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Saturday Diary: That piano and I, we could make beautiful music together (in theory)

Saturday, April 17, 1999

By Caroline Abels

Gum-cracking and sun-squinting, I was sitting in a tour bus traversing Southern California and chatting with a cellist from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when 15 years of childhood piano lessons caught up with me -- and asked me what I was gonna do about them.


Caroline Abels is the Post-Gazette cultural arts reporter.


Mikhail Istomin and I were in a bus that was taking the orchestra to the fourth concert of its West Coast tour, which I was covering for the Post-Gazette. We'd been discussing classical music in Pittsburgh and the progress of the tour when the L.A. landscape turned to desert and he asked me if I played an instrument.

"Mmm-hmm -- piano," I said.

A lighthearted Russian with an easy laugh, Istomin paused for a beat, then smiled and grabbed my hand, which had been resting on my lap. He guided his fingers to the tops of my nails and held up my fingers for both of us to see.

"Piano?" he said impishly, glancing at my nails.

My nails were long. Not gaudy-long or manicure-long, but too long to play a Chopin nocturne without tapping the keys in accompaniment. Too long to maneuver a Brahms arpeggio. The kind of long that led my piano teacher to admonish me when I was 12 and began painting my nails like the rest of the girls.

I glanced at my nails. Istomin glanced at me.

"Well, I know how to play the piano is what I meant," I told him. "I don't . . . really . . . play now."

"Oh," he said with good humor, and we went on to other topics, while I went on to wonder how I could say I "play" the piano.

The proof that I did, once, sits in my apartment: a gorgeous little spinet that's beautifully fashioned of mahogany. Nestled in my childhood home for years, my parents shipped it to me last year when they decided a bookcase would serve a better purpose in their New York City living room than a piano whose lone companion had moved away some time ago.

My mother snapped photos of the moving men as they extracted the delicate cargo from our house. She'd bought the piano when I was 6, dusting it with Pledge weekly and defending it staunchly whenever I'd cite its lousy quality as the reason I couldn't practice. She acknowledged recently that it's not a very good piano but said: "It was good enough for a kid."

That is, a kid who didn't practice much, hated theory, hated her piano teacher for making her learn theory and hated the pain in her lower back that would develop after half an hour at the bench. It was a piano good enough for a kid who kept expecting -- for 15 frustrating years -- that if she played with all her heart, her fingers would land on the right keys and . . . she wouldn't have to practice anymore!

The fingers didn't land on the right keys. The fists of frustration did.

Still, I played. I played when boys were interested in me, when boys weren't interested in me, when I was angry at my parents, when they were angry at me, when I was bored, when I was feeling silly, when I was lonely or wanting to be showy. Lots of wrong notes, but who cared? As a liberal arts major at Oberlin College, I snagged informal lessons in the school's conservatory of music and headed to the practice rooms whenever I had to work stuff out in a place other than my head.

"The needs of your soul kept you hanging by a thread," my mom said the other day.

Then I walked away. Didn't even think about the piano when I was dealing with low-rung journalism jobs in Connecticut that were tiring enough. Didn't practice much when the old piano arrived in the new apartment here in Pittsburgh.

Five days into the PSO tour, Istomin looked at my hands and wondered if I really played the piano. Thanks to his good humor, I didn't cringe with embarrassment. I just wondered why I'd mentioned the instrument, even though I never practice and rarely play.

Maybe because I played, and at some point so incorporated the music into my system, that I began to think of myself as a musician. Spending a week on tour with the symphony musicians must have re-sparked the old connection with the piano. Going to concert after concert after concert on that tour made me so desperate to run home and pounce on the keyboard, how could I not say I played the piano?

Then again, how could I ever think I stopped? Parts of your life that once loomed large don't leave your consciousness after their everyday presence is gone. Like an old flame, a relative who's passed away, or the house you lived in when you were 5, an old instrument sticks to your personality, ready to make a comeback only when you're ready for it.

Have I spent all my time playing since I got back from the tour? No. Is that surprising? No. I think of what the violinist Hilary Hahn said when I interviewed her for a recent article. She recalled that when she complained as a girl about having to practice, her teacher told her, "OK, Hilary. You don't have to practice every day. Just practice on the days that you eat."

"That showed me," Hahn said, "that for musicians, practicing is just a part of their everyday lives, like eating or sleeping."

I eat and sleep, but after work I usually choose the gym over the "Well-Tempered Clavier." I use a free couple of hours on the weekend to cook a good dinner for friends. If I were une vraie musicienne, I'd find the couple of hours necessary to practice every day.

Still, something's going on. There's this passage in a Mozart sonata that I recently nailed. It felt like I'd completed a marathon. It felt like I could do it again and again with all that tattered music that's lying on top of my instrument.

I'll never be a concert pianist (whew!) but Mikhail Istomin won't be seeing long fingernails on me anytime soon.

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