Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting Back in Tune

One of the hobbies/activities that took a real hit during the period of time I was involved in caregiving for my mother was the piano.  When I was growing up in Smiley, from the 4th grade through 12th grade, I took piano lessons from Mrs. Bell and I spent a good portion of my free time sitting at the piano in the First Baptist Church sanctuary next door, playing and practicing, hours at a time.  I probably wore a rut in the sidewalk between the parsonage and the side entrance to the church, I made that trip so often.  

I had wanted to play piano for as long as I could remember.  Before we moved to Smiley, I can remember sitting and picking out tunes on the piano at the church annex where we lived in Victoria.  It was inevitable that I would take up lessons as soon as the opportunity (and the funds) permitted.  In 1964, the musical portion of my education commenced.

A 1971 musical program
Dress by Mother and orchid corsage by Daddy
Senior Recital, 1972
Dress again by Mother and I believe there is another orchid peeking out
courtesy of my father
I seldom went a day without spending some time at the piano.  In addition, I was drafted by the church, first as a backup and then as a regular, to play piano or organ at Sunday services and I regularly provided piano accompaniments at the annual school Christmas programs and piano marches at the 8th and 12th grade graduations.  Under protest, I also played for quite a few weddings and funerals.  

When I graduated High School and we moved to Bastrop, I continued to provide piano for church services, weddings and funerals on weekends and during holiday breaks from college.  Practicing was limited to time I could grab on those weekends and holidays and the odd occasion when I would borrow a piano practice room at the college.  We still had no piano at home and we no longer lived next door to the church, so it took more effort to get time at the keyboard, especially with so much of my time having to now be devoted to my academic studies.

When I graduated from college and began full-time employment, I resigned from my duties with the church.  There was just no energy or time available to devote to a second job, and so I lost my ready access to a piano.  It should be no surprise that the first big investment I made (after a car) was to buy myself a piano.  The first one was an antique upright that was gorgeous as a piece of furniture and lousy as a musical instrument.  Still, I had a piano with a full set of 88 keys that were not quite in tune but satisfied my need to sit down and touch base with my musical side.  A few years later, I gave up the antique in favor of a brand-new upright, which is still with me.

Unfortunately my job kept me busy and tired out and there was little time for the piano.  Then when Mother's health failed and we moved in together so that I could take care of her, it was hard to find any time to play and what time I did have available usually coincided with her sleep time, which I did not want to disturb.  For a good ten years, I barely touched the piano at all.  

It took a year or so after we lost Mother for me to regain the energy or the desire to sit down at the piano again.  I was appalled at how rusty I had become.  I could barely make it through the simplest pieces, my fingers could not seem to find the right notes any longer and my back would begin protesting in a very short period of time.  I was disgusted and frustrated.

But, I decided the only cure was to start spending some regular time every day at the piano like I did in the beginning.  I started with the old Baptist and Broadman hymnals.  I figured I had spent more time playing those old gospel songs than I had playing anything else and those would come back the easiest.  I was right.  The sense memory in my fingers would take over from time to time, adding in all those little chords and furbelows that we church pianists would tuck in to fill out the spaces between the sung notes (that "Baptist roll" as one of my uncles used to call it).  Whenever I got upset at my lack of ability to play that Beethoven sonata that featured in my Senior recital, I would spend a half hour pounding out gospel music.  Gospel music is always good for the soul.

It has taken almost a year of sitting 15-30 minutes a day at the piano, but I suddenly realized a couple of weeks ago that I was having less trouble grabbing those notes in the deep left end of the keyboard without looking.  I was having less trouble reading the notes in the upper and lower registers when the music would take off above and below the normal staff.  I was having fewer instances of suddenly forgetting what key I was playing in half-way through a song.  I was beginning to make my way through that Beethoven sonata (well, at least the first movement) slowly, without having a sudden temper fit in the middle and crashing my hands to the keyboard in frustration at the sheer volume of wrong notes coming out of my hands.

A few days ago I was watching an old Remington Steele program that ended with a lovely and simple piece of classical music.  I don't know how I knew that it was by Chopin (except I've always had a penchant for Chopin and Beethoven), but I was certain it was and I pulled out some of my classical collections to see if I could find it.  Oddly enough, I flipped right to a Chopin Prelude that turned out to be the piece in question.  I slowly made my way through it and almost made it through without messing up.  It has become my most recent practice piece that gets played over and over.

Maybe I knew what it was subliminally, but I don't think so because I had never learned to play that piece and did not have a recording of it.  I think I just recognized that it had to be by Chopin and maybe some friendly spirit or intuition led me to turn to that book and that page and find that piece like I was following a homing signal.  I took it as a sign that I was headed in the right direction as I try to rejuvenate my old love affair with the piano.

I'll never again rip off a Chopin Etude or a Beethoven sonata the way I did when I was 18, but maybe I can polish a few of the less involved favorites with this steady practice program I've taken on and maybe one of these days I can be relaxed and easy with the piano again.  It's one of my oldest friends and I am having a really good time getting reacquainted.

A quick reunion with the piano at the Christian Church in
Bastrop.  The Calvary Baptist congregation met in this building
when it first organized.  I spent many a Sunday playing in this beautiful
 Victorian era auditorium.


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