DeathByPiano

With brotherhood, from C to shining C.

Among the indignities that Brian suffered during his teenage years, accompanying his kid brother to our piano lessons must have been one of the most painful.  The eight years that separate us were a vast chasm in those days, and we had little in common beyond our genetics and home address.  My brother seemed aloof and foreign to me then.  As neurotic and quirky as I was in my formative years, Brian must have seen me as an inscrutably strange and pesky little alien for whom he was occasionally responsible.  Every week, we would amble down the street with piano books in hand, ready (or not) for another lesson with Mrs. O’Neil.

A wall of bookshelves and a large picture window defined Mrs. O’Neil’s front room, where Brian and I would take turns sitting on the sofa during each other’s lesson.  Sometimes I would peruse the small stack of children’s books and comics while Brian played, but more often I tilted my head back upon the sofa cushion and gazed at the ceiling, which sparkled with a dusting of golden glitter.  I would let my eyes relax their focus until the sparkling ceiling dissolved into an infinite cosmos, and the music whirled around me like orbiting planets as I stared into the outer reaches of the universe.  Then it would be my turn.

Mrs. O’Neil was a nice teacher, perhaps far too nice for anyone who lacked the self-discipline to take practicing seriously.  It made my lessons all the longer for Brian, who had to endure my many false starts and ignorance of key signatures.  Again and again he would witness Mrs. O’Neil correcting my finger posture, waiting patiently for me to identify an interval, and demonstrating the rhythm of a triplet (“Trip-el-LET, trip-el-LET”).  She wrote my assignments in a little notebook, only to have me return each week showing only minimal mastery of the pieces I was supposed to practice.

I actually loved playing the piano, but devoting the time and effort to correctly interpret sheet music was monotonous to me (which is probably why I remain an atrocious sight reader).  What I really wanted to do was noodle around and experiment, learning how to invent arrangements of tunes I knew and how to compose songs of my own.  Whenever I did sit down to practice, I would rush through my assignments so that I could play what interested me.

Over time, I developed a small repertoire of original phrases and segments that I would play repeatedly on our upright Baldwin, which was never in tune.  In fact, I have no memory of a tuner visiting our house, though I did hear stories of the cantankerous man who used to service our piano.  He would inevitably break a string and loudly complain that our piano was “a piece of junk.”   This behavior rapidly wore thin for my parents, who ceased calling him and never got around to hiring someone else.  As a result, our piano never sounded quite right.  In particular, the high A produced a shrill dissonance all on its own, as though it had been transplanted from a honky-tonk upright.

This combination of an eager yet inexperienced pianist and a detuned instrument could be lethal to the ears.  I eventually stopped taking lessons, because…well…what is the point if you’re not going to practice?  But I never stopped playing, and once free from the constraints of a formal musical education, I indulged my creativity with abandon.  Outside of using the soft pedal and avoiding late hours, I made no concessions to the mental health of my family.  If I enjoyed playing one of my compositions, I would repeat it as many times as I liked.  Whereas I had little tolerance for repetition when it came to practicing anything assigned to me, it did not bother me to keep going over any troublesome parts of numbers I had written myself.  It is a tremendous credit to the patience of my parents that they never requested me to stop.  But oh, how they must have suffered.

Brian has made no secret of the fact that a specific composition of mine became anathema to him.  The piece was cobbled together out of various segments with which I had been experimenting, and it ran over four minutes in length.  I played it a lot.  In an original recording circa 1983, you can hear me playing this song on our old Baldwin.  By taking a moment to listen to it now, you will readily appreciate what its ceaseless repetition did to my brother.

The composition begins with a pleasant and melodic motif, unless one happens to play it on a piano with a dissonant high A.  That key practically screams its individuality, ringing out three times in the opening five seconds.  The introductory statement is followed by some alternating chords with low octaves learned from listening to Robert Lamm’s piano solo on Chicago at Carnegie Hall, which is further emulated by the ensuing staccato ascension of the same chords.  This was particularly annoying to Brian, as I always delivered this segment with all the passion my fingers, wrists, and forearms could muster.

There follows an odd sequence with booming C octaves that is either an extremely fast march or bizarrely metered boogie-woogie, or perhaps something else entirely.  It includes rapidly descending right-hand arpeggios that eventually slow into the mellow middle of the piece, a few seconds of contemplative jazz.  This soon transforms into a foot-stomping cadence that evokes Elton John’s Too Low for Zero era.  Then, it’s back to the breakneck march.  Or boogie-woogie.  Or whatever it is.

Three and a quarter minutes into the number comes the showstopping highlight, six measures of sheer bombast featuring a loud series of descending octaves.  I would hold down the damper pedal and punch the keys ferociously, creating a reverberating wave of sound that echoed off the kitchen cabinets and rivaled the most clamorous church bell ringing of Old Europe.  By this time Brian would be driven close to the brink of madness, unable to concentrate on anything due to the mind-numbing intrusion of a pianistic monstrosity that he knew all to well.  And remember, I was doing this years before John Tesh started making money using basically the same concept.

The last blast of this segment barely decays before the finale, a variation on the opening theme that provides unifying closure to the whole pastiche.  Note the unsettling ambiguity of the final chord, which is at last resolved with a cheeky, four-note scherzo.  For what is cooler than lampooning one’s own pomposity?  Or more pompous, for that matter?

The old Baldwin is gone now, but the pieces that were hammered out on its strings live on in our minds and our muscle memory.  Like the unconscious routine of tying one’s shoes, Brian and I can summon old favorites from our fingers so long as we don’t pay too much attention to what we’re doing, otherwise we may find ourselves inexplicably lost in the middle of a routine we thought we thoroughly understood. 

To this day, Brian can perfectly replicate a beautiful little number that takes me right back to staring at the infinite cosmos from the comfort of Mrs. O’Neil’s couch.  And sometimes, when Brian is visiting and I’m feeling mischievous, I’ll sit down at the piano and play the opening notes of the haunting composition that still lingers in my brother’s mind like an immortal and malevolent phantasm.

He smiles indulgently and good-naturedly when I do this, noting, “It’s really not that bad, it’s just that you played it again and again and again…”

But of course I did, Brian.  Practice makes perfect, you know.