Twelve years ago, a casual elevator conversation with my neighbor led me to consider the absurd notion of learning classical piano at the age of 45. Like me, she had opted out from a full time executive career to focus on raising her two children, but unlike me, she had discovered a new challenge.
I grabbed the railing behind me to help stifle my envy and its inevitable sarcasm as she excitedly described her progress on a Mozart sonata. It had been a long time since I felt that kind of thrill. “Would you have any interest in lessons?” she asked. “My teacher comes to the building every Tuesday for the lesson, maybe you would like her phone number?” I had never considered taking up the piano, but when she asked, I was intrigued. My childhood pianistic endeavors had lasted two months, and as my mother had predicted, I had come to regret abandoning those lessons. I thought of the piano my husband and I had purchased the year before, now sitting silent in our living room upstairs. It was a Yamaha digital, and with the headphone jack, it was feasible to practice early in the morning or late at night without disturbing my family or neighbors. “Sure, give me her number,” I said as the elevator door opened.
I’m now 57 years old and if anything, I’m working harder now than I did in my business career. The Yamaha was replaced long ago with an acoustic upright, which was later replaced by a Steinway grand, a celebratory gift for my fiftieth birthday. My family’s move to an apartment downtown, inconveniently timed with my teacher becoming a mother, led me to my current teacher, a serious musician dedicated to teaching adults only. Her students range from complete beginners to conservatory level musicians, adults who reclaimed their childhood piano study, and myself, a former record executive, who, by putting rock & roll aside, fell in love with music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I have amazed myself by learning and then performing compositions from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I’ve learned scales, the circle of 5ths, chords and inversions. But my type “A” competitive record executive personality pushed for even greater challenges. I wanted to memorize a piece of music. As a child, I struggled with memorization of the simplest of poems; a mere 5-line stanza terrified me. I can’t retain jokes or lines from movies, television shows or books. C’mon, wasn’t it enough that I was attempting to learn to play piano at this late stage in life? What more did I have to prove? But truthfully, I envied fellow piano students who had accomplished this feat.
In particular, I recall a young woman who was close to completing her degree at a Manhattan conservatory, performing a difficult composition from the Russian composer Shostakovich. She began at the lowest register of the keyboard, and in what seemed an instant, she had risen off the bench, and her hands, fast as a Japanese bullet train, had moved to the highest register.
That’s a level of piano playing I have little hope of reaching in my lifetime, but since that performance I had been dogged with the idea of memorizing. That young woman had been so profoundly engrossed in her playing. I wanted to feel that too.
One day last spring, under my breath, hoping she wouldn’t hear me, I whispered to my teacher that perhaps I could try to memorize something. “Of course you should, Robin,” she replied, implying with her tone that of course I could, and suggested I start with a piece I had already mastered—“From Foreign Lands and People,” a short, two page composition from Schumann.
In his excellent memoir, Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, an accomplished amateur pianist himself, shares stories about his own difficulties with memorizing music. In particular, he writes, “Ronan (head of keyboards at London’s Guildhall School of Music) tries to reassure me, telling me I probably don’t have a problem with memorizing, just an anxiety about forgetting.” Aha! Thank you, it’s precisely this anxiety I wanted to conquer.
It took me most of the summer to memorize the two pages. The work was so tedious and frustrating, that on several occasions I was reduced to balling up my fists and banging on the keys like a child, leaving me to wonder why I ever thought I could accomplish something I couldn’t do when my brain was young.
Luckily for me, my teacher never doubted that I could.
The first time I attempted the entire piece from memory, I went blank. But I refused to give up; I’d already spent my entire summer on this challenge. I opened the music, played through and started over. When my brain froze at certain measures, I repeated the process until I finally made it through without the music. To finish off, my teacher insisted I close my eyes and play. This was tough, like closing your eyes and walking a straight line, but eventually came a stunning reward.
By closing my eyes, I shut the world and its myriad distractions out, and for those three minutes, it was just Schumann and I.
I wasn’t rising out of my chair, but for me, I was flying.