Tuesday, March 03, 2009

piano playing


A piano has just come back into my life, digital this time to spare the neighbour in the apartment below. It's a birthday present from my partner, who's noted me treating every surface as a keyboard and drumming my fingers across it. My new novel has music at its core, so its moving to be able to shift myself inside music in so physical a way.
It has set me thinking about piano playing. One of my favourite stories is 'My Dear Palestrina' by Bernard Maclaverty (and check this great interview with him that touches on this and is beautiful and intimate on the writing process). The story was made into a BBC film in 1980, Eleanor Bron starring as the piano tuner, and it worked equally well in the form of a radio play. For me it captures the unique poignancy of the relationship with the piano teacher (my own was Mrs Towers in Loughborough, a weekly half hour in her front room for more than a decade, a step over the threshold of another life where life can be powered into a different quality of meaning). I met Bernard Maclaverty once and asked about his own piano teacher. He never had one; loves music but cannot read a note.
I marvelled then at the powers of invention and imagination that conjure so true a piano teacher out of no direct experience. It's only just now I see the truth behind it. Maclaverty didn't have a piano teacher, but he did have a mother.
I see myself playing the piano, and I picture perhaps the most idyllic scene of my life. I'm stroking the keys of an old Grotrian Steinweg grand in the dining room of the Old Rectory in Rempstone. The piano is angled into the room, my stool is beside a glass doorway open to the patio outside. My mother is on a chair, taking in the sunshine with her eyes closed perhaps, smoking a Dunhill, maybe shelling peas, and listening. Piano playing was many things to me (Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata I used to flash out whenever I had anger to express, the anger fuelling a storm of musicianship till I was spent at the closing bars) but perhaps most of all it was this relationship with my mother, me playing and her listening, both of us opening out into realms of other possibilities.
I played for my grandmother too, on her Sunday visits. She was a rough diamond, working-class Leicester, who in her day could belt out any tune for her husband to sing to as friends squeezed into the parlour of their tiny terraced home. There was secret magic in playing so that her eyes welled with tears, journeying out to find some space and moment that was special to us both.
So I realize that the relationship with the piano teacher for me was also one with the mother. I played the piano, muted but without headphones, the evening it arrived. The next morning a sour note appeared in the hallway, the lady below complaining about the noise. It disturbed her watching of the TV.I realize the magic went out of piano playing when my mother was no longer there to listen to it.
With my writing I had to take the conscious step of no longer writing for my mother. I sometimes set students the task of writing something they would hate their mother to see, just to break them loose of those constraints. I guess I have to take a similar step with piano playing, journeying into music that shocks me and isn't necessarily a pleasant listening experience at all. How curious, that growing up keeps setting new challenges.

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