart, fun, and very driven. She plays piano and is the primary piano teacher on the island with over 40 students. In addition, she is always running at least two small businesses, being a house mom to her summer workers, principal organist/pianist for the largest church on the island and accompanist for the island’s community choir.

By 1987, I had already spent part of a winter on the island: I joined the community choir, attended Scottish country dancing sessions, and lived with and cooked for the island’s 94-year-old matriarch. As I became more a part of that small community, I was getting to know Carrie and other islanders more intimately.

It wasn’t long before Carrie found out I played piano. Carrie practically pounced on that little tidbit of information and asked me to come play a four-handed piece with her. I had spent some time teaching myself to play organ while I was in college, and had played some piano at the U.U. Church in Kent, Ohio, where I went to school, but I had not done a lot of piano performing outside of that.

And the truth is, I had never played four-handed piano pieces with anyone. When I first sat down with her, I was like, “No way! I don’t know if I can read two treble clefs at the same time.”

Carrie was undaunted, “Of course you can. You’ll pick right up on it.” Carrie has this way about her that challenges you in a way that expresses absolutely NO DOUBT about your abilities or hers. Suddenly you are whisked into this world in which all things are possible and we simply barrel ahead through whatever challenge lies before us.

So we played Dvorjak’s Slavonic Dances, Gottschalk’s La Gallina, Faure’s Dolly Suite. And we prepared them for her recitals. Oh yes, that little dickens had ulterior motives all along. We were always preparing something for her student recitals so she could end the recitals with a bang. All I can say is, I never knew what hit me. I was challenging my abilities in ways I hadn’t in years. And having a ball doing it.

I learned so much playing with Carrie. She’s a very strong piano player with very strong hands, like her personality. The only formal lesson I have had in years was when she invited her piano instructor, a piano professor from Brown University, out to the island to critique us and give us a lesson on one of our 4-handed pieces. The content of that lesson still informs my playing even now, and that was 25 years ago.

Long about 1989, the time came for me to leave Block Island. My mate and I had decided to move to Florida. I was looking for work in the Fort Myers area where an old friend could put me up until I got an apartment. I was getting the Fort Myers newspaper delivered to me on the island, and lo and behold, one Sunday there was a classified advertisement for a Music Director at the Unitarian Universalist Church there. I had already been associated with the U.U.s while in college at Kent State. My friend, Jim was the music director at the U.U. Fellowship there. I had performed with him, singing in a quartet, playing piano in ensembles, singing in his small choir and learning to play the organ in the warmth of that fellowship.

And by the time I was conducting this job search in order to move to Fort Myers, I had performed organ and piano in various places on Block Island, filling in as organist or pianist at the other smaller churches on the island, accompanying soloists for charitable performances, playing in chamber ensembles, as well as continuing to sing in the community choir.

The advertisement was for a Music Director, someone who would play organ for the hymns, play other music as needed for the service on piano or organ, and direct a small choir.

Still, as I said in a previous post, I did not major in music in college. So I’m thinking to myself, I’m probably not qualified to take this position. Yes, I’ve played in churches, accompanied plenty of folks, and I have sung in countless choirs, small ensembles, and as a soloist my entire life. Still, I thought, what qualifies me to be a Music Director in a church?

I took the question to Carrie (thankfully!). You can guess what Carrie’s answer was.

“Of course you can do this, Maggie!”

“But I’ve never actually directed a choir before,” I said in my self-depracating-ness

“So?! Oh, there’s nothing to it. I’m doing it at the Old Harbor Church. If I can do it you can do it. And I don’t have an accompanist; I do it while I’m playing the piano. You can do it.”

This is why I love this woman.

So, I made a tape (yes, it’s when we still had cassette tapes) of myself playing organ and piano and sent it off to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. And after a couple of telephone conversations with a congregation member and the minister, I landed the job.

I think there are people with gifts so great, energy so powerful, faith so magnanimous, who are so fully engaged in a forward motion in their own lives that they literally propel whoever comes into contact with them forward also. Carrie is one of those people. I am very thankful to have her as a friend. And this was not the only time in my life that she helped propel me through my own self-doubt. More on that next time.


The joy is in the practicing

 I’m sitting at the computer, writing and listening to Keith Jarrett on Pandora. Keith Jarrett is a jazz pianist who has a unique style and voice (he sometimes can be heard audibly scatting while he’s playing even though he is not a singer). His style varies from contemporary jazz to traditional to avante garde improvisational with a mesmerizing or hypnotic quality at times.  Check him out doing Autumn Leaves at the Blue Note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1o1Hwpo8Y

One of the first guys I dated in college, a music student by the name of Kevin, turned me on to Keith Jarrett. Kevin and I met when he approached me in the lobby of my dorm where I was playing the grand piano that sat there. Kevin was mean and self-centered and was probably bipolar, like so many of the people I attract like a magnet. We dated only a couple times, but my appreciation for Keith Jarrett has continued through the years.

I love the piano. I have played it all my life. I love to listen to piano music. I particularly admire jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Diana Krall. But I have an undying appreciation of all accomplished piano players and will listen to piano music any time. When a pop singer hits the scene whose main instrument is piano, I tend to have a special affinity for him or her, Ben Folds, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Hornsby, Ingrid Michaelson, Nora Jones. God bless Pandora, because I can listen to any pianist I want day or night.

I am not half as accomplished at piano as some of these folks and I did not major in music in college. Still, it is my beloved avocation. I have played piano professionally, accompanied soloists, played in ensembles, and I have taught piano to adults and children.

I have my mother to thank for this. I grew up in a house where it was simply understood that you would learn to play an instrument, and taking piano was mandatory before you could move on to any other. Out of five siblings, I’m the only one who stuck with piano as my primary instrument.

I was having lunch with my mom yesterday and she told the man I’m dating this story: I was only 7 or 8 years old and had not been taking piano for very long and I performed Fur Elise at my piano recital to the amazement of everyone in the audience since I was such a young girl and a relatively new piano student.

Having an aging parent is such a blessing (my mom is a spry 83), because they possess this big trunk of secrets and memories. And all the wealth and richness of their lives and of your own life comes percolating out of them when you least expect it. Like that short little vignette of my life as a young piano student.

I suddenly remembered how driven I was to learn that piece, Fur Elise. I just loved it so much, I wanted to be it. It never occurred to me that I might not have enough knowledge as a young piano student to play it. The thought never crossed my mind. And even though I was a typical student who complained about having to practice all the time, practicing this piece didn’t feel like practice. I just decided I was going to play this piece and did. It was exhilarating. Of course I could only play the first movement, but learning that piece made me feel like I had flown to the moon and back.

I haven’t changed all that much from that driven, giddy little piano student. I still get a hold of a piece and don’t’ let go. Of course, some of the pieces I pick up take a hell of a lot longer to master. And many of them I never master. I’ll play Clair de Lune my whole life and never play it worth a crap. The arpeggios in the middle really hang me up. I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for years. I play a sloppy first movement and a halfway decent second movement, but can’t bring myself to try the third, knowing how fast it’s supposed to go.

Last year I learned the Prelude from Grieg’s In Holberg’s Time, a Suite in Antique Style. I’m still having a little trouble with a couple of places in it, and I will probably never play it up to speed. But when my dear friend, Carrie, told me one of her high school piano students was playing it, I got a little competitive and decided I had to learn it. It’s been a year and I’m still working on it. Maybe I’ll move on to the other movements, maybe not. The joy is in the work!

Even when I am playing piano by ear, finding a popular piece that I like to sing and figuring out an accompaniment so that I can sing it without the record, I still operate in the same way I did those many years ago when I learned Fur Elise. In these cases, when it’s an Ingrid Michaelson song, or a Dolly Parton song, or a Patti Griffin song, or a Cheryl Wheeler song, I usually sit down at the piano with the recording nearby and work out the entire song in one sitting, repeating it over and over and over so I don’t forget it. Then I know it’s in there (my pea-sized brain) and I can pull it out any time I want.

Without all this music running around in my head, I fear I would be very lonely and bored. Thanks, mom, for making me take piano lessons. Sorry I complained so much about practicing.