The third in a series of mid-life musical musings.
I once heard a WWII pilot say that the last beautiful moment he’d experienced before combat was hearing a crew member play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on an old piano. The pianist did this strictly from memory. In the pilot’s words, “He played it by heart.”
A couple of years back when I was laid up with pneumonia, the loveliest sound imaginable was the noise of my daughters practicing their piano. Those hesitant, choppy scales, arpeggios and chords ascending through the bedroom floor and tickling my ears ... sheer bliss.
In 1987, when I was a young student, my father offered to transfer an airline voucher to my name. It was on the verge of expiring, so I did a quick survey among my university friends, and settled on New York City as my destination of choice.
The morning of my departure, two customs agents at the airport gave me the skunk-eye. I had no New York contacts, no passport, I couldn’t say where I was staying, my backpack was suspiciously compact. “Have you ever been arrested for transporting narcotics?” I explained this was meant to be a cultural-educational experience, extended over a three-night stay. They exchanged suspicious looks, pawed through my collection of T-shirts, socks and undershorts, remarked on the irregularity of my situation, then finally let me board the plane.
When I landed in LaGuardia, the first order of business was securing three nights’ lodging. I had written down the phone numbers of a half-dozen youth hostels and inexpensive hotels. As I dialed one number after another I realized with increasing distress that booking in advance wasn’t just highly recommended, it was practically a necessity. The West Side YMCA finally came through for me, thanks to a just-completed renovation. I can’t recall exactly what I paid, but I think it was roughly $30 a night for a tiny room with a clean twin bed, a table, a chair and a television.
That evening I reconnoitered the neighborhood — Central Park, Lincoln Center. When night fell I bought a slice of pizza for supper. As I ate I took note of the corner stores shuttering up like maximum security prisons, and figured it might be an idea to call it a day. I retreated to my room, checked the lock on my door, then dug out my paperback and settled in.
The floor I was lodged in seemed to be populated by members of a youth orchestra. From every other room an instrument could be heard, riffling through song snippets or simply going over the same warm-up exercises again and again and again. I felt like I had bedded down inside an orchestra pit, and I didn’t mind in the least. After a day of low-grade travel anxieties, this aural immersion was an experience that was at once exotic and profoundly comforting.
My neighbor asked if I’d play guitar at a memorial for a recently deceased family member. I was very nervous, particularly over the two songs she requested, but I accepted. Over the next few days I applied myself to polishing up my campfire strummin’ to something just a little finer.
The memorial was small, two dozen people or so. When it was my turn to play, I stood up and took my time. As I began I focused on technique — pressing fingertips to string and wood, plucking the string. A few bars into the first piece I could hear people sobbing. I concentrated on the structure of the song. There was a very simple progression to follow. It lifted me up, then gently set me back down, and in the tiny space of that moment it proved itself a delicate yet proficient apparatus that served our mutual need.
I believe just about any adult with a modest musical facility could approach the piano for the first time and, after a month or two of serious application, play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It truly is a classical piece, its structure as stable a bit of Western Civilization as any cathedral. It does contain surprises — it has to, to sustain interest — but they are of a subtle variety, the sort that seem “natural” once the piece is finished. For the young piano student playing this song for the first time the biggest surprise is realizing that this piece has been sitting inside all those warm-up exercises he’s endured for the last three years — the scales, the chords, the arpeggios.
Those exercises were the bane of my existence when I was a child, but as an adult I’m discovering a solace and delight that comes with practicing them anew: on piano, guitar, ukulele ... you name it. The exploration of elementary musical progressions and their emotional evocations isn’t simply a matter of expressiveness, it is a natural and inexpensive form of therapy — music — a gift of incomparable largess.