[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Piano lessons have begun again, after thirteen years of none. “How much time a day were you thinking of giving it?” asks the new teacher.

“An hour?” I venture. “At least for starters? That’s about how long my back will hold out.”

I pause, not mentioning daily blogging. She waits.

“When I’m further along, perhaps more.” That’s apparently acceptable. She nods.

So practicing begins again too. Some of what was lost returns, slowly — including all the bad habits. The dropped wrists, thanks to a series of low piano benches. The downward-from-the-knuckle fingers, thanks to fatherly Mr. Fisherman, who came to the house between 1938 and 1940. (“Shoot, Ninochka, shoot!”) The impatience. (More scales?) The despair. (My Bach doesn’t sound like Andras Schiff’s!) Not to mention inabilities — also rooted in the distant past – to sight-read, to memorize.

I’ve had the current piano bench since 1978.  Yamaha must have thought it the right height for someone. Not for me, it seems. I sit on one cushion, then two, while Bill photographs the relationship between my elbow and the keyboard. (They should be level, or elbow slightly higher, to keep wrists aligned with fingers.) Then I order a 14” x 30” tie-on corded pad built up to a height of three inches — cheaper than buying a new adjustable bench.  (Will this undo a near-lifetime of muscle strain?)

I devote five daily minutes, as instructed, to raising and then dropping my now level forearms from the elbow, one at a time — striking the keys with the pads of my second and third fingers, alternately. (Will this eventually seep into my unconscious and replace the Fisherman tip-of-finger approach to piano playing?)

I sight-read from a children’s book: four-bar simple songs. Only three tries for each – and no stopping to correct wrong notes, no looking at my hands. I’m not good at it. I tense up, like a little girl taking a test.

Then comes the daily Bach – an easy C major one. Hands apart, then together, no pedal, go slow, don’t hold notes over rests, don’t get mad about stupid mistakes.

Why am I doing this to myself? Not really to channel Socrates.* As Browning said: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I read “man” as “person.” A person like me.

*See Writing Short: 23/50.


[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

E-mail to a pianist, inspired by two young grandchildren learning to play the cello and violin:

Hello, Ms. ____,

I have your name from your husband, who I met about three years ago at a Princeton Democratic Party meeting. (I move slowly on these things.) I don’t know if you’re still teaching and have time, or what you charge, or — if time and money work for us both — whether you might be interested in taking me on as an experiment.

I had piano lessons from the ages of 7 to 17, again in my late forties, yet again between 1998 and 2001. I was badly taught the first time (by friends of my father, doing him a favor), not really better later, and there wasn’t much the most recent teacher could do, although I liked him. I never learned to sight read, and was unable to memorize.

Several weeks ago I opened the piano (still tuned every six months) and discovered everything had gone with the wind. With difficulty I could pick out the first two major scales with both hands, forgetting where to turn the thumbs under. It took about thirty minutes to work out the fingering and hesitantly put together the first eight bars of the first Prelude of the Well Tempered Clavichord, which I hadn’t played before. (I had played the first Fugue, quite well but not by heart; it looks like Greek to me now.)

However, it is said that Socrates spent his last thirty minutes before drinking the hemlock to which he had been condemned learning to play a new song on his flute-like instrument.  When asked why, he replied: “So that I may know it.”

I just turned 84, although I’m told I don’t look it, and don’t (yet) have arthritic fingers.  I am sure if I start again, this time it should be as if I were a beginner, even if there may be somewhat faster progress at the outset than with a real beginner. Is this a challenge you feel you could take up?

Many thanks for your consideration.

Her immediate answer: She would be delighted to meet, after her husband recovers from a recently broken ankle, to see if we can work something out.

You may call me Socrates, at least for now.