In the autumn of my forty-third year, I remembered, quite unexpectedly, that I was meant to be a pianist.
I was alone in my car, on my way to spend a weekend with friends. I fumbled through a box of cassette tapes I kept on the front passenger seat and found one my brother gave me: pianist Arthur Rubinstein performing Chopin waltzes. This might make a good soundtrack for the trip, I thought, and I pushed the cassette into the tape deck.
From the opening notes of Opus 18—quick, percussive repetitions of B-flat—the car seemed to rock in sympathy to the driving three-quarter-time beat, taken at a wildly joyous tempo. Rubinstein’s complete freedom within the music astonished me, and his abandonment to it was contagious—the music seemed to enter my pulse and carbonate my blood.
Meanwhile, through the windshield, Montana’s luminous Indian summer performed a fitting accompaniment: a sapphire sky hung behind the Elkhorn Mountains, where tawny grasses gleamed in the lowering sun. Quaking aspen lined the banks of the Boulder River; their burnished leaves turned up their bellies to the wind and trembled in unison, a ribbon of gold threading its way up the valley.
I found myself gripping the steering wheel, as if I were hanging on for the ride, gripped myself by a piano-induced rapture that was as sweet as it was searing.
This is all that I want to do with my life. These words arose as if from nowhere in my mind, astonishing me. This is all that I want to do with my life. They hit with the force of an inner directive that cannot be questioned. They arose again and again, as if rising on the swells of the music itself.
The beauty of the day intensified the heartbreak: I felt as if I’d missed an urgent and critical appointment that could never be rescheduled. I had reached my own autumn, and the leaves would soon fall. How then could I devote my life to the piano?
I recognized this inner voice—it was that of the child I had been, eight years old and asking for piano lessons that were not forthcoming.
• • •
“Which instrument will you choose?” my father asked one spring evening. He peered at me from beneath his knotted brow, heavy with an ever-present intensity that always suggested an impending storm. That day my third-grade class had attended a presentation of all the band and orchestra instruments; they were available to rent for school music lessons in the coming fall.
Some people are passionate about music. My father was ferocious about it. Until I came along, he was a professional musician. In the 1940s, he played first clarinet with the Denver, Columbus, Chicago Civic, and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo orchestras. During the war years, while undergoing army intelligence training at Yale, he studied with the great German neoclassicist composer Paul Hindemith, and dreamed of becoming a conductor. In the early 1950s, at the end of his still-youthful music career, he played first clarinet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and with the Metropolitan Quintet.
Though he gave up professional performing at the age of thirty-five for a more lucrative career as a design manager at a stereo company, his life and our home remained saturated in music. When I was a child, his love of music penetrated my every cell and pore. Each night I fell asleep listening to the sonorous sounds of his clarinet as he accompanied recordings of his favorite works. A clarinet was never just a clarinet to me, and never will be: it is the sound of my father’s voice.
There is no time I can remember when he was not training me to have a musician’s ear. I had my own high-fidelity component system before I was two, and my own collection of classic children’s records: The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, and the opera Hansel and Gretel by Englebert Humperdinck (the composer, not the pop star).
But the stereo was never just on—no!—this was not background music! We were, rather, to always listen closely: “See how the theme from the beginning comes in again now, except in a different key?” my father would point out.
Nor was the radio ever just on when we drove somewhere in the car. The dial was tuned to a classical station, and I listened with all my being as my father described the qualities of the soloist—“He has a ‘juicy’ sound,” my father would say—or noted the tempo: “See? He’s rushing. You must never rush. You must play each note for its full value.”
I listened closely because there would be a quiz—before the work ended my father would ask me to identify the composer, the conductor, the orchestra, and the soloist. Then, when the announcer came on, we would see how well I did. My father, with great deliberation, was teaching me how to listen.
This was not a wasted effort on his part—I had a very good ear, good enough that my father often used me as his rehearsal coach, and took my judgment of his playing seriously. I did not reject the gifts he shared with me, but embraced them, and worshipped him as one might an Old Testament–style god—with an equal mixture of fear and admiration. I took his theology, his only religion—music—as my own.
My father applied this sort of rigorous training to my intellectual upbringing as well. He taught me to question all assumptions, to carefully read between all lines, to always think for myself. Each Sunday we applied critical analysis to the stories in the newspaper—to both the content and the caliber of the writing. What questions went unasked? Where was the reader misled? And in every conversation with my father, no matter how serious or trivial, these skills were honed to a high polish: suspect, question, investigate, skewer. He taught them as contentiously as I imagine a rabbi might grill a Yeshiva boy over the Talmud. It is no wonder I ultimately became an investigative reporter and put those powerful tools to work.
Meanwhile, I plundered his vast record collection with his tacit approval. I wore out his copies of Nathan Milstein playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, the Vienna Octet playing the Schubert Octet, and Karl Böhm conducting the Berlin Philharmonic’s rendition of Brahms’s first symphony. This last became a kind of personal anthem, and I would spend hours alone listening to it in my room, conducting before a mirror.
Yet the enormous musical universe I inhabited was isolating. I could not play the music I loved for my friends—they would not have understood, and I would have become an outcast. As vast as this music was, as exalted as it made me feel, it also induced claustrophobia: it belonged only to me, my father, and, infrequently, my father’s musical friends.
Some Sunday mornings, his friends would arrive with their instruments—strings, or other woodwinds—and they would have a few rousing hours playing chamber music in our living room. Mozart, Hindemith, Beethoven, Couperin, Brahms, Schubert. My father’s musician friends were always relaxed, full of jokes and witticisms that went over my head. They were nothing like other parents I knew: they laughed loudly, told dirty stories, and winked at me frequently. I loved to be near them.
My mother served what she called “Jewish breakfast”: bagels and lox and cream cheese, smoked whitefish, and jelly donuts. My younger brother and I could partake of the food, and we could sit quietly and listen, but we were not to interrupt or ask questions.
My father’s question was really a series of questions: Which instrument would I choose to join him on his musical journey? Which instrument would be mine when we played duets together? Which instrument would I contribute to his chamber music gatherings? And finally, with which instrument would I fulfill the musical promise he himself had abandoned?
In my father’s universe, music was a serious business, and so, by deduction, the choice of one’s instrument could not be a casual thing, but rather was fraught with larger implications for one’s ultimate destiny. I was too young to think this consciously, but I sensed it, I felt its heft, and it felt too heavy for me, too dark, and too oppressive. For I was growing up not only in the shadow of my father’s musical achievements, but also under the long, dark pall of his abandoned musical ambitions and the force of his enormous, deeply frustrated, and explosive personality.
Answering my father was rarely easy. He was an intimidating giant of a man, a former college football player, six foot two and a swollen 245 pounds, with thick, meaty hands, every finger broken and bent. His once luxuriantly curly hair was mostly gone now, his dark, handsome face puffy from intemperance, worry, and overwork. His expression was often a scowl, his voice brusque, the tone irritated and angry, even when he said he wasn’t. Sometimes, at the sound of that voice, his children would burst into tears.
I had an idea of the answer my father wished to hear, but for just a moment I heard instead my own small, inner voice whisper to me: the piano.
Our piano was a beat-up, turn-of-the-century upright player my mother bought at an auction when I was three. When we moved to a spacious colonial home in Annapolis, Maryland, the following year, she painted it white, with house paint, to make it fit in with the décor of the 1830s plantation house. When I lifted the fallboard to reveal the yellowed ivories, the original mahogany finish still showed. There was no name on the fallboard. This was one of millions of nameless pianos produced during the instrument’s Golden Age, in the early years of the twentieth century, when every middle-class home aspired to own a piano. At that time, pianos were the family hearth, the center of home entertainment. Soon they were replaced by the phonograph, the radio, television, and now the computer.
This old upright was to become my longtime friend. The day it arrived, as soon as it was placed in our den, my mother sat down before the keyboard, pulled me onto her knees, and began working the foot treadles behind the opened doors of the piano’s lower compartment. The treadles cranked and creaked and thunked, working the bellows that sucked air through a pneumatic player mechanism that turned a spool upon which a paper roll was wound. The paper had holes punched through it, in a perforated pattern like a ticker tape.
The doors of the upper panel were parted so we could see the paper roll turn on the spool. As the paper passed over a tracker bar, air was sucked through the perforations, each representing a note on the piano. The vacuum activated a pneumatic striking mechanism, which then activated the hammers. As the hammers struck the strings they pulled the ivory keys along with them.
The sight of the keys moving up and down, depressed and released as if by ghostly invisible hands, mesmerized me. The creaking and groaning of the treadles, the wheezing of the bellows in the belly of the old player were spooky. The music was a turn-of-the-century standard, “Daisy, Daisy,” silly and fun and bright. I shrieked with delight as my beautiful, young mother sang along with the music and held me on her rollicking lap, in her arms, her legs pumping under me as if she were using a bicycle to wind an enormous music box.
When my mother’s father came to visit, he always played the piano for us. Grandpa Joe had never learned how to read music, but he was a natural, with big hands and an unerring ear. You could sing him anything and he could sound out the melody and make up a chord accompaniment on the spot, and then he was off and running. But mostly he played the same kind of music that was on the piano rolls, songs recalling the summers he spent as a lifeguard at the beach on Coney Island in the ’teens, and his time as a soldier in World War I. He’d play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” and “Baby Face,” and my grandmother would sing along, rocking in the rocking chair, tapping her foot, grinning, no doubt remembering the days of their youth.
Grandpa Joe was an unpretentious man with a goofball, faintly racy sense of humor. When my mother was a girl, during the Great Depression and World War II, he went to the record store once a week to pick out the silliest recording he could find. I inherited his record collection because none of his children wanted it—my uncle Carl put all the 78 rpm records together in one album and labeled it “Junk” and gave it to my mother. My mother passed it on to me. Playing the collection now reminds me of my grandfather’s irreverence: Spike Jones singing “Der Fuehrer’s Face” with its fart noises, and “The Sheik of Araby” with its obscene gargling sound effects; Eddie Cantor singing “I’m Hungry for Beautiful Girls.” There are World War I popular tunes: “I Don’t Want to Get Well—I’m in Love with a Beautiful Nurse,” which includes the coy lyric “I always get a Band-Aid every time she feels my pulse.”
My friends and I beat on the old upright often; it was the center of our playtime, with hyperkinetic renditions of “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” the order of the day. Babysitters entertained us on it, and once, after I had watched one of my friends play “Für Elise” by Beethoven on her family’s console, I went home and furiously tried to play it by ear for hours on our old upright. My friend got piano lessons, and I remember feeling jealous, but until now, I had never thought to ask for them myself.
And so, by the time my father asked his question, I already had a deep affection and affinity for a particular instrument.
“I want to play the piano,” I replied to my father, startling myself with the clarity and rightness of the request.
My father didn’t answer right away, but looked aside. “Why don’t you pick an instrument they are teaching at school?” he said at last. His voice sounded pinched, as if he were wincing. “Then we don’t have to pay for private lessons.”
This was a surprise. I didn’t know we couldn’t afford lessons. We seemed to have everything we could ever need or want. Had I resisted at all, insisted that the piano was important to me, my father probably would have relented, and then the rest of this story would have been different. But I did not yet know how to trust my own inner promptings. That was not something I was to learn at home.
The next day at school, I chose the cello. It was my father’s favorite instrument, the one he wished he had studied himself. I knew he would be pleased. He spent an evening in his basement workshop, fashioning me a wooden brace to keep the cello’s prop stick in place on the floor. He talked of the wonderful pieces we would play together. In the following months, dismayed at how difficult it was to carry a heavy cello the half mile to school, I switched to the more portable flute. By the time I was fifteen, I had abandoned the flute as well; I was bored with its limited repertoire and overwhelmed by my father’s expectation that I become a professional musician.
And yet, I remained in music’s thrall. For my sixteenth Christmas, my father gave me the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Soon, on my own, I discovered Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This work became my private solace, a circle of light I stood in when I sought refuge from the dark chaos my family had become. Bach soothed me, but Gould, with his breathtaking virtuosity, his use of the piano as if it were his own voice, speaking as clearly of the composer’s contrapuntal designs as if they were words, stoked my desire to play the piano until it became a burning, furious passion.
By now, there was no use in asking for piano lessons. My family was too broken, my parents grieving and coping as best they could with my youngest brother’s diagnosis of a degenerative brain disease, and the years-long crises that ensued. Besides, I knew my father well: I’d had my chance, and had broken faith with him by abandoning the flute. There would be no more lessons.
• • •
A decade later, still inspired by Glenn Gould, and finding myself with the time and the means, I began piano lessons with the first of a series of teachers. My goal, I told each of them, was to play the Goldberg Variations. When I moved to New York City in 1981, I became a piano student at Mannes College of Music, in their nondegree program. But within just a few short years, the struggles and complications of my young adult life unraveled my commitment to the piano. There were more urgent and pressing demands weighing on me such as food, shelter, and establishing a career. My last piano teacher, pleading with me to honor my talent, demanded more of me than I believed I could give, and so I moved on.
Fifteen years passed.
• • •
When I arrive home in Missoula after my epiphany along the Boulder River, I telephone the office of the music school at the University of Montana, and ask for a referral to a local piano teacher. The secretary transfers my call to a Dr. Jody Graves, the head of the school’s keyboard department.
Dr. Graves asks a lot of questions. She has only recently arrived in Missoula from New York herself, she says, and she knows my last teacher. She asks me to come in to play for her. I do not know how to play anymore, I say, but Dr. Graves insists. “If you don’t want to play, then we will just talk,” she says. “How about tomorrow?”
When I arrive at her office, Dr. Graves is demonstrating a demanding passage to a young man seated before one of two grand pianos. She is a robust blonde, perhaps in her forties, petite yet powerful. As I listen to her play Rachmaninoff, I cannot help but think that I will never be able to play anything so difficult.
I feel an old, paralyzing fear—stage fright. I have a book of Chopin nocturnes with me; some of them I used to play, but suddenly I wish I had left the music at home.
Dr. Graves dismisses her student and turns her attention to me. “Well, why not come here,” she says, patting the vacated piano bench. Reluctantly, I take the seat. “I see you brought some music. Why not play a little for me?” Her voice is light, undemanding, as if to say “No big deal if you do or you don’t.” This gives me courage. I put the book on the music desk and begin.
Though my hands are unsteady and shaking, they amaze me—they still know the nocturne. My fingers return to their old places with shocking familiarity. The sensation of the keys beneath them and the tones they produce hit me hard.
What have you been doing with your life? It is the inner voice again. How could you have let this get away? I let both hands fall fully into the keyboard. Oh, how I have missed that touch, the feel of the keys under my fingers! How had I ever been able to stop touching them? Suddenly this fact, once unremarkable, seems incredible.
The keyboard’s black-and-white topography floods me with tactile memories. I want this contact. I have to have it. The rush of intoxication, of certainty, of destiny I felt when listening to Rubinstein fills me again. This time, I resolve, I won’t let it get away.
“That was very, very good!” Dr. Graves crows. “I think you will do well with one of my master’s students. And then, of course, you can come to the school to practice.”
My lessons with the master’s student begin the very next week, and she and I spend the winter reviving the repertoire I learned some twenty years before. But in the spring, my new teacher graduates and moves away, leaving me with the name of her former high school piano teacher, a woman who has many adult students. Lessons won’t begin with this teacher until the fall.
In the meantime, I am to spend a month at Point Reyes, California, at the Mesa Refuge, a retreat for environmental writers. And there, when it comes to maintaining what little I have regained at the piano, I will be on my own.