Monday, May 28, 2007

Where pounding on a toy piano can lead you

I enjoy listening to all kinds of fine-art music, including opera, chamber music, organ and piano works, choral music, and art songs. I enjoy concertos, overtures, and suites as much as the next orchestra lover. But the symphony has always been a very special form of music to me. Listening to one, especially if I can follow the score with my eyes, gives me a kind of satisfaction similar to what I feel when I read a very well-crafted book. I would like to share some of that satisfaction, in small doses, in this blog. But first, a few words on how I came to be a symphony lover.

When I was in 12th grade, my high school choir director made me write a paper on a music-related topic of my choice. I chose the nine symphonies of Beethoven, partly because at that time his were the only complete "cycle" of symphonies I had listened to. I popped a CD of each symphony into the player, one after another, over a series of afternoons, and listened to them attentively. I then wrote a paper recording my observations and impressions. My choir director, in turn, observed my paper and was impressed. Something he said or wrote to me about it planted a seed that eventually bore fruit in my becoming a music major in college.

Of course, that wasn't when my interest in music began. My Dad tells me that I had a toy piano with nail-wire strings when I was a baby. I taught myself to stand by pulling myself up against it. I don't suppose I played anything noteworthy on it. Nevertheless, many of my favorite childhood toys were musical. I had a one-octave glockenspiel that I played with a wooden mallet. I had a slide-whistle. I had a primitive toy electronic keyboard, probably crammed with transistors, that had little color-coded buttons on it and an accompanying book telling you which buttons to push to get various tunes out of it. I even had a sort of wind-up phonograph, only where the needle should have been it had a metal brush. It came with a set of plastic disks on which the music was recorded in raised bumps. When you cranked up the toy, and put the brush thing down on the rotating disk, the bumps made contact with bits of the metal brush, which somehow caused notes to come out of a grille on the side of the box. It played little, lightly accompanied melodies, like a music box, majoring in the tunes to mother-goose songs.

When I started taking piano lessons, somewhere around age 8, I wasn't one of those kids who had to be forced to practice. I practiced more than willingly. I made such progress that, within three years or so, one of my piano teachers told my parents that I could sight-read better than she could. The same teacher was the one who started putting classical music in front of me, instead of the mindless kids' stuff and the tunes from movies and popular music that most children my age played at recitals. (My own first recital piece was an arrangement of "Home On the Range," which I played in full cowboy costume. Ouch! It hurts to remember stuff like that!)

The more I played classical pieces, the more I liked them and took an interest in classical music. I can't say I picked up the interest from my family. Dad was, and still is, a country-western buff. Mom rode, and still rides, the wave of whatever is popular at the time. Even my musical stepfather was only encouraging to the extent that he could hear foreshadowings of his precious blues in the music I listened to. The only classical music "snob" in my family was an artist uncle who, instead of sharing my enthusiasm with me, made me feel like an idiot because I hadn't progressed past the respectable "old guard" of composers to the "avant garde" he preferred. I didn't care. I could listen to a Mozart symphony or a Schubert song cycle over and over, all day long, and still discover things about it that made my heart rejoice. Contemporary songs only seemed to hold my interest for at most one or two hearings.

My first set of classical records was a set of about 12 LPs, accompanied by a booklet, titled "Music of the Great Composers." It was a Readers' Digest product and I got it second-hand. Nowadays that sounds pathetic, but for several years that was all I listened to. I read the booklet to tatters and made tape recordings of my favorite movements and stole every possible moment of solitude to listen to them. I regret that I ever allowed my parents to sell the set at a garage sale. Even though I "replaced" all of those LPs with CDs, I have never been as happy with some of my new recordings as I was with the magical performances captured on those vinyl discs.

Later, my artist uncle handed down to me a similar set of LPs that, miraculously, contained entirely different staples of the classic repertoire. Between the two sets, I became acquainted with many of the pieces that I still greet as "old friends"--sometimes with tears in my eyes--when I hear them today. They included Brahms's and Beethoven's 3rd symphonies; Mozart's 40th, Haydn's 94th, and Schubert's Unfinished; piano concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and Italian symphony; Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Handel's Water Music; tone poems and overtures by Berlioz, Verdi, Rossini, Sibelius, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss; waltzes by Johann Strauss and Chopin; Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; and even Bach's enormous B-minor Mass.

The tide turned toward CDs when I was still in high school. I ordered my first CD player out of a catalog that also offered two sets of classical CDs, 62 discs each. My collection was off to an explosive start. With all this new music to listen to, I also gained a new spirit of curiosity about what I was hearing. At school, I spent every study-hall period either practicing a piano or ransacking the library for every word it contained on fine-art music. I studied biographies of the composers. I pored over essays by Leonard Bernstein. I even muddled through Walter Piston's Harmony, somehow. (I didn't understand a word of it until I studied music theory in college.)

I was also increasingly involved in making music in public. This was an important step for the shy boy I was. I poked my head out of my shell first in ninth grade, when a kind friend of the family asked me to be the rehearsal accompanist for her choir of preschoolers. The next year I moved on to working with the kids in the next age bracket upward; and I may even have accompanied them when they sang in church services. By eleventh grade I was playing with the junior-high choir at my school, and accompanying my classmates when they sang vocal solos in music competitions. I even started singing in the choir the next year. Imagine little old me, the guy who was only too happy to hide behind the piano, opening his mouth and croaking out notes in front of folks! I even sang a contest solo myself!

Singing led to acting in a school musical. By the time I made it to college, I was a regular ham, appearing in more plays on my college's stage than anyone else in my class. I was never a lead actor, but I couldn't stop trying. Singing, acting, and forensics together helped me become the clown I am today, never happier than when I am in front of a group of people, with or without a script, and apt to depart from the script if I have one. It led me, the shy guy who often tripped over his own tongue and sometimes showed signs of developing a slight stammer, to the point where a seminary classmate told me he was amazed when I preached, because "the question mark that's usually in your voice, totally went away." It led me, the bottomless fount of sartorial disaster, to feel great in a tux on a brightly-lit stage in front of 3,000 people. (Hot maybe, but great.) And where did all that tinkling around on a nailwire piano get me? To an audition for a third season with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus which I hopefully didn't screw up too badly this past Saturday....

Even if I did screw it up that badly, there is still the Symphony itself with its abundant opportunites to meet great music up close and personal. There is a terrific classical radio station in my city, that I listen to at least ten hours a week, driving to and from work. And there is still a shelf-full of CDs full of a rich variety of fine-art music, in which I could immerse myself (when I'm not immersed in a book) for years. As I enjoy these blessings, I will always thankful for parents who didn't lose their patience with the sound of my pounding on that toy piano or, later, practicing on the real one. And in some future posts, I will also share my thoughts about what I am hearing as I listen to various symphonies - and what beautiful stories you too might be able to read with your ears!

IMAGES: From the top - the composers I specifically remember discovering in my first set of "classical" LPs: Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Grieg, Berlioz, J. Strauss, Brahms, Haydn, Chopin, Handel, Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Rossini, R. Strauss, Schubert, Sibelius, and Schumann. Plus, the last two are, in my opinion, the greatest composers who definitely weren't included in that set: Mahler and Bruckner.

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