Monday, June 6, 2011

"Ahh, Bach..."

Those of you who were big M.A.S.H. fans like me back in the day might remember an episode where Radar tries to impress a visiting nurse who is sophisticated and into classical music. The advice he gets from Hawkeye and Trapper is whenever he is at a loss for a response to something she says about classical music, just say, "Ahh, Bach...". This may be one of the single best pieces of advice I've ever heard. Plug in any significant artist, philosopher or scientist who comes up about whom you have no freaking clue and nod your head with a knowing look.You might just get away with it - or not. It didn't work out so well for Radar.

My own knowledge of classical music is fairly limited. It is constrained to the pieces of music that I encountered while taking piano lessons growing up and the music appreciation course I took in college to meet my humanities requirement. I can identify some of Beethoven's greats, the odd Chopin Waltz, and several of Bach's inventions, and I can play a few passingly well, but I have never become intimately familiar in any kind of depth with the great works of the classic composers.

As for my family history of piano lessons, my mother played piano growing up - mostly Methodist church hymns. She saw to it that I played piano, and I, in turn, have seen to it that my daughter plays piano. Musical talent does not run strong in our particular line of the family, but each generation has acquired the skill through brute force. I made an attempt with my son, but after months - make that years - of tears and fights on the piano bench, I waved the white flag and called a truce, as did my mother before me with my brother (who plays guitar quite well as an adult, so I hold out hope for my son's musical future).

My daughter, bless her, has not enjoyed taking piano lessons either, but she seemed to recognize early on that as the next in the line of piano playing women in our family, this was non-negotiable. She has been taking lessons with the same teacher since she was five years old - ever since my Mom sent the old piano to live with us.

Me at the then new piano.
Don't let the smile fool you.

We first met her piano teacher, Emiko Tanabe, through the Peabody Preparatory at Maryland Hall back when I had delusions of grandeur about my daughter's future career as a concert pianist. After a few years of us making the weekly commute across town, Emiko left The Peabody and became an instructor at Anne Arundel Community College. At that point we switched to private lessons out of her home, which became wonderfully convenient when she moved to Cape St. Claire several years ago.

Having Emiko in the Cape could not be more ideal. She is a fabulously talented and accomplished pianist, and somehow she landed right here in our very own neighborhood. We are incredibly fortunate to have her in our community. A couple of times a year, she plays locally for free and collaborates with many of the other talented musicians in our midst. Over the years, she has accommodated all of our needs and schedule requests and has exhibited remarkable forbearance in the face of a student who has put a minimum of effort into her piano study. I know some days, she must feel like putting in earplugs to avoid listening to Mr. Bach get butchered. Aghhh, Bach...

Despite the lack of practice time and summers off, my daughter has actually become a very good pianist. Her fingers are much more nimble and lithe than mine ever were, and the dearth of practice has made her into a pretty decent sight reader. I credit Emiko's lovely, mild temperament with keeping her at it this long. My goal at this point is simply to maintain the musical knowledge that she's acquired by sitting down a few times a week to play and by attending the half hour weekly lesson with Emiko for the exposure to her wealth of knowledge and expertise. I'm hoping Kathryn will one day be able to say, "Ahh, Bach" with a little extra confidence and a sincerely knowing smile having played a piece or two written by the man himself and having heard Emiko play it as exquisitely as it was intended.

Playing piano also comes in handy to torture family over the holidays. Here are a couple of our early greatest hits that we recorded for the grandparents (the second got cut off - I'm sure it was our best performance ever):

This past weekend, it was time for the yearly piano recital that Emiko holds for her students at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. It's the one time of year that I insist my daughter put in the extra time to work up her selected pieces properly. I'm past being embarrassed for her or myself if they do not sound passable, but I hate to disappoint Emiko. I knew as the day approached that it was not going to be a flawless performance. My daughter made a valiant effort to perfect her waltz and sonatina, but it was clearly a bit too little too late. I made my peace with this before leaving for the recital.

Or so I thought until we took our seats in the church, and I looked up to find none other than the Tiger Mother herself and her family in the front row ahead of us. For those of you who aren't familiar with Amy Chua's book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it describes her hardcore approach as an Asian woman to mothering and the exacting standards to which she holds her two daughters. Seated ahead of us was a carbon copy (in the most superficial of ways) of Chua's family - the Asian mother, the Jewish father (I'm basing this purely on their last name, so I could be mistaken) and the two lovely, polished, poised daughters. Add in the Asian mother-in-law, and they were a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, I wished that I had cracked the whip a little more leading up to the recital, but it was too late. We were about to get schooled.

Well, of course piano recitals are not competitions. I listened with delight as the steady stream of little to big pianists marched up to the shiny black grand piano and nervously laid their racing hearts out on the keyboard. They were all thoroughly entertaining, and I admired the courage and composure displayed by each and every one through the occasional sour or forgotten note and ensuing pauses - some serious character building moments. The kids play in order of experience from new students at the beginning to the more accomplished students at the end.  My daughter was third from the last with, no surprise, the Tiger Mother's girls following her.

I think the thing I admire most about my daughter is that while she does not like to perform in front of an audience, when she does, she is utterly fearless. I am a quivering bundle of nerves on stage, but I have never seen her hands shake, and this recital was no exception. While she made the few mistakes that we knew were inevitable due to lack of full preparation, the parts in between were truly lovely to me, and my heart swelled to watch her confident posture as her hands floated over the keys. I can only dream of how beautifully she could play with a Tiger Mother at the helm. Nonetheless, I was tremendously proud of her effort.  As she returned to her seat, she shared a fist bump and a smile with her brother which seemed to put it all in perspective.

The Tiger Daughters finished out the recital in spectacular fashion, but even they proved to be human. Their pieces were the most advanced of the day, and they both played splendidly, but they made their share of noticeable mistakes. The younger daughter was technically dazzling through her sonatina, and the elder daughter was fluidly graceful throughout one of the loveliest Chopin nocturnes I've heard (I only know it was a Chopin nocturne thanks to the recital program - "Ahh, Chopin..."). Despite the couple of incidental flubs, I didn't see any sign that their family was any less delighted than we were. When it was all over, the Tiger Parents were every bit as proud of their cubs as we were of ours. I promised Kathryn I would not post the video of her performance, but here she is afterward VERY happy to have it over:

Post-Recital Smile

Hopefully my daughter will come away from her years of forced piano playing with a rudimentary ability to carry on a superficial conversation about classical music. My friend whose son also played in the piano recital (Beethoven's 5th - recognized that one!) attended a violin recital for her other son the following day. She texted afterward to tell me that the Tiger Mother and her family were also at the strings recital. The older cub ALSO plays the violin quite beautifully. D'oh! I knew I should have made my daughter stick with playing in the school orchestra! Oh well, she will just have to go through life faking her knowledge of brilliant violinists with an, "Ahh, Itzhak..."

Here are a few quotes about music I stumbled across online that tickled me:

"When a piece gets difficult, make faces." -- Arthur Schnabel (to Vladimir Horowitz)

"Get up from that piano. You hurtin' its feelings." -- Jelly Roll Morton

"Nothing soothes me more after a long and maddening course of pianoforte recitals than to sit and have my teeth drilled." -- George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and music critic.

And in all seriousness:

"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best." -- Henry Van Dyke


Michael said...

Christy, your title just made me laugh. My brothers, friends, wife, & I make frequent use of the "Aah, Bach ..." joke whenever we can. Thanks for the smile and I enjoy reading your blog - you have a gift for writing.

Christy said...

It's a classic in and of itself, Michael! "Ahh, Bach" never gets old. Like you, I pull it out of my hip pocket often for a laugh. Thanks for the compliment. I was not much of a writer as a child or young person, so we CAN continue to hone skills as we age if we find something we love.