Recently, a reader wrote, “I envy you taking piano lessons… Alas! At 68, it is too late!”
Nonsense. At 60, I am as cognitively challenged as most geezers. I can’t multitask. I need a nap in the afternoon. I don’t have senior moments; I have senior weeks. Until last January, I was one of those people who “always wanted to play piano,” but I’d never tried to learn. I’d say things like, “I’ve been typing my own damn name since 1965 and I still can’t do it without backspacing twice. How could I ever learn to play piano?” Plus, my hands are getting arthritic. And I can’t read maps unless I’m going north; the idea of reading music seemed alien and just … too hard. Most significantly, I had never really done anything that simply requires practice.
And yet, to write about Doc Holliday, I not only had to immerse myself in the 19th century piano repertoire, I had to get inside the kind of mind that understands and values and even enjoys practice.
John Henry Holliday believed in science, in rationality, and in free will. He believed in study, in the methodical acquisition and accumulation of useful skills. He believed that he could homestead his future with planning and preparation: sending scouts ahead and settling it with pioneering effort. Above all, he believed in practice.
The very word made him feel calm. Piano practice. Dental practice. Pistol practice, poker practice. Practice was power. Practice was authority over his own destiny. Practice increased predictability and reduced the element of chance in any situation…
Doc Holliday played what we now call “classical” piano, but Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann were the rock stars of his mother’s world and his own. DOC begins and ends with Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (the “Emperor”) and Chopin plays a part in a central chapter called “Wild Card.” (Click on MUSIC NOTES, above, for links to those pieces.) My own taste in music leaned heavily on 1980s arena rock bands like Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Journey. And yet, while writing DOC, I fell in love with Chopin. I could not get enough of Chopin.
Exactly a year ago this week, I put my hands on a piano keyboard for the first time while visiting my friend Dina, who showed me the very simplest kind of five-finger exercise. It took me 45 minutes to get both hands to work in tandem, but eventually… they did. I found out that practice works, and then I found a teacher who was willing to take on a beginner who was 55 years too late to start when she was five.
The majority of my teacher’s students are in grammar school, but he now has half a dozen geezers taking lessons, and Mr. Kish has adjusted his expectations both up and down for this demographic.
Older students have some advantages. Adults are pulled by the music itself. We know what a piece is supposed to sound like — we’ve heard Lisitsa or Ax or Horowitz or Askenazi play a piece over and over on CD or YouTube. We understand rubato and dynamics, and intuit when a pause or sudden softness can add elegance to a phrase. Many children are simply pushed to practice, without any real notion that the piece will become beautiful if they keep at it long enough. Adults may slog through the early basics, but our eyes are on the prize: something wonderful to play.
On the other hand, adults generally learn to read music slowly. This makes sense. Illiterate adults need years to learn to read text, and print is all around them. Aural music is everywhere but not notation, so reading music takes time. Older students have to tolerate feeling incompetent for longer than is comfortable. We often feel stupid and inept, and we fear that we’re driving our teacher crazy because it take us so damn long to get something. But really? As long as you pay the weekly lesson fee, your teacher will be happy! It’s called “job security.”
And it turns out there is music printed especially for adults. Easy Piano for Adults, Easy Classics for Adults, Big Note Classics, etc. These have larger print, to make it easier to distinguish the notes, and the staves are further apart so the pairs of bass and treble lines stay distinct. And — for me, best of all — some of these books print the letter name of the note within the round body of it. Mr. Kish also encouraged the use of “training wheels,” like putting the letters on the piano keys. I thought that was cheating, but he asked, “Who’s being cheated?” And he’s right. I just want to play. So I play, in the purest meaning of the word.
And I have learned to trust practice.
With no Chinese Tiger Mother to scream at me, I am free to break my practice into ten minute segments. I get frustrated — either I can’t make my hands work right or I begin repeating a bad note and can’t seem to break that pattern. So I quit before “practice makes imperfect.” Repeating the same error won’t make me better; it will just give me a muscle memory of doing it wrong. So I leave the piano and come back in a few hours to try again. That works.
My friend Bob Price has played piano professionally for decades. For the past three years, he’s been my go-to guy for all piano questions while writing DOC. When I sent the final manuscript in to Random House, I told him that I couldn’t get the idea of studying piano out of my mind. He researched digital pianos for me, and encouraged me to find a teacher, and then joined me in geriatric ambition. He’s always wanted to play cello. He took his first lesson a few months ago. Bob is 68. By email, we cheer each other on, and share despair, and deal with injuries and distractions.
“Spunk up,” John Henry Holliday whispers to us both when we get discouraged. “It’ll come. Keep practicin’.”