Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

By Valerie Andrews

The author with her 1927 Chickering parlor grand

Music has saved my life. Not just listening, but the act of playing, the intimacy of running fingers over polished keys.  Whatever concerns I bring to the piano vanish as I lose myself in the stormy contrasts of a Beethoven sonata, the exuberance of a Chopin mazurka, the lighthearted skipping of a Bach bourrée.  For me, the piano has been many things—a solace in time of loss, a playground for improvisation, a prelude to a state of grace. 

As soon as I could crawl, I teethed on the legs of our old upright. Once I climbed onto the bench, I began to make up melodies.  I’d take my turtles out of their tank, place them on the music stand, and tell them stories, creating imaginary soundtracks to Jack and the Beanstalk or Beauty and the Beast. (The upper octaves were reserved for the clear voice of the hero or the heroine, the lower range for sorcerers and ogres.) 

I began my lessons at the age of five, and one of my first pieces was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Lost Chord.   When I came to the end, I felt a ray of purple light move through me, as though I’d been taken up to Heaven to find that missing piece of divine harmony.  

That year, we inherited a Sohmer concert grand so large it was delivered through the large dining room window by a crane.  This great feral beast consoled me on long winter nights as I waited for my parents to come home from work.  Afraid of the dark, I lit the house up like a bonfire, turning on all the lamps.  Yet as soon as I sat down at the keyboard, I felt safe.  


My first job, if one can count childhood past-times, was as an accompanist.  My father was a singer at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a repertory theatre in Millburn, New Jersey that produced operettas like “The Merry Widow” and “The Student Prince.”  After the Sohmer arrived, he’d beckon me into the living room to play for his old cronies on Sunday nights.  I’d sit on the piano stool in my Doctor Dentons—those old flannel pajamas with the feet in them—running through The Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook, playing tunes from “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and  “South Pacific,”  then moving on to the lush romantic melodies of Franz Lehar and Sigmund Romberg.   I can still hear Dad’s sweet baritone: “Overhead the moon is beaming, white as blossoms on the bough. Nothing is heard but the song of the bird, filling all the air with dreaming…..” 

My mother had made our house into a stage set from “The Flower Drum Song,” with Chinese wallpaper and an entire wall painted in bright red.  The sofa was lime green and ultra modern; on the table was a glass ashtray that also doubled as a sculpture..  I recall the tinkling of the highball glasses, the smell of cigarettes and strong perfume.

A natural performer, my father couldn’t walk down the street without bursting into song.  But when my mother urged him to get a real job,  he gave up show business for the shoe business—and at first, all the matinee matrons followed him to the new boutique to have their glass slippers put on by the handsome prince.

My piano lessons stopped five years after my father opened his emporium. Money was tight so we moved into a small apartment, and replaced the seven-foot Sohmer with a Wurlitzer console.   On this paltry instrument, I prepared “Rhapsody in Blue” for my 8th grade talent show, pounding the keys in pure frustration, for this instrument had no soul.  As the business failed, our home life fell apart and I was sent to live with my aunt Geri who  had played a showy piano solo called “The Burning of Rome” on the radio at age 14, then had given up her music to take care of my cousins.  This was the family curse: my people turned their backs on their creativity and in the end they paid a heavy price.  The year I left for college, my aunt took her life—and my father ended his a few months later.  Without music, their world simply made no sense.   

Today,  I begin my practice with a C major scale, played slowly and with great care.  Each note has an overtone, connecting us to a complex realm of musical relationships. That same is true for us.  Whenever we cease to sing our song, we leave a hole in the cosmos—a space where a harmonic line should be.  

Harvey Andrews in costume for "The Student Prince"

I did not make a career of music—journalism was my calling—but I remained a devoted amateur.   While living in New York, I acquired a piano from Tanglewood and trekked over to Lincoln Center to study with a protégé of  the celebrated pianist Richard Goode.  There I fell in love with the lush internal harmonies of Brahms.  After my rendering of the Intermezzo, Opus 118,  my teacher blurted out, “You’re not supposed to be able to do that! This piece is way beyond your technical ability.” 

I have no logical explanation for such moments of transcendence.  They have occurred without rhyme or reason throughout my musical life.

The most sublime of these came fifteen year ago, when I contracted Lyme Disease.  My left brain was so impaired that I couldn’t read a grocery list.   But my right brain  went on overdrive, and like a patient of Oliver Sacks undergoing a strange neurological transformation, I began to churn out endless melodies.   The result was an album called Mindful Music that was presented at the Helen Bonney Institute, an organization that explores the connection between music and healing.  

This direct line to melody is something I cannot explain. It has come and gone throughout my lifetime, like a religious visitation. And it has made me wonder, Where does sound come from?  What does it mean to tap into the music of the spheres?

In 2019, I attended a master class on Musical Phenomenology based on the work of  Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache. The “conductor’s conductor,” Celibidache studied Zen and philosophy, and understood music on a whole new level.  In 1945 he became the youngest maestro to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. In his later years, Celibidache would not approve of microphones in the concert hall for he believed that music was a living thing—a transcendent experience that could not be duplicated by technology. 

I was introduced to Musical Phenomenology by Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel, a concert pianist who had studied with the maestro for some time, at her salon in Berkeley, California.   Christyna spoke about those rare moments when the music seems to come straight from heaven. She called this method of playing, “a stairway to paradise.”  I knew I had found my teacher—the one who could show me how to make the magic happen.

This was a major undertaking at the age of 70.  It was not a matter of picking up where I left off with scales, and Hanon, and a few familiar compositions. To really understand Musical Phenomenology,  I would have to give up my old way of practicing and  begin anew.  I thought of Rilke who stood in front of the Apollo Belvedere and heard a voice say,  “You must change your life.”  

Lesson One:  Work with Gravity

Christyna begins our first lesson with a bit of history:  Our early instruments are directly connected to the body.   The flute, she says, is animated by the breath,  the violin responds to the slightest pressure of the fingertips.   But the piano is mechanical, abstract.  The performer strikes a key which raises a felt hammer which then pulls back and strikes the string.  If all this does not happen in a fluid motion, the sound will be aggressive, harsh.   To achieve a beautiful bell-like tone,  I must learn how to work with gravity.

In the first few weeks, I do nothing but concentrate on the fall of my arm, sensing the heaviness of it,  as it drops.  The best pianists do not work from the fingers—they let the arm fall, and let the force of nature do the work.   Many players tense the hand and then attack, yet I practice this simple pattern of “fall and release” with the hope that I will attain what my teachers calls “a golden arm.”   

We also pay attention to my posture at the keyboard.  My seat is now more like a jockey’s—alert, and slightly forward.  My shoulders back, my spine erect, always supported by my core.  (Practicing this way is as exacting as yoga or Pilates!)   Before I begin a scale, I check my body.  I do not touch the keys until I have a sense of being drawn upward—as though the top of my head were being lifted by an imaginary string. 

Next it’s scales, one note at a time.  Slowly, conscious of each tone,  until I am able to produce a clear, round note that seems to shimmer in the room.

Lesson Two: Your Body Keeps the Time 

I have taken out the metronome, and though it reminds me of a series of punishing whacks, it is helpful when it comes to honoring the precise geometry of Bach.  But I set the pace much slower,  half the rate I would usually play, until it comes in synch with my heartbeat and my breathing.  Until I feel it in my bones.  Rhythm, Christyna reminds me, is the scaffolding on which the melody unfolds.  But it’s never mechanical, and always grounded in the heartbeat and the breath.

When playing the first piece in  Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” (Scenes from Childhood)  I must pay attention to the third beat in the treble clef that creates the lovely waltz-like nature of the piece.  But every so often I fail to connect with that last note in the right hand.  So what do I do?  I hold my breath and I speed up! 

“Our whole society is in a rush,” Christyna tells me,  “and many students feel they have to play faster, and louder.  This is not the path to understanding.”

When I continue to have this problem, she delves deeper: “You rush when you are afraid of something.  You think you can’t get a certain passage right, or you start to worry that you’ll fumble the fingering, so you just speed up.  Remember, that’s just a way of covering up.”  These lessons, it is clear, are all about un-doing. 

 And we aren’t just talking about Schumann. Now I’m face to face with my own anxiety,  my inability to slow down and trust in life.  I am learning a valuable lesson—that rushing won’t make the “hard parts” go away.  I have to face the music, as the saying goes.   

Lesson Three:  Let Go of the Past

Each lesson feels more like a psychoanalytic hour as I contemplate my bad habits, and my wish to “make things happen” at the keyboard.  It’s not about imposing our own personal drama on the music, Christyna says. It’s about stepping back and listening to the story that is already there unfold.      

Yet sometimes playing brings up painful stories of my own.  The shame of not having enough money for piano lessons when I was growing up. My fury at having to give up the Sohmer concert grand when we moved to a cramped apartment. My father abandoning his operettas.  My aunt, with her silenced music and her broken heart.  These waves of grief are startling, and sometimes bring my practice to a halt.  I do not discuss these things during my lessons—but my teacher knows that I am struggling and that the only cure is time.   

 “Don’t worry,” Christyna says.  “Everyone finds this hard at first.  Why?  Because you have to give up everything you think you know.”  I would add to that: everything I haven’t had the time to feel. These lessons have become a kind of purging—a way of  coming to terms with all the difficult memories that stand between me and the music.  When I despair, I cling to my teacher’s words:  “Yes, you are losing a lot.  But eventually, the music will come back and your playing will be better.”  

Lesson Four: Learn How to Disappear

In his short story, “The Singers,” Ivan Turgenev describes a singing contest in a tavern.  A local tradesman–a stocky fellow with a hearty voice—titillates the audience with his “throat play” and inventive flourishes.  Then we hear from the reluctant Yashka, a gaunt factory worker whose manner is shy and reticent. He begins with a reedy voice then  suddenly, a note “comes out of nowhere.”  As he sings, he loses any awareness of himself or of his audience.  And he wins the contest, not because his rendition is more forceful or dramatic, but because he knows how to disappear.

By Boris Kustodiev - Scanned from: Пищулин Ю.П. (1988) Иван Сергеевич Тургенев. Жизнь. Искусство. Время, Moscow: Советская Россия, p. 155, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27093770

I am reading the Russian masters to prepare for a writing seminar I’m about to give.  As I marvel at this tale, I realize this is what Christyna has been trying to tell me.  “When you approach the piano, don’t try so hard!”  It’s not about muscling through a piece, or putting in more hours at the keyboard.  Nor is it about a big show of emotion.  The task is to stand back and get out of the way.

Lesson Five: We Are Always Coming Home

When we discuss music theory, I go to my textbooks for a refresher.  The first (and last) note of a scale is called the tonic. The fifth note is called the dominant. The fourth note is called the subdominant.  This is the basis for modern harmony.  

Simple right? But now Christyna stuns me:  Whether you’re rendering a Chopin etude, singing opera or playing the blues, these notes all have a psychological function.   

The tonic translates “I am home.”

The subdominant means “I am going on a quest.”

The dominant denotes conflict or tension, “I want to go home now!”

Then we come back to the tonic, or the resolution. “I am here.”

The scale is the oldest story ever told—it predates the Iliad and the Odyssey, and summarizes everything we know about the hero’s journey.  

“When you play a scale,” Christyna says, “all the notes aren’t equal.  The first, fourth, and fifth notes are more important because they reveal the underlying structure of the story.  In music, you are always setting out on a journey, then trying to find your way back home.”

Improvisation by Wassily Kandinsky - http://www.eternels-eclairs.fr/tableaux-kandinsky.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37610955

And so there it is—after a full year of study, the theme that ties it all together. The sense that music can be trusted because it always brings us back to where we started. Like Ariadne’s thread, it lead us through the labyrinth of grief and sorrow, through our fears of inadequacy, through our wish to dominate and make things happen, then returns us to a childlike state of grace. To a moment of openness and innocence.

It’s like that moment at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, we come back to the initial theme–only now it sounds completely different.  Why? Because we have been on a journey. One that has left us irrevocably changed. 

In this Great Time of Undoing—while I was concentrating on the basics like posture, fingering and time signatures, and building up my stamina at the keyboard–I lost my ability to improvise.  I could no longer play with rhythm or make up melodies. All the magic disappeared and I felt I’d as though I’d lost a portion of my soul.   

Then, one day, I sat down to play a tango and it all came back, just as Christyna promised.  My tone was rounder, the riffs like silver bells, and my fingers flew over the keys with ease.  Then suddenly I started changing the whole direction of the piece, making it my own.   Variations sprouted from the original melody, like leaves from a vine, and I was once again in the Garden of Delights.   

Why do we need music? Because it allows us to transcend despair and doubt. “Without music,” Nietzsche said, “life would be a mistake.” 

Valerie Andrews is the founder and editor in chief of  Reinventing Home.  

Musical Phenomenology is a vast discipline and this article merely touches the surface.  Musicians who wish to have a more in depth understanding of this approach should consult the website of Christyna Kaczynski-Kozel.  Music appreciators will find new insights in the work of Sergiu Celibidache. Though he felt recordings were inadequate, he left us sublime versions of Brahms First Symphony, Bruckner’s Seventh and Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli.       

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