Practicing charts. Reflecting. Thinking of my mother. Seeing her hands at the piano, big hands, capable hands, playing by ear, singing along. Suddenly realizing many decades after the fact that the reason she nagged me to practice so while I sullenly counted off the required 30 minutes per day, the reason she sounded so angry, was because what I took for granted she would have given her eyeteeth to have at my age or at any time. Only there was never enough money for more than one of us to have those lessons. Or the voice lessons I got while her songs went wanting. Her yearnings for mine. They bought me a grand piano when I was 14, managing to pay it off $10 a month, a miracle made possible for Dad and Mama because the man in the piano store took a liking to me.

A privileged life lived in music. Regrets, tinged with shame for those lessons I wasted. My mother’s hands. A debt beyond paying.



The Metronome

When I was in high school, my piano teacher, Mrs. Gertrude Brown, had an electric metronome. Seth Thomas. Eminently audible over the sound of the piano. It had a solid, no-nonsense, maddeningly dispassionate click. Plus an orange-yellow light that blinked at you in time with the click. Mrs. Brown used that metronome every week in my lessons.

I was the sort of piano student who needed a metronome.

I had a love/hate relationship with her electric metronome. It was better than my own traditional wind-up Maelzel model (named for the 1815 inventor, or at least, patenter, of the metronome) which looked like a squat brown wooden obelisk that belonged in Egypt. The wind-up was what my parents – who also had to pay for my voice and piano lessons – could afford. I liked very much how my own metronome looked, actually, but it was a pain to set the small slider on its weighted arm – which stood straight up and wagged the chosen tempo at you like an admonishing finger – to the myriad metronome markings Mrs. Brown expected me to use when I practiced. Also, the sound of its click – when I was able to hear it over the sound of my piano –  seemed sort of prissy compared with the richer sound of Mrs. Brown’s modern appliance. Though I was confident I was good at accurately “intuiting” my metronome’s somewhat sedate click while I practiced, Mrs. Brown’s implacably audible one soon revealed otherwise in lessons.

I have had three lessons with my current piano teacher, Marc. We are working on my being able to improvise accompaniments from charts – I often need to play off of charts for my voice students. A chart only gives you a melody line with the names of the chords written above it.  Sometimes just the words with the chord names written above them (in which case, yes, I do sometimes have to ask them to “hum a few bars”). Anyway, as preparation for my second lesson, Marc assigned scales (“there are only 24!”), arpeggios, a Bach Invention and chord progressions along with some charts to read, which I carefully practiced for a month, all the while remembering Mrs. Brown’s constant instructions for accuracy and stea–dy tem–po. How wonderful to have mastered internal counting at last!

At my second lesson, Marc listened to my scalework and suggested that I may want to work with a metronome.

Both electric and wind-up metronomes have long been superceded by small, square battery-operated models and smartphone apps which have no grace to them at all. They sound ugly and they look ugly, though they are ack-you-RAT. So, I went on Amazon and found a used metronome like Mrs. Brown’s, which I had secretly coveted. It arrived a few days later, very carefully wrapped. Metronome3

I plugged it in next to my piano, waited for it to warm up (it has an actual vacuum tube inside!!) and, after about ten seconds, heard a familiar, solid, no-nonsense, maddeningly dispassionate click. Which now sounded sort of warm and fuzzy. . . I compared it to my husband’s battery-operated one. Definitely. Warm, fuzzy.

I practiced all month long for my lesson, enjoying my electric metronome’s now satisfying, accomodating, warm and fuzzy sound – which allowed me to play with increasing speed and accuracy those scales I used to dread so much and, as I played, to reflect philosophically upon the meditative nature of scale patterns when coupled with those ever-encouraging clicks. It made me feel very close to Beethoven, who was among the earliest to recognize their worth.

At my next lesson, Marc suggested I may want to pick a slower metronome marking.






Somewhere Else

Over the past few months I have found myself in a restless place. It came, I suppose, from being both contented in my life, professionally and personally, and simultaneously feeling that I was beginning to spin my wheels – most of my days and even the seasons ordered and familiar and basically happy – a state I have hitherto rarely experienced. It is quite unsettling.

Because it seems so comfortable and settled in, I began to suspect I was losing momentum.  I then decided that,  if I was suspecting it, it had already happened.

However, I am a woman of a certain age – a very certain age – and am in a place where happy contentment traditionally is to be hoped for. I am supposed to be losing momentum.

My problem is, I have just never gotten over the wonder of singing. Or of learning how the human voice works on pitch and in speech. Or of thinking about the nature of musical sounds, so that I could help guide my students towards singing ones that are unique to the person making them.

But I have songs to sing, too, as long as I can sing. Also, I can only bring to my students what I hold within me. And life is too short to hold enough.

So, I got one of my friends, Marc Irwin, who is a very fine jazz pianist (I am lucky enough to know more than one) to give me piano lessons on reading charts and improvising accompaniments. Not for the technique. Not for the repertoire. For my ears. For my mind, to jog it out of its ancient ways of listening and thinking about music. It is already happening in the practice room: I am starting to look at the piano keyboard differently. I will talk about that in subsequent posts.

In addition, I have been singing a lot of cabaret of late, including jazz, tangos and show tunes. It is wonderful music, but its production puts your voice in a certain somewhat easier place technically  – perhaps suitable to a woman of a certain age?  So, I decided to ignore that certain age rot and go back to my voice teacher and work on some really hard late-19th century German and French Song. Ruth Drucker is the one to ask. She is connected to German Lieder by birthright and by upbringing, to French mélodies by temperament and lifelong study in France. Best of all, she has a way of making you think singing this stuff is easy. More of my adventures with her in later posts as well.

Music-making is about connection. Connection to other players and connection to audience. Its universal nature carries the best of it on through generations no matter the changes in style or musical taste. My students have been patient in introducing me to what is current in theater and pop music over the years. I have had to change my mind about music I might have dismissed if it weren’t for their asking to work on it in lessons. I have had to grow in that way. To learn to listen differently. What they bring may not always be a first choice of mine when I am alone (though sometimes it is). But, it is a part of their language, a part of who their generation is and that makes the good stuff very interesting indeed. And the best of it is well-connected to the generations that came before and will serve as a conduit to the next. The worst of it is not.

But, name me the worst of Beethoven’s generation or of Mozart’s or Schubert’s or Bach’s.

You can’t. It did not survive the leap.