One of the peer tutors who volunteers in our special-education room is a pianist and today she auditions to enter a conservatory in Seattle. She’s modest, charming and possesses unusual poise for so young a woman. Thursday morning we walked the students to the high-school orchestra room and listened to her perform two of the pieces she’ll play today for the professors – a lovely Brahms “Intermezzo” (Op. 118 No. 2) and Scott Joplin’s “Elite Syncopations.”
Her choices contrast in tempo and mood (yearning and jaunty, respectively) but compliment each other pleasingly. The Brahms was almost flawless and the Joplin had some left-hand problems but she was playing from memory and today will use sheet music. The kids, seated among music stands and staring at tympani and double-basses, paid attention though several applauded at the wrong places, like a jazz audience. All of us seemed to feel refreshed and energized afterwards, the way music ought to make us feel.
The late Donald Justice studied music at the University of Miami with the composer Carl Ruggles, who encouraged him to enter Yale and continue his studies in composition. Instead, Justice switched to English literature and wrote poetry. His 1987 volume The Sunset Maker is organized around memories of childhood piano lessons. Here is “The Pupil”:
“Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practicing for
That moment on the threshold.
Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!
“Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin and Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.”
I imagine C., fortified with “frail confidence,” thinking such thoughts today, bearing on across Brahms and Joplin, weathering the storms and coming home to happy resolution.