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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Older Pianist

Back when I was in seventh grade
In the school Yeshivat Dvir,
There was an older guy who played
Piano songs by ear.
At every chance I got, I sat
Nearby his playing to hear.
I never could have played like that-
That much was crystal clear.

I listened to the music filled with curiosity:
He could play a tune he knew and improvise the harmony!
So I asked him how he got such skill and he said modestly
That he'd been playing since he was five, but he still wasn't very good.

Well, that wasn't quite the answer I was expecting.
No teacher?
No teacher, he said.
No notes to play from?
No notes, he said.
A genius! I said.
And he asked me to leave the room.

I left that room quite satisfied
That I now understood:
This twelfth-grader is so bright inside-
No wonder he's so good!
And at such an age a bona fide
Piano genius starts to play;
If for fifty years I tried
Would I come close? I cannot say.

This didn't really bother me
When I sat at the keys.
I pressed a few notes randomly-
It really was a breeze.
I had no clue how I might do
Successful harmonies
But had no fears, for my own ears
Were all I had to please.

Even so, I sometimes wondered how he made such lovely sounds.
So I'd play some songs from movies when nobody was around.
Or at least I'd try. I knew not why an octave's all I found
For accompaniment, as opposed to all those arpeggios and fancy stuff he did.

I didn't understand it.
Try a broken chord!, I told myself.
But I couldn't do it.
Try an interesting harmonic progression!, I told myself.
But I couldn't do it.
So go back to pressing notes randomly like an idiot, I told myself.
And there was nothing to it.

For the next two years I trained my ears
To tell which noises were nice.
Though all of my tunes befitted buffoons
I never was concise:
I'd turn each grain I liked into
A long piece more precise.
Meanwhile, I heard but never listened to
My teachers' best advice.

I met another player then
Who practiced every day.
He only ever played Chopin-
I listened anyway.
All I could do was marvel at
The speed his hands could play.
That I never could have played like that
I didn't have to say.

He'd practice some Prelude, and I would sit nearby and stare:
He could play with such emotion, with such energy and flair.
So I asked him how he got to be so excellent a player.
I practice a lot, he said.

I didn't care for that answer at all.
Didn't you play at a young age? I asked.
Yes, he said.
Don't you have a very good teacher? I asked.
Yes, he said.
Don't you get sick of Chopin? I asked.
I love it! he said.
An oddball, I told myself.
But a serious oddball.

There was one time when an art student
Wanted to come in and play.
But the pianist said, it's prudent
To practice at least three hours a day.
And since I haven't done so yet, would you kindly go away.
No matter how much he'd insist,
This other guy still begged to come.
So he asked his fellow pianist
To voice agreement. I said, ummmm....

Three hours? Blecch. I practiced less
Than half an hour in a week.
I preferred an improv'd mess,
Which every day would be unique.
I played my lessons poorly,
I had terrible technique.
But three full hours? Surely
Such a process would be bleak.

Sometimes I'd play for people and they all would stare and blink-
And they asked me how I got such skill and I would say, I think
It's been something like four years now, but you ought to know I stink.
A genius! they said.

No, no, I told them. A pretender, see?
They didn't see.
See, I just press some notes randomly!
They didn't see.
It's only force of habit! I insisted angrily.
They didn't see.
I can't play Beethoven correctly!
My left hand plays imperfectly!
We don't understand all that stuff like you do, they said.
But I don't understand a thing, I said!
I don't have a clue what I'm doing, I said!
What we do know, they said, is

That if we tried with all our might,
Not stopping 'til we got it right,
And played all day and then all night,
We know one thing is true:
That if we did all this we still
Could never play like you.

I was shocked.
I was shocked at their sheer stupidity.
How could they make such a ridiculous mistake? I asked myself.
As hard as it may be to believe, I answered,
These people understand music even less than I do.

Then Dvir closed down. I didn't care-
I hadn't really planned on staying.
I tried out at the Academy, where
They asked to hear my piano playing.
I played my piece and tried my hardest,
Knowing they'd see I was a fake.
They accepted me regardless,
Which was, clearly, a mistake.

My playing was extremely crude,
As they all were willing to tell.
So they got me a new teacher who'd
Teach me how to play this stuff well.
In the halls the lovely sounds
From every room gave me a scare.
Out of all the kids around,
I was just the worst one there!

I listened to the music more with envy than with awe-
How could I compare to dedication of the likes I saw?
They were perfect, and each note that I played would be called a flaw...
What was I doing there?

I was silent.

One guy, one year older than me,
Was more friendly than the rest.
I'd sit by the piano when he
Played, 'cause he could play the best.
The teachers saw him not as such,
But rather as a pest.
They said he didn't practice much.
That must have been a jest!

In my lessons, I was taught
How to play with greater skill.
Piano was deeper then I thought.
(I didn't ever practice still.)
Meanwhile, I improvised duets
And played for fun for hours each day.
For two years, without any frets
I steadily improved my play.

In the bagrut I played some Mozart almost perfectly.
So I said to my teacher, that was okay, but surely you'd agree
That I didn't play it half as well as it was meant to be?
No, that's pretty much it, she said.

What do you mean, that's it?
You played it well, she said.
But a good player would have played it much better, right?
No, you played it well, she said.
But my technique is terrible!
No, you played it well, she said.
But you said I had a lot of catching up to do! I insisted.
Not anymore, she said.
You played it well.
But I don't understand a thing about music! I said.
You played it well, she said.
And I had nothing more to say.

I never got a chance to show
My class a single melody.
Never will I get to know
What they would have thought of me.
Since then I've had no teacher.
No notes.
I'm free.

I play piano often now-
Doesn't matter what or how.
I just sit down at the keys
And play exactly as I please-
It's just for fun, y'know?
Don't matter if it's new or old,
Don't matter if it's trash or gold,
Don't matter if there's anyone to show.
I don't care about the players above me.
I just play, and one day I realized:
It sounds lovely.

But so what?, I asked myself.
I'm better than I ever was
And I still don't understand anything!

But then- who does?

I think back to the time I spent
In seventh grade at Dvir-
How every time he played, I went
To any surface near,
And there in silent calm I sat
To listen and to peer.
I never could have played like that-
..and yet, somehow, I'm here.



The first pianist in this story was five years older than me, the second three years older, and the third one one year. At least, I think so. Even though I spent a reasonable amount of time with each one, I don't think I have more than the vaguest of conceptions of who these people really are. So factual inaccuracies are pretty likely. For that I apologize.

By the way, this post took me over five weeks to write. So don't expect another poem any time soon. :P

That was fantastic.


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