Saturday, February 26, 2011

In Retrospect

When I was in the fifth grade, I composed a little piano piece, wrote it down and announced to my mom that I thought it would be a good idea that I abandon my public school education and became a full-time composer and concert pianist. 

I was totally serious.

My mom, being a public school teacher and a good, effective mom, gently but quite firmly guided my attention back toward my career as a fifth-grader. 

During the subsequent years, my piano studies continued and I actually ended up acquiring a small, tuition-only scholarship in music to pursue my studies at a state university in Texas.

Although I achieved some modicum of success in the music department, I never really studied as diligently as I could have. It was, after all, the late seventies and I hardly neglected the new disco scene and all that it offered.

My studies waned. They took somewhat of a tail-spin and I’ve always regretted that.

But over the subsequent years, I’ve kept up my piano studies; sometimes a lot more intensely than I ever did in college. But still, I’d always regretted “sloughing off” during college.  . . . I could have done much better.

Flash forward 15 years. . .

I had joined a Cistercian monastery in 1993. One of the fellow monks was an elderly gentleman who had been a very accomplished (though eccentric) concert pianist in Hungary back in the late 1940s and early 50s. He'd also been forced to flee his homeland prior to the Communist takeover in 1956.

He was there at the monastery, now in his mid-eighties. He was a bit reclusive, though still had an eccentric side and an underlying joie de vivre  (For a while, I was in charge of collecting the monks’ laundry and was surprised to see that he only wore red briefs. I remember thinking, “Good for you! You GO, guy!”)

The Abbot of the monastery thought it would be a good idea if I took piano lessons from him; it would give us both something to do during my first year of being “cloistered” from the world; (It’s the Novitiate year, that is, monk “boot camp.”) and it would give him something to do besides annoying the Abbot. 

So, once a week, I'd have piano lessons with this reclusive, eccentric, red underwear-wearing monk during that year. We had our lessons on a shoddy upright piano in the basement of the monastery and I’d practice on my digital piano in my “cell” (the room to which each monk was assigned.)

The guy was absolutely brilliant. He'd had decades of study with the finest musicians in Hungary.  I was the fortunate recipient of all that knowledge, insight and joie. Red underpants notwithstanding.

During that year, he had me working on Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata”. It’s not one of my favorites, but definitely one of Beethoven's more challenging pieces.

I’d never really appreciated the “Appassionata” because it always seemed to go in “fits and starts”. There was never any congruity to the piece. The whole thing never seemed “fluid”. 

So, my monk-piano-teacher and I worked on that booger during my novitiate year in the monastery. If there was an insurmountable, difficult passage, he'd say, "Lift your elbow! practice coupling the inner notes with your second-and-fourth fingers . . ."

Boom. It would work.

Then, I remember him saying,  
"Practice Bach like you're playing with a child; 
Perform Beethoven like you're fighting with a man; 
And Schubert like you're caressing a lover."

Wow. It would work.

The guy was brilliant.

Anyway, this video was taken the day that I took “vows”. You’ll notice that I’m wearing the all-white habit of the novice, but it was soon changed to the black-and-white habit of the professed monk. My parents were there for the event and had lent a video camera so that I could immortalize the work on the “Appassionata”. 

Perhaps that 5th-grade boy who wanted to quit school to study music full-time would have been a bit pleased with his future-self.

Oh, and here I am during the next year as a professed monk on my roller-blades: (My monk-piano-teacher passed away soon after this photo was taken.)

I've been on an awfully good roll so far. . .

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At 11:07 AM , Blogger Mom said...

I do love reading your blog. You are a fascinating person.


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