Friday, October 28, 2005
a portrait of the artist as a young 'un
Possible explanations for the Liberace suit: 1) Everyone looked like a gay musician in 1982; 2) I thought I'd try Christmas on for size; 3) I was preparing to run away and join the circus (not the first time, not the last); 4) this getup was a hand-me-down from one of the clowns who worked the birthday party circuit for my mother's entertainment agency. Really there's no excuse for this outfit; let's just throw it on the what-was-I-thinking pile and walk away. As for the haircut: My mother claimed it was "chic" and "French." She's always been obsessed with French stuff, I think that's why she named me Danielle. I still can't stand to hear my name issue from her mouth or my own, but enough men have cooed, growled and whispered it to dissuade me from becoming a Jennifer or Samantha.
But this is not about my French name or my red polyester jumpsuit or the haircut that necessitated daily earrings until I sprouted breasts and people stopped mistaking me for a Daniel. It's about my relationship with the piano. Recently I was inspired to start playing again after a year-long hiatus, and I was relieved to discover that I've still got it, even if I'm a little rusty. I guess after 23 years the music is embedded so deep in my subconscious, even if my brain forgets a few bars my fingers can pick up the slack.
I was seven years old when I first was plunked before the upright Wurlitzer in my parents' living room. At that age I was painfully aware of my differentness in the Northern Virginia community where we lived; I was the only Jew in my class, the only girl with cropped hair and strange green eyes and a bedtime ritual that often included falling asleep to the Puccini duets my mother and her opera friends rehearsed in the living room downstairs. Some part of me knew that embracing classical music in the second grade would widen the gap between my classmates and me, but my desire to fit in was not as great as my yearning to become a bona fide musician.
It took only a few lessons for the flashcards to sink in and pretty soon I was reading music and playing "Wheels" at breakneck speed. "Where's the fire?!" my mother would shout, stomping in from the kitchen to slow me down. She meant to scold but couldn't help grinning at the sight of me, brow furrowed in concentration, fingers dancing across the keys, little feet dangling inches above the pedals. After a year, once my legs had grown longer and my parents were sure it'd be worth the investment, a 1906 Steinway baby grand arrived in our house. It was beautiful like a movie star, all smooth curves and polished shine. Eighty-eight copper wires tensed precisely for the perfect pitch. Eighty-eight ivory keys, elegant as a string of pearls. It was the first time I fell in love.
The Steinway had what's called a "stiff action": The keys didn't feel loose like a new Yamaha, they demanded that my fingers work hard and responded with rich, resonant tones. Within a few months my hands had grown strong and nimble. "Look at those instruments!" gasped one new piano teacher, marveling at the long fingers that must have looked out of place on a little girl's arms.
Once I'd settled into my relationship with the Steinway my teacher began to introduce The Men: At age nine I discovered Bach and Mozart; by ten I was flirting with Handel; and then, finally, Chopin arrived in my life. Frederic Chopin, my beloved, my soul mate. I started with his simpler waltzes and worked up to the nocturnes. The concertos were out of my reach but I fantasized about them often (with full orchestra).
My grandmother always said I understood Chopin's music best because we were both Polish. "It's the passion," she would declare with her chin held high, and point out that the "Oriental" kids who won all my piano competitions didn't know from passion. "They play like machines." (Tact has never been my grandmother's strong suit. Her entire view of world is colored by stereotypes and she fails to see the irony.)
Year after year I was schlepped to a statewide piano competition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Year after year, through guilt and promises of extravagant Hanukah presents, I was made to play. And year after year I won the number-two spot, which was just fine by me. I hated to compete. Actually I hated to perform at all; I just wanted to make music. But the validation was important to my parents -- it was, after all, their investment that paid for my education and the stunning instrument that few other 12-year-olds had the privilege to call their own.
A different young pianist claimed first prize at each competition I entered. Except for one they were all Asian-American kids. I suppose it was a matter of culture: Their parents had instilled in them a discipline that just wasn't part of my family dynamic. They practiced two and three hours a day and turned out technically flawless performances for which they deserved nothing less than a true blue ribbon. Honestly I felt a little guilty; my performance was never perfect. It was sort of a travesty that I came in even a distant second after I'd practiced for 20 or 30 minutes each day before sliding quietly off the piano bench in pursuit of books or television or something to eat. My grandmother insisted that even though I missed a few notes here and there the judges took a shine to me because I could feel the music. "You play it from here," she'd say, pointing her tiny index finger into the middle of my chest. Be that as it may, I wasn't above learning from my peers. From my seat in that sterile conservatory classroom I admired my competitors' brand of passion -- more precise than mine but equally artful -- and it always inspired me to go home, plant myself in front of the keys and really get to work.
At least until snack time.