A grand piano sits in the corner of my parlor. If you were to deconstruct this instrument mentally, it might seem an absurd contraption. You press a key, and a felt hammer strikes a steel string. At the same time, a damper rises to allow the string to vibrate, generating a note that is amplified by a wooden soundboard the size of a card table. The keyboard is designed for the human hand, but if my cat runs along the ivories, the hammers will strike just the same. The piano doesn't care.
Ah, but press the 88 keys in a given sequence, and this weird mass of wood, iron and animal bone casts a spell. It breathes life into long-dead composers and reveals their innermost yearnings. It awakens the performer's latent artistry, and it touches the souls of those who listen.
dead composers and reveals their innermost yearnings. It awakens the performer's latent artistry, and it touches the souls of those who listen.
If you get it right.
Here's the sad part: The keys don't want to go down in sequence. You may hear the music in your brain but the hands won't follow. Play without sheet music in front of you, and your memory, too, will let you down, losing track of whole passages.
For me and thousands of other hobby musicians, these obstacles stand in the way of perfection, glory, adulation, recording contracts, riches. I sit at the piano one weekend afternoon in March and play, striving for excellence. It rarely comes. My left and right hands are squabbling as usual, and I'm thinking: There are 6 billion people alive on this planet and only 20 or so who have achieved the highest ranks of internationally acclaimed pianists.
I am a week away from performing three pieces before a pair of judges. I have signed up to play at a music festival staged at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia, an annual event where the students of area music teachers can test their mettle in three days of amateur music making.
Two of my pieces, movements from a Mozart piano concerto and a Haydn keyboard sonata, are in good shape, but the third, a prelude by George Gershwin, is more ragged than rag. Gershwin conceived this piece as a jazzy delight, but the same offbeat swing and dissonances that give it its jauntiness make it deceptively difficult, especially for a dyed in the wool (stuck in the mud?) classicist like me. A week before my performance, I am still counting the beats in the bar, still taking apart its rhythm, in an attempt to put it all back together again. I should have got beyond this weeks -- months -- earlier. I am annoyed with the piece, annoyed with myself and trying to forget that in barely seven days I will march onto a stage and attempt to perform it.
Who would choose to put himself through this? A lot of people, surprisingly, and most of them under the age of 19. Similar festivals, held under the auspices of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of Music Clubs, attract an ever-growing number of participants, more than 126,000 last year. The Northern Virginia festival, one of the largest, began in TKTK and has continued to draw expanding numbers of students. This year's drew a total of 2,630 private music students from all over the Washington area, playing for 134 adjudicators. Of the musicians, 2,239 were pianists, 133 were string players and the rest were flutists or taking part in musical theater or theory. Twenty-one of us were adults. And the brass ring? Actually nothing but a shiny silver plastic cup.
For the teenagers, part of the motivation, I suspect, is the need for increasingly credentialed college applications. For me? The chance to play Gershwin like he's never been played before.
In many ways these are trying times for classical music in America. Go into any record store and you will see ever-shrinking offerings of classical music, and much of the fare is decidedly Classical Lite, repackaged recordings of the most hackneyed corner of the repertoire. Classical CD sales have remained flat for years, representing, according to Nielsen SoundScan, less than 3 percent of total music sales in the United States last year. And in the realm of radio, classical music occupies an ever more precarious toehold, drawing just 2 percent of the listening public, according to Arbitron. As a classical music junkie, I have kept my car radio settings unchanged for years: at 90.9 FM (WETA), 103.5 (WGMS) and, from Baltimore, 91.5 (WBJC) -- until earlier this year, when WETA dropped practically all of its classical programming, switching to news and public affairs, except on Saturday afternoons. The change infuriated the station's music audience and evoked disbelief among my musician friends. The station's general manager, Dan DeVany, said the switch was driven by the realization that with fewer classical music listeners, the radio station was being underused as a community resource. "People tend to look at classical music in terms of broadcasting, where it's been diminished, and cite that as the end of classical music," said DeVany. "And that's not the case."
Still I know that I and my friends felt adrift: As long as classical music was streaming over the public airwaves, we believed it -- and we -- were an accepted part of the larger culture. And then, suddenly, we weren't.
But we were part of an enormous, impending convocation of music makers at Oakton High School, including some disgustingly brilliant young musicians ready, willing and able to make my attempt at Gershwin sound like chopsticks.
When I was a 9-year-old growing up in the English East Midlands, someone in my family thrust a cornet into my hands. My mother was a church organist, my father, by avocation, an Irish tenor, and my older brother played in the local brass band. Brass bands abounded in small and large industrial towns in England, the everyman's symphony orchestras. Our town of 20,000 had three: two associated with mission churches and the third born of the temperance movement. On summer Sundays, the bands would take turns playing in the park, and people would sit on the grass and listen to arrangements of Sousa marches and Gilbert and Sullivan medleys and Verdi overtures. It seems so distant and innocent.
By the age of 11, I was in the temperance band, and was thrust into a world I had not known -- one of unvarnished adult male society, with all its brotherhood and petty jealousies and occasional profanity. If you've seen the British cult movie "Brassed Off!" you get a sense of the music and milieu of the brass band. One player, on retiring, spoke of the "animosity" that had been shown him. I went home and looked up animosity.
My classmates were listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but while their music offered them a vicarious entree into adulthood, my music placed me squarely in a grownup world. On special Sundays, we would take a bus to London to play in the public parks, and the outings always involved a lengthy stop at a pub for refreshments. So much for the temperance. Some of the guys would bring along their wives or girlfriends, but never on the same trip.
The alpha male was the principal cornet player, a suave, mustachioed guy called Albert. One year, at a major regional competition, as we were preparing to go on stage to play a "test piece" that might take us to the national championship, I saw Albert in the wings eating an apple -- like he was at a picnic or something. This sang-froid impressed me deeply, and convinced me that I should make my life in music.
To do this, I traded the cornet for the trumpet, and joined a community orchestra. This brought me to the world of classical performance, a world far more effete and refined. Musically, I found that the trumpet was sounded less often than the cornet, and was trickier, as I had to transpose into different keys as the music dictated. I was guided through this by the other trumpet player, a ruddy-cheeked gravedigger named Keith. He was, in dress and speech, a peasant, but one with an affinity for classical music and jazz. While the string players would arrive in their Jaguars and Rovers, Keith came to rehearsal on his old motorcycle. His Vincent Bach B-flat trumpet, worth more than the bike, was strapped on the back.
When the Dvorak or Beethoven symphonies called for brassy passages, Keith would belt them out. This visibly irritated the principal clarinetist next to us, but Keith didn't care. If you're going to play the trumpet, there's no point in trying to hide the fact.
Keith taught me other lessons, not least that classical music was not an elitist art form. Cerebral perhaps, but not exclusive. It was, however, one that demanded rare gifts and absolute devotion if you fancied your chances as a professional player. I auditioned at a leading conservatory, and was rejected.
When I came to Washington in my twenties, apartment life and trumpet playing were incompatible, so I took up what had been my second instrument, the piano. I was getting heavily into Mozart, mindful that we were the same age. Well, he was born 200 years before me, but we were sharing parallel timelines. I worked my way, badly, through his sonatas. It was as if Wolfgang and I had reached an agreement. You keep writing 'em, and I'll keep murdering 'em.
In December 1991, I found myself in Montreal. My visit coincided with the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, and I set out in frigid cold (high, 5 degrees) to the Notre Dame Basilica to get a ticket to a performance of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in honor of the great composer. When I got to the church, darkness had fallen, and the front steps were glazed with ice. A sign announced that the evening concert was sold out. I went into the cathedral to warm up a little and found a docent leading a tour. We struck up a conversation. He must have sensed my longing to attend the concert, and he arranged to let me have, free, a ticket to the organ loft if I came back 30 minutes before the performance.
The clarinet concerto was on the program. Its slow movement, to me, represents the purest expression of Mozart's genius: a musical sketch that is haunting and transcendent. It was written just weeks before he died, at the age of 35, and musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon saw it as the final creation of an artist facing his own death. "There are times," wrote Landon, "when an unbearable sadness seems to linger in the music . . . "
As the soloist played, my eyes moved to the ceiling of the cathedral, with its celestial stars on a blue background, and I felt that this was not so much another concert as a funeral of an old friend. When I walked back that night, I no longer sensed the cold.
A little after noon on a wet spring Saturday, parents and students begin to pour into the Oakton High School foyer. The nervous energy is high as hundreds of students and their parents seek to match room assignments with the confusing geography of the school, its interior a maze of lookalike corridors. Small, handwritten signs seek to guide the way to the various classrooms. The kids range in age from 8 or so to 18, though older students seem to predominate on this, the second day of the event. In years past, I have been in a room with other adult performers, some in their twenties and thirties towing along friends and lovers, others in various stages of middle age. But this year most of the adults are playing on another day, and I am, no doubt, taken as a parent of a performer.
Most of the faces in the crowd are white, some are black, many are of Asian origin and a few are from the Indian subcontinent. Some of the performers are in their Sunday best. Outside these walls, a storm is blowing through the region, and much of the world is looking to the Vatican and the last hours of Pope John Paul II. But the enclosure of the school brings an inwardness, and the world outside is forgotten in a shared and silent understanding between students and parents, all of whom know the sacrifices and angst that have gone into being here: the expenditure of money on instruments and lessons, and the expenditure of time and energy in practicing and running kids to lessons, and in nagging to practice, and in being nagged. Then there is the introspection of the performer, of all the muted thoughts of the music one is about to play, and how one might play it.
My piano teacher for the past 12 years has been Myriam Avalos Teie, a dynamic mentor and performer originally from Peru. If you were to ask her why we perform, the answer would be the same for a middling amateur as for a star like Alfred Brendel. Performance is not an act of vanity but the fulfillment of one's art. Myriam speaks of a triangle comprising the composer, the interpreter and the audience. Playing for oneself doesn't count. Performing for others makes it real.
Another one of Myriam's students, 16-year-old Federico Lora, is playing the same Gershwin I am, but he seems quite blase about it. Dressed in a white polo shirt left outside his pants, Federico hands his music to the judges and moves to the piano. He plays from memory, and it is a fine performance. He is far more comfortable with it than I am. No breakdowns or flubbed notes, and a mastery of the tricky passage that leads to the work's climax.
One wonders how the human brain can do this. The Gershwin, for example, is a short piece played quickly, with a total of 418 notes in the right hand and another 401 in the left. Playing them from memory, and together and against each, is a feat that requires hours of practice. But playing in one's living room is not the same as for other people. At a performance, there is no safety net, no chance to stop and get it right. And when you play for judges, when your very being as an artist is subject to cold assessment, the performance demons loom ever larger.
Some adrenaline is good, even necessary, to bring an edge to a performance, but too much can have distressing results. When all is well, your heightened senses are channeled into the music and its interpretation. Sometimes and for no apparent reason, the same acute sense leaves the music and dwells on someone coughing or a noisy air conditioning fan, and the music becomes secondary, which is not good.
I once went to the Kennedy Center to see Brendel play a recital of Beethoven sonatas. Besides being awestruck by the elegance of his music, I wondered how any human being could remember two solid hours of unrelieved piano music without a single misstep. I mentioned this to Myriam, and she said, "Well, when you write a letter, do you stop to think how the characters should be formed?" No. If you learn something, really learn a piece of music so that you can sit down and write it out from memory, then it will be ingrained and you can recall it at the keyboard. The mind is capable of unimaginable feats, she is saying. I remain in awe of Brendel.
My own moment on the stage approaching, I settle in to hear Federico's brother, Juan Lora, 18, who is about to play the first movement of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. The music seems to have a pacifying effect on us all, and Juan soon finds his groove. His right hand glides up and down the keyboard in a series of silky chromatic phrases, like a tarantula dodging traffic. There are a couple of shaky moments, and at the end he acknowledges the applause but seems dissatisfied with his performance. He returns to his seat and sighs. His mother turns around and gives him some words of encouragement.
One of Myriam Teie's most remarkable pupils is a 16-year-old named Yoriko Nakamura. She is a sophomore at National Cathedral School, is a member of the track and swim teams, and plays both the viola and the piano. Like the Lora boys, and like so many of the children studying classical music in the United States, Yoriko is a child of immigrants.
I find Yoriko not so much shy or even reserved as emotionally self-contained. But when she sits at the keyboard, the piano becomes a channel for something passionate and deeply moving. At the festival, her masterpiece is the slow movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. It begins with a series of chords. The challenge is to give the piece momentum and a musical line, and counter the halting effects, the inertia of the chords. In time, the trot of the chords breaks into a canter, with triplets dancing in the right hand. The piece builds with tremendous energy and yet remains light. It is a work that is both sad and playful, and Yoriko draws out this dichotomy.
Finally, it is my turn to walk onto the stage before a mostly empty room and two judges. I decide to play the Gershwin first, before my nerves get the better of me. Let me get through this, O Lord, and I can settle down with the Haydn and the Mozart.
The Gershwin prelude begins all right, but as I get to the buildup to the climax, with its wild leaps in both hands and its crescendo, I begin to feel the heaviness of the keys. Why didn't I sort this out before I started playing? Keep your mind on the music, I tell myself. There's this awkward doubling of the right hand coming up. Keep going, keep going, don't bog down. At this point I have discovered that the sustaining pedal is more distant than on my piano and requires considerably more effort. It is fighting back. MY LEG IS SHAKING. My God, they will see my leg shaking. Keep playing, keep playing. I get through it. There is polite applause. I move on to the Haydn and the Mozart. The Mozart is slow and considered and well-versed. The music breathes and lets me breathe too. Myriam, accompanying me, is my symphony orchestra to my left. For a few minutes I am in the kind of musical zone I have been seeking my whole life. It so rarely comes but here it is. Performing, in control and without the horrors. The demons are banished, and the angels flutter. Just for a moment.
A few weeks later, the judges' remarks come back to me on pink carbon copies. I can barely bring myself to read them, especially the critique of the Gershwin. "Don't you just love this prelude," wrote one of the judges. "I bring it out every so often just to see if I could play it better or differently." The other judge wrote: "Good touches, good finger control. Nice shaped phrases."
I check to see my name is on the form.
You know, performing Gershwin isn't so bad after all. I don't know what all the fuss is about. Let's see, what is the date of next year's festival?
Adrian Higgins is garden editor of the Home section.