The piano keys felt like ice cubes on Henry’s fingers. It was a sensation he had grown used to with time, like stepping out of a hot morning shower in a cold house. He needed to warm up, but as the keys had reminded him, so did the piano. An antique mahogany spinet piano took only a gentle touch. 

They had been learning about each other for the last six years, starting on Henry’s fifth birthday, when this one made its first appearance. A piano for the brothel, his father had called it at the time. Henry hadn’t known what that meant, and still didn’t know now. But from the way his mother reacted, he could discern nefarious undertones. 

At 6:30am, not much was awake and nothing was warm, including the both of them. They would give each other some time. They were going to be here for a while.

He hadn’t been warming up for long when his mother walked into the living room. She wore a long plaid dress that obscured her figure. She was of medium height and average build, neither large nor thin. She often kept her hair pulled back, revealing soft and petite ears and a high forehead. This morning was no exception. On her face was a permanent scowl – to that there could be no exception – centered by a small French nose and little black eyes covered by gunmetal circular shaped glasses.

She allowed Henry to warm up before beginning the drills. She had crafted the warm up, of course, and Henry had done it with such regularity that she need not fret herself over its practice. That is, unless he gave her reason. As he worked through it she thought about the tweaks she would make to the routine as Henry developed further in his skill. 

When drill time came, though, it was time for her to fret. She took him through his homework, sheet music to practice similar phrasings and melody patterns as in the piece he was currently working on – Johann Brahms’ Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, no. 2. 

His mother was a ruthless teacher, doling out little praise and forgiving nothing in the way of mistakes. Throughout their lessons, Henry carried a feeling of dread in his solar plexus, praying to God each evening that he avoid error in his practice the following morning. A favorite saying of hers was that “practice is performance. And performance is performance, too.” 

She had played the piano growing up, starting around the same age as Henry. She showed great talent and skill from the beginning. At eighteen she was accepted into the prestigious Royal Conservatory for Music in St. Petersburg. There, she studied under a few great pianists who saw great promise in her. She worked and worked, practicing to become one of the greats herself. She dreamed of traveling the world, giving her impressions of the classics in front of large audiences, moving people to a mist, and making good money working at her passion.

Her dream never materialized. For whatever reason, each of her teachers had their own opinion about it, her play and instincts lacked a level of spontaneity. They lacked affect. She knew it, playing and replaying recordings, comparing them to the greats. What it was, she couldn’t identify, and no one who had it could communicate what it was to her. It was not technical prowess, of which no one was better. It wasn’t an understanding of musical theory. It was the indefinable, the gravitational element residing in great art. 

A few years after graduating from the Petersburg Conservatory, her career was over. Call it irreconcilable differences.

What she had retained, though, all these years later, was a remarkable ear for interpretation. When it came to understanding the art of interpretation and expression, she could perceive bad, good, great, and world-class as clearly as the songwriters themselves. 

Henry appreciated her perceptiveness least of her positive qualities, though, since it produced the most direct suffering for him. She was effusive in her saying to Henry that most of his interpretation resided somewhere between bad and good – but probably closer to the former. 

Henry was used to scaths like:

“I said transpose to G major…”

“Did it say ‘andante’ or ‘staccato?’ We’ve been at this too long for you to make such…”

“Crescendo?! Crescendo!! How could you miss that? You wrecked the…”

During his training, she would sit on the left end of the wood piano bench. There wasn’t much space, so she was always bearing over Henry’s left shoulder as he played, an element that elevated the anxiety and fear he felt.

Henry had become familiar with all of her gesticulations as he practiced. The hand reaching over to massage her neck, as if listening to his play induced instant backache; the fingers under the glasses to massage the eyes, often appended to this a sigh; the arms crossed hand-to-the-chin pose, intimating deep concentration, always shortly followed up with a wince; and in the worst of times, the arms-raised-palms-up-fingers-clenched outcry to the heavens.

He had made it through the homework portion of his training, and it was time for the show – the sermon of the church service was what he called this moment to himself. He reorganized his sheet music in preparation and then began.

The first page, and then several bars into the second page, were beautiful. Henry played not like an eleven year old, but a seasoned pianist. He played with impeccable timing, not too rushed like so many young hopefuls tend to do. The expression was marvelous. His upper torso flowed with the music as he emphasized and accented all the notes with true professional air. 

But then he made a mistake. He missed the G note after transitioning hand positions. The sound was gaudy. He cringed at the cacophony. How could he make such a mistake, he thought to himself, and at the peak of the crescendo? The nerves in his stomach were overwhelming. He tried to play through, hoping his mother would either not acknowledge or forgive the blunder. But he made another mistake. And then another. Adrenaline rushed through his veins, reaching his fingertips, as he continued playing and looking directly at the sheet music. He thought about a scene he saw in an old Western, where the cowboy shot around the boots of the unlikable man. And he danced and danced.

Then he heard his mother stand up, shuffle around the adjacent coffee table for a book, and throw it across the room into the wall the piano faced. The thud against the drywall was fierce. Henry stopped playing. A single tear caressed his left cheek. “Need I comment,” she roared derisively? “You know your mistake, yes?”

“Yes,” Henry said, looking down stoically at the piano keys.

“Then from the top, shall we?” He resumed, playing as beautifully as before, but still to ears in search of something they didn’t know to understand. 

December 03, 2022 04:31

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