Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday Music Moment- My Piano Story, part 1

Me- accompanying for a play

My Piano story

              My parents didn’t play any musical instruments but we always had records playing in our home on our large Hifi that took up one wall of the living room.  Phantom of the Opera, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald were what my parents listened to.  My older sisters were listening to Bread, Karen Carpenter, and 3 Dog Night. Because of my family, I’ve always had a broad listening repertoire.
            I started piano when I was six.  My oldest sister, Cindy, tried to teach me piano.  She was a very social fourteen year-old, so this must have been slightly painful for her.  She was patient with me, though.  We tried our homemade lessons for a year. 
            Then it came time for formal lessons.  I don’t really remember my first piano teacher and her methods, but I can recall the room she taught in.  Her studio was a converted porch on the back of her house.  I had a thirty minute private lesson then another student came and we would have fifteen minutes of theory together.  I really liked having another kid around.  I can still see the green, turf-like carpet and orange chairs we sat by next to the large porch windows.
            After a couple years with her, we moved to another state and I had ordinary private lessons.  I don’t remember much about them.  Mostly I was bored.
            When I was eleven, we moved again, to the state that boasts some amazing piano schools and teachers, Texas.  I had three memorable teachers here.  The first teacher used ordinary methods- a private lesson, then a monthly theory class with three to four students.  We met in her small living room and her family often tip-toed by the doorway and waved when they went by. She was into what I call “alternative” performance.  The “alternative” part came at recitals.  She would invite different piano colleagues to perform “creative” music on the piano by dropping paper clips, erasers, feathers and other odds and ends onto the strings of a grand piano.  Sometimes, the colleagues would play a classical song and embellish a trio or stanza with forks on a high string or rubber balls on a bass string.  It was heady stuff for the early 1980’s.
            My classical training progressed nicely.  I played sonatinas, quadrilles, minuets, and was moving into advanced romantic era pieces.  At twelve, I needed a different approach.
            Barbara Brashear was a real classical pianist.  Her studio- another add-on type structure to the back of the house- had a sitting area and a large grand piano filling one space.  On the opposite side of the room was a wall full of awards and pictures of Mrs. Brashear standing in front of a grand piano shaking hands with a judge or her standing with roses in her arms accepting a medal. Underneath this display were rows of crates full of dusty albums, cassette tapes, and recording equipment.  Sometimes she would record my playing, just to humble me.  My favorite part of the lesson is when I would get it right.  Mrs. Brashear always sat toward the back of the room- to hear the vibration waves at the “sweet” spot.  When I performed a section especially well with feeling and musicality, she would pump her long, crane-like legs up and down and say “yes”, “yes”, “yes”.  At my tender age, I didn’t know what to think.  Instead of questioning her, I played to please her. 
Mrs. Brashear primed me to start judication- which is piano language for competing on the piano.  Yes, people do compete to one-up each other on the piano.  For me it was very stressful.  I did get very nervous. My legs got the shakes and my hands sweaty.  The fear of forgetting passages loomed.  But, I always did well.  I have many ribbons and, one time, I was a finalist for the Junior Van Cliburn competition.
            She lived in an area of Dallas called Lover’s Lane.  It was about 30 minutes from my house, without traffic.  Bless my mom for driving me for one or two lessons a week.  My practicing time was ramping up also.  No measly 30 minute practice would do, I had chose to practice one or two hours a day for optimum results.  In middle school and high school, I kept this up with honors classes, school sports, and I worked a little bit after school.  And you thought I was joking about being type A. Hah!
            My sophomore year of high school, my mother was pooped out I’m sure.  She called up to North Texas University to find a graduate, living in Dallas, and that would do in-home lessons.  Elizabeth fit the bill.  She had just graduated and wanted advanced students. 
            She wasn’t as serious as Mrs. Brashear. I desperately needed things to lighten up.  I was in serious danger of burn-out.  My parents were talking music conservatory school.  A professional singer at church had asked me to tour with her.  I just didn’t know if I wanted to dedicate my life to just one interest.  I had always loved my well-rounded upbringing, and now it was being funneled down to one thing.  The piano.