"How did it go?" I asked my friend Winnie over the phone.
"Fine, not bad. In fact I had a great time . . . it was kind of fun."
"Oh really?" My hands turning clammy as I remembered my afternoon in the basement of the school.
A conversation between two high-school chums discussing their exams? No. Winnie and I are adult beginners at the piano, and today we had played in front of a jury to certify that we had completed the beginning piano course at the Selma Levine School of Music.
It all started around my 40th birthday in February. I had decided that what I really wanted to do was to learn how to play the piano. After all, or so my reasoning went, I am 40 years old and ought to be able to do as I want.
And besides, plunking away at the piano is a lot safer than taking up motorcycle racing with a sidecar or learning to parachute from very high airplanes. The only things I could possibly damage would be the ears of my family. Dreams were forced into reality when my parents gave me the money for a piano as a birthday present. I picked out a lovely turn-of-the-century Chickering, which looks better than it plays but has a soothing tone.
Furthermore, another friend gave me a certificate entitling me to one free lesson. It was time to put my hands where my mouth was--square on middle C.
February, March, April, all went beautifully. I studied. I practiced. I made progress. I learned to play pieces by Mozart. (Me? Mozart?) The pieces, I must admit, were probably abridged since the page for each tune was mostly white, sprinkled lightly with an occasional black dot--a note--placed conveniently around middle C.
Also, each piece lasted only a few seconds unless you played it over and over and over again. But what the heck. It said "Mozart" just to the right of the title (as uncomplicated as the piece, as in Air or Minuet) and MOZART it was. I was thrilled.
Then came May, and my teacher announced casually, "Oh, by the way. On May 24 you'll play in front of a jury in order to certify the course. You'll do some technique and four pieces from memory. No big deal."
No big deal. Then, why the tremor in my hands, the nervous swallowing, a quickening of my heart? I knew instantly what was happening: "No big deal" was sending me back in time to when I was a kid in school; back to a time when I had to take tests, do public speaking, play sports, talk to my teacher, i.e., think and perform in front of others.
I also knew that next to hitting a baseball, thinking and performing in front of others is what I do worst. Although now, at 40, I can go up to almost anybody and say confidently, "Hi, I'm David Deutsch," there still resides, hidden in the toy chest of my soul, a shy kid who would rather stay alone in his room and build model airplanes.
All right. This trial by jury is nothing I can't overcome with force of will. I'll just keep a tight lid on that toy chest in there, act like an adult, learn my pieces, practice technique and have fun.
What I decided to play was a tune by Haydn that proved incredibly difficult to learn. It required that both my hands go different places simultaneously. It was written in a complicated 3/4 time rather than 4/4--or common--time and used several black keys as well. I figured it had a high "degree of difficulty" rating.
With this Haydn piece I'd knock 'em dead. And I learned it. I didn't play it terrifically, but on a good morning it had a kind of jaunty sound about it.
But the lid on the toy chest was opening. The only time I had played in front of people not related to me by blood or marriage was after too many brandies at a dinner. This performance on the 24th, I reflected soberly, would be different.
As time went by, I put on a good front. I joked. I practiced. But the little kid in me was gaining. All my classic chokes disgorged before me: like when I got a 400 on my math college boards (you get a 400 for just signing your name and answering randomly), or when I forgot the lines to Mr. Flood's Party by Edwin Arlington Robinson during eighth-grade public speaking class. (It went superbly in my room the night before, I assure you.)
The day of the test was one of the finest days Washington had seen in May: a beautiful, cool spring day with a bright warming sun. Arriving early, I descended to the basement of the school, groped for the light switch in the conference room and ran through my "repertoire" . . . on an actual grand piano . . . pretty near flawlessly.
Maybe, just maybe . . . but the lid was off.
In came the judges, one of whom was my teacher. The other, Jeffery Chappell, would conduct the exam.
"What chords do you know?" he asked pleasantly.
"Chords?" My mind went blank. "Chords," I murmured, wondering what he meant. Then, miraculously, somehow in my soul I arm-wrestled the kid to victory.
"Well," I replied triumphantly, "I know C major.
"Great," said Mr. Chappell. "Play it."
I did. And all my five-finger exercises and more.
"Let's do some sight reading," said Mr. Chappell.
"Mmmm . . . okay." I knew I was weak here; I had trouble finding my middle finger without looking at it. I spent some time the day before trying to find it with the help of some exercises my teacher had written out for me.
I also made a great discovery: My middle finger curves slightly differently from the others--giving it a different feel on the keys. I was confident I could find it. When I started to play, however, my hands were like bowling pins on the keys.
"Do it again, slower," said the kindly Mr. Chappell.
BOING! I realized I had been racing through the exercise like an electric razor. I slowed down.
"Let's hear the repertoire," said Mr. Chappell.
"Fine. I'll start with the Haydn."
What's this? My hands were shaking. Moreover, I couldn't remember any of the terrific nuances my teacher taught me to inject into the piece to make it more musical instead of a mere collection of notes. I started. Several notes tripped over my fingers and tumbled to the floor. On to the Mozart--better but haphazard. Now the Bartok--better yet (it is only 37 seconds long). Finally the "Canon," a foxy little number that overwhelms you with its unpretentiousness--not bad, not great. Then an inspiration.
"Hey, I'm going to play the Haydn again just for my own benefit."
The hands stopped shaking and I blew only one note. The kid was back in the toy chest. Now I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't disappointed at not playing as well as I could, but at the same time I felt a tremendous satisfaction. I did perform.
"Yes," I told Winnie on the phone that night, "I'm glad it's over. But you know what? I've signed up for 10 more lessons this summer just to tide me over until fall. I can't wait."
On to Carnegie Hall.