"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Steinway piano

the piano . . .


This summer, I seem to have found my way back to the piano again.

Being able to listen to pianists on our large-screen TV has also helped to inspire me to practice more. After all, when you can witness someone blind from birth (N. Tsuji, who shared the Gold Medal in 2009 Van Cliburn competition) playing Chopin’s first Etude in C major without missing a note, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself that you can’t even play it at a slow tempo with your eyes open!

The other night, G. and I watched the film taken live of Van Cliburn performing the Tchaikovsky piano concerto in Moscow, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. His charisma and rather theatrical performance won the hearts of that rapt Russian audience. The jury hesitated before awarding him the gold medal because of the Cold War that was going on between Russia and the United States at the time. And so they asked Khrushchev if he would approve their choice. He asked, “Does he deserve it? Is he the best?” and they said “YES!”

And the rest is history! — including a ticker tape parade celebrating Van Cliburn’s triumph in New York City upon his return to the U.S. Seeing these historic moments are enough to move me to tears every time I watch it. Here’s a link to a Youtube clip of this momentous performance posted In Memoriam when Van Cliburn died in 2013.

I’ve also observed how many really fine pianists there are who are still unknown and who play with so much love for this fabulous instrument! We are so fortunate to have our pianos and it’s wonderful to be playing them again!


‘prime’. . .

K & G

I came across this photograph a little awhile ago and was struck by how relaxed and happy G. and I looked when we first met. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

It occurred to me to say that we were in our prime then. I headed up strategic and operational planning at a biotech start-up company in Central Massachusetts at the time. G. expanded his piano business to mostly Steinway and Mason-Hamlin grand pianos from restored antique uprights while continuing to service academic institutions in the area.

On second thought, I hesitate to make that call because I think the notion of being in one’s prime at some arbitrary point in time is shortsighted while one is still breathing. What I know now about life compared to those younger days has been hard-won. More important, what I know about myself from those halcyon days is so different that I might venture to say, it’s like night and day.

When I think back to that period of time, I remember that I was still optimistic and ambitious too. With the world what it is now, the economic vicissitudes that have occurred worldwide have set everyone scrambling, changing habits of easy expectation. Another thing that has shifted for lots of people is the loss of “the American Dream,” the idea that fairy tales do come true, people will succeed if they just work hard and children will love their parents even after they grow up and leave home.

It’s been hard. We have been fortunate because we had good work. Now, I don’t have to work as hard but the drive to learn and be productive is still there. I haven’t lost my memory although I rely less and less on memory anymore as a way of life. Thinking back doesn’t really do much good except to wonder how I managed to do all that stuff. There are many things I wouldn’t do again because I am now more clear about what I want my life to be: peaceable. Synonyms for peaceable include: harmonious, mellow, calm, tranquil, amiable and kindly.

Being able to provide what we need for ourselves is good fortune. Having a peaceable life is priceless. It’s hard to get there and we’re still working on it. But if there’s a prime time in life, perhaps it’s getting to a place where we realize we don’t need as much and that we’re lucky to be together. I wonder why it’s taken so long to get here.

K&G closeup

bucket list . . .

piano music library

piano music library

I guess this term was coined along with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman’s movie called “The Bucket List,” which dramatized what they really wanted to experience before they kicked the bucket (aka “die”.) Since then, it’s been used a lot in different contexts and I noticed today in the newspaper that a sister graduating from college, delighted by her soldier brother’s surprise appearance said that she wanted to make a “bucket list” with him before he returns to duty in a couple of weeks.

So, making a list like this is not just for the elderly or even the middle-aged these days. For me, when I think about it, it’s not filled with things like “win the lottery” or “travel around the world” or even, “go to Hawaii.” It also wouldn’t include “buy a Corvette” or “own a sailboat.”

One of the things that was always on my bucket list (even before the phrase was coined) was a beautiful ebony Steinway grand piano. While I was a young mother, working two jobs in NYC and taking care of two infants, nothing was further from my mind, although I did manage to buy a brown baby grand piano, a “McPhail” piano that had a bright tone and a light action. That was the first piano I owned since I left home, leaving behind a well-worn Cable-Nelson spinet piano that I grew up with. So you can see why a Steinway ebony grand piano was truly out of reach for me at the time.

Fast forward to trading in the McPhail piano to a building contractor who put in the foundation for our greenhouse in Lexington when we renovated the house where the kids grew up. Eventually, I bought a Steinway, model A piano (reconditioned but not refinished) which I played and my daughter M. practiced on for many years, playing a Bach French Suite as musically as any pianist I’ve ever heard when she was in junior high school. The girls used to read and lie under the piano with our dog, Bridget, when I practiced. They still recall chamber music parties where a string quartet played Mozart in the family room while a piano trio read through Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio in the living room with the doors shut in between. Sometimes we would combine forces and play piano quintets, such as Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” and when we had a lot of players, we’d end up playing Mendelssohn’s Octet. It was so much fun for all concerned, players and listeners alike, not to mention the potluck food we feasted on afterwards with a few bottles of wine.

Fast forward some more to after the kids left home and I moved to where I live now. I traded in the Steinway “A’ for a Steinway “B” when I met my second husband, G. who rebuilt it. We named it “Victor” after the musician who had owned it previously. It has been and continues to be one of the finer instruments that have come through the shop. It used to be downstairs on the first floor where predictably, piano customers would happen upon it and want to buy it. So we hoisted it up to the third floor where we live, coming through the house from the outside deck. It sits in an alcove that enhances its sound without echoes.

"Victor" in the alcove

“Victor” in the alcove

So, you see, I’ve already got the best part of a bucket list I might have held secret. What I’ve been thinking about more recently, is repertoire or pieces I would like to learn as part of a “to-do” bucket list. They include Scarlatti sonatas (about two dozen of them), Bach Goldberg Variations, Rachmaninoff Preludes, some Scriabin and Chopin Etudes. Like that.

Still on the list is to write a women’s novel that will eventually become a classic (that part is out of my control but writing it first might help.) I’ve been working on shaping ideas into a plot for a long time. Recently, a new setting for the story has occurred to me that has renewed my optimism about getting back to work on it.

So, studying a challenging piano repertoire and writing a book I’ve been thinking about for a long time probably sound like a pretty boring bucket list to most folks. At least it doesn’t require loads of money to bring to fruition. It just requires self-discipline, dedication, creativity and time. That’s all, right?

What’s on your bucket list?

before and after . . .

Some of you know that I’ve practiced the piano for a long time. My teacher, Basil Toutorsky, taught me how to practice: read the notes for the right hand, then the left hand. Look at the phrasing lines, the dynamics and then play both hands together. Study only one bar at a time until you can play it accurately three times in a row before you move on to the next bar. Slow and steady. Rigorous. Then, speed it up a little. Practice with the metronome so that your rhythm is accurate. Once this process has been followed for one page, stop there. Go back over that page until the notes and the playing start to make musical sense. Play the entire page three times in a row without mistakes before moving forward to the next page. If you make a mistake on the third try, start over again. This was the drill.

Fast forward to today where my facility for sight-reading sometimes gets in the way of patient study habits. Lately, I’ve been drawn to pieces either transcribed or composed by Franz Liszt. This is a kind of anomaly for me because my favorite composer is Bach. One Liszt piece is called “Liebeslied” when it was written originally by Robert Schumann as a wedding gift for his wife, the concert pianist, Clara Schumann. The melody and the harmonies are simple and very touching. It is also called “Widmung” for reasons I’m not aware of once Liszt took it, added sections and embellished it with his usual fanfare of rolling arpeggios and movie-like thematic blow-ups. When Van Cliburn won his tumultuous victory at the Tchaikovsky competition during the Cold War, he played this piece as an encore. A young Asian pianist, Aimi Kobayashi who looks to be about eleven years old, also played it recently as an encore in Russia. (Click her name for a link to listen to this piece on YouTube.)

Anyhow, back to practicing, there’s usually a point in time, a tipping point if you will, when a piece morphs from a study exercise to a piece of music. This phenomenon happened to me recently, a couple of days ago while playing this piece. It went from a period of time over several months, reading the various sections of the piece and playing all the notes. . . to suddenly playing it with a more intuitive grasp of the piece so that the music flows on its own.

In a way, I was thinking about this as a “before” and “after” — from notes on pieces of paper that are transformed into sounds capable of arousing a listener’s emotions. Even if you’re not a pianist, don’t play a note, or, if you think you’re tone-deaf and can’t listen to music, you’ll get it when you listen to this music and it connects with you.

Nothing better.

expectations. . .

What did we expect with our lives? Are you one of those who had no idea what you wanted to be or do when you were little? I’ll bet most people didn’t. Many of us are still trying things out and figuring out who we want to be. It doesn’t end.

Or maybe if we didn’t know what we wanted to do, we at least had an idea of how we wanted to live later in life after working hard at doing either what we wanted or what we had to do to get our kids grown up, educated, married and settled in their own places, with or without mortgages of their own. Or, if we didn’t have kids or didn’t have a career, we still wanted something in the end, didn’t we? Our own house Read the rest of this entry »